There are loyal fans, and then there are Blockheads, acolytes who would do anything for a little face time with Donnie Wahlberg, Joey McIntyre, Danny Wood, and brothers Jonathan and Jordan Knight—otherwise known as New Kids on the Block.
More than two decades have passed since the quintet from Boston ignited hearts and hormones with hits like “You Got It (The Right Stuff)” and “Step by Step.” The guys have grown up, and so have their original fans, but that hasn’t diminished the screaming on the Package Tour, headlined by the New Kids and featuring Boyz II Men and 98 Degrees. “I was driving my kids home last night, and I heard my 6-year-old in the back going, ‘Jooordan!’ ” coos Jordan Knight, imitating his son imitating any number of excited women. “I get that, too, from my 5-year-old—‘Joooeey!’ ” says McIntyre, who at 40 is the youngest of the group. He shakes his head and laughs. “Nothing keeps you in check like your kids.”
Beyond the screaming and the tour’s cheeky name, it really is a virtual Boy-Band-Palooza, a potent blend of music, nostalgia, and sex appeal complete with confetti and coordinated dance moves. The idea was hatched after the New Kids toured with the Backstreet Boys in 2011, packing arenas across North America and selling more than half a million tickets. When the Boston band hit the road again this year, they tapped Boyz II Men (“We love their music,” says Wood) and the reunited 98 Degrees (whose vocalist Nick Lachey shares a manager with them) to make an evening of it for 30- and 40-something fans. “It gives people more for their money,” says Wood. “For us, this is kind of a dream scenario,” says Drew Lachey of 98 Degrees. “You get to tour with the group that basically invented the current boy-band genre.”
First assembled in the mid-1980s by New Edition mastermind and producer Maurice Starr (“I wanted to re-create the Osmonds,” he has said, with “soul and good black material”), the New Kids rode the charts for the better part of a decade before calling it quits. Though the band members went their separate ways (Jonathan Knight, for one, launched a career as a real estate developer), they stayed in touch and in 2008 delighted fans by announcing their reunion. When they played the Today show that year, “fans started lining up two days early,” recalls Today executive producer Don Nash. “Some of them even had their NKOTB sleeping bags from when they were young.”
“We’re the best-kept really big secret going right now,” says Wahlberg, wearing a Red Sox cap and stretching out on a sofa in the Celtics’ locker room at the TD Garden in Boston, a few hours before a show. “We are a successful small business. It’s us and our customers. The more satisfied our fans are, the more satisfied we are.”
There’s a lot of satisfaction going around. Advance sales for the Package Tour are running at about 80 percent (completed dates were sold out or close to it), with total earnings from ticket sales projected to be more than $43 million; that would give each New Kid an estimated $3.2 million and their fellow bands somewhat less. (Merchandise sales, for which figures aren’t yet available, will bump up revenue for each group substantially.) The New Kids have also raked in an estimated $3.5 million for each of their five NKOTB cruises. Meanwhile, the band’s album 10 debuted at No. 6 on the Billboard chart when it was released in April, making it their sixth top 10 album. “We’ve reestablished our relationship with our fans,” says Jordan, “and it’s not just nostalgia.”
Each group on the Package Tour has fans who consider them the soundtrack to their lives. “A lot of guys come up to us and say they’ve had children to our songs,” says Boyz II Men’s Wanya Morris. But the New Kids occupy a singular place in pop culture history. “It wasn’t just about the music; it was the lifestyle,” says Aimee Nadeau, a 37-year-old superfan who used to hang around with her girlfriends outside Wahlberg’s house in Braintree, Mass., and is now director of A&R at Sony (she was a freelance consultant on 10, the first album the band released independently). “They always say, ‘Five brothers and a million sisters,’ and it’s true, because New Kids fans have this bond that’s crazy. We’re so protective of these five guys. We love them so much. And the band builds real relationships with their fans; very few artists in the pop world do that.” Says the New Kids’ manager, Jared Paul, “I’ve seen them give fans the shirts off their backs, literally. Donnie has chartered buses and driven to cities with 50 fans. That has a lot to do with why they keep coming back.”
On a typical tour day, the band interacts with hundreds at various VIP concert events. For $999, you can buy the Total Package, which includes a reserved seat inside the security barricade and a meet-and-greet photo op with the guys in their dressing room. As one fan says, “The more you pay, the closer you get.” And some get really, really close.
On this evening, the guys are putting in an appearance at a bar inside the TD Garden, which is swarming with women in cocktail attire, enjoying refreshments and waiting to cozy up to their favorite Kid for the cameras. In the crowd are self-professed “Jonathan girls” and “Jordan girls” and women in T-shirts marked “Property of Donnie Wahlberg.” (Wahlberg’s mom, Alma, is also in the house.) But the truth is, many fans are here as much for each other as they are for the band. “It’s a night out with the girls,” says Angel Beyers, 35, who has become close friends with another fan she met through a New Kids blog. “You all have something in common, and you get to dance and sing and hug your favorite New Kid, which is something you never thought you’d do when you were 12.”
The hugs are very important, a fact not lost on the New Kids, who are never far from an assortment of hand sanitizers. Over the course of an hour, they give countless embraces, back pats, shoulder rubs, and pecks on (often tear-stained) cheeks. Wahlberg, who is divorced, used to be known for kissing girls onstage, and tonight he pulls an attractive brunette he has met before in for a lip-lock; she then grabs his rear end and squeezes, as Jordan captures the scene on a camera phone. “I was gonna put that on Vine,” he tells the woman, referring to Twitter’s mobile video-sharing app. “Do you mind if I do that?” She approves and walks away, finding a group of friends at the other end of the room. “Check Jordan’s Vine! Right now!” she says, flushed. (The evidence lives on in his June 3 post—marked “Ultimate!!”—at twitter.com/jordanknight.)
Considering the New Kids were popular long before today’s social media existed, they maintain an impressive presence there now, with more than 1.3 million followers on their Twitter profiles, where they communicate directly with fans. “They’re here on my phone 24 hours a day,” says Jonathan, who adds that he appreciates the adult-to-adult interaction: “When our fans were younger, our relationship was driven by lust and hormones.” (“So were we, by the way,” says Wahlberg.)
Lust and hormones still play an important role, but so does mutual respect. As the New Kids have gotten older and dealt with events both onstage and off (Jonathan, who confirmed he was gay in 2011, made headlines in April for walking off a New York City stage mid-show and has talked about his anxiety attacks; Jordan has spoken about struggling with alcoholism in the past), they have been humbled by the extent of their fans’ support. After Wood started an organization called Remember Betty on behalf of his mother, who died of breast cancer in 1999, his supporters helped raise more than $1 million for Susan G. Komen for the Cure. “It’s a beautiful thing,” says Wood, clearly moved.
There’s newfound respect from the musical elite as well. At the Boston Strong concert on May 30, benefiting victims of the marathon bombings—organized by New Kids manager Paul after hearing the band’s reaction to the tragedy (which hit close to home for many reasons, including the fact that McIntyre crossed the finish line safely just minutes before the explosions)—they shared a bill with Aerosmith and James Taylor. “I looked over, and there was my brother singing with [Aerosmith’s] Steven Tyler,” says Jonathan. “Really cool.”
But it’s always the fans and their support that they return to. “It’s weird calling them ‘fans.’ I know that sounds corny—it’s just that they’re more than fans now,” McIntyre says. “I mean, we love to rock the house, and they love to play their role in that as well. But offstage, it really is a family. There’s just a ton of love.”