When I was a child, Sunday evenings were most depressing for my sisters and I. Sundays slapped us back into reality, reminding us that the fun weekend was over and the imprisonment in school would start once again. My eldest sister had developed her very own therapeutic Sunday ritual to cheer her up. She would play the album Hangin’ Tough by the New Kids on the Block (NKOTB) over and over again. Sharing a room with her meant that I would do my Sunday night homework to the sounds of Jordan’s falsetto, Joey’s crooning and Donny’s ridiculous attempts at rapping. And whether I liked them or not, somehow those sounds became entrenched in my memory as one of the happiest times spent with my sister.
It was fifteen years later that I was sitting on the train from Jersey to New York City when I found out that the superstars of my childhood were performing at Rutherford, Izod Centre, with none other than the Backstreet Boys! Watching the dates flash before me on the little TV screen, I had my very own epiphany — I absolutely had to go.
As much as I loved the group, I kind of expected the entire event to be a little bit of a letdown. The boys were in their forties, scratch that, the men were in their forties, could they really dance the way they once did? And singing live, would they even have the stamina to do that anymore? And at this age, I assumed they really wouldn’t look as golden and perfect as they did back in the day. But like a crazed fan, I still wanted to go without somehow ruining my childhood memory of them.
And that’s exactly what I did; I spent two hours commuting to Secaucus junction where they had started a 15-minute shuttle service to take people from Secaucus to the concert venue. The shuttle was full of girls, and as I boarded, one of them shoved past the crowd and came face to face with me.
“Ummm are you like here for Backstreet Boys or like New Kids on the Block?” she asked me in a nasally American accent.
A little scared of what the consequence of my answer would be, I replied, “New Kids on the Block.” A long “Woooooooooooooaaaaaah” echoed from one side of the bus while the girl in front of me rolled her eyes and disappeared to the back of the bus once again. A girl from one of the Woahers grabbed me by my hand and led me to where the other NKOTB die-hards were sitting. This was hardcore and there were clear lines drawn between the fans. The girls quickly quizzed me on everything I knew about the band, my favourite songs and band member, making sure all the while that I wasn’t a Backstreet Boys (BSB) fan in hiding.
Finally we had arrived. Not having attended any large concerts, except a relatively smaller one in Malaysia, the sheer size of the arena was an eye-opener for me. With a seating capacity of 20,000, it is often used for NBA games and other championships as well. On the musical front, this multi-purpose arena had been home to Jersey native, Bruce Springsteen, who had played a 10-night sold-out run in 1984, an 11-night run in 1992 and a 15-night sold-out run in 1999.
As soon as the shuttle stopped, I realised I was on another planet altogether, one that had been invaded by thousands and thousands of women — louder, crazier and rowdier than even the worst football fans. In real life, they probably were smart, sophisticated, working women, some even with babies, but today they were living out their teens with side ponytails, crimped hair and oversized NKOTB tee-shirts from their old tours. It seemed like 20,000 women had selectively stepped inside a time machine and transported themselves back into the good old ‘90s for one incredible evening. There were so many women here that the management had turned even the men’s loo into a women’s loo.
The show was to begin in another twenty minutes, but for me, there was a little bit of a problem. I had stupidly assumed that I would be able to buy the tickets at the venue. And here, I could only see crowded gates to enter the concert hall but no shady men selling overpriced black tickets, like I was used to in Pakistan. After a lot of running around to different gates, I finally found one man in the crowd. I assumed he either had to be very very gay or part of the administration of the Izod Center. Thankfully, he turned out to be one of the security personnel who guided me to the box office where last minute ticket sales were being made.
With ten minutes to spare, I had only one choice — buy the most expensive ticket for practically the front row or simply go back home. Ten minutes later, I was sitting inside the arena chomping on my nachos and crackerjacks, hoping that Sparks (the opening act for the boys) would not sing too many songs.
But she did and the crowd grew more and more impatient. By the time the two boy groups came out on stage, the crowd was already pumping with adrenalin. It was no ordinary entry — the stage on both ends was elevated high into the sky with NKOTB appearing like Gods on one end and BSB on the other.
Believe it or not, fifteen years later, the now-dads were still as perfect as their teenage centerfolds that once appeared religiously in Teen Beat. They started out with their newer hits “Summertime” and “Single” which got all the ladies moving and screaming louder and louder. Soon enough came the Backstreet boys with a few of their hits, it was their concert too, I had completely forgotten.
Best of all was when BSB handpicked four random women from the audience, presented them with roses on stage, got down on their knees and serenaded them in front of thousands with the song, “I’ll never break your heart”. Looking at the expressions on the faces of the chosen girls on stage, I knew they were experiencing the happiest heart attack of their lives.
Once BSB were done with their songs, NKOTB were back once again and they were even more inventive with revving up the crowd. After a little bit of an interval, I realised that instead of the boys performing in the middle of the stage, they were actually coming from all five corners at the back of the arena. This basically meant that for one entire song, the backseats were actually turned into the best front seats you could ever have, as they allowed maximum proximity to the superstars.
Through it all, NKOTB threw in some of their best dance moves, possibly better choreographed and stylized than their ‘90s days, and sang their hearts out with their classics “Step by Step,” “Tonight,” “Please Don’t Go girl” and of course “Valentine Girl”.
The boys who once made it on Forbes magazine’s list of highest paid American entertainers and then descended into the darkness for a decade, had somehow risen from the ashes once again.
And after attending this concert I can honestly say that the boys truly are back, and boy, were they better than ever!
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, September 4th, 2011.