What happens to a boy band when they grow old? Do they age out of matching outfits and group choreography, or are they doomed to repeat the ancient moves until their AARP days? This summer gives us the perfect opportunity to find out, as '90s stalwarts Boyz II Men, 98 Degrees and New Kids on the Block have teamed up for the arena-spanning Package Tour (yes, that's right). We were lucky enough to get floor seats when the Package Tour rolled into Brooklyn, and we were able to see how the three boy bands dealt with a changing world in three very different ways.
Boyz II Men
Boyz II Men opened the night, with a shortened set that played all the hits and left no fat. In their heyday, no one would have called Boyz II Men a boy band—too mature, too technically impressive—but nostalgia has a way of erasing all those old distinctions. They're still a "classy" group, though, which in this context means they kept their clothes on; the voices were the show. (Almost every song in their set had an extended coda for Shawn Stockman and
the brothers Morris Nathan and Wanja Morris* to show off their vocal gymnastics.) On the Package Tour they played the role of the Sensitive Bachelors, stocking the stage with huge bundles of roses to throw out to lucky ladies in the audience. When the trio went a capella, the whole arena fell silent. When they invited the crowd to sing along, Barlcays erupted in a distinctly feminine trill.
Unlike Boyz II Men (who never split up) or NKOTB (who reunited years ago), 98 Degrees is using the Package Tour to come back from a long hiatus. You can kind of tell. Their choreography was a bit sloppier, and there was a sense of glee on the faces of the group's non-Nick-Lachey members; they were excited to be back in the spotlight, and they hadn't quite gotten used to it yet.
Of these three, Justin Jeffre stands out. Every reunited boy band has one guy who fell prey to the normal aging process, and Jeffre is 98 Degrees' version. He looks like he should teaching math somewhere, or running your IT department, but instead he's selling out arenas and doing sexy dance moves alongside three men who look like Ken dolls. (As we learned when we interviewed the band, he also owns a free newspaper that benefits the homeless and was closely involved in Occupy Cincinnati.) Jeffre is also the only single guy in 98 Degrees, and as we followed his movements throughout the show we noticed how often he would outshine his bandmates in all the crucial connecting-with-the-audience things like making eye contact, pointing to individual crowd members and high-fiving. He gave 110% on every pelvic thrust.
There was a reason for all these pelvic thrusts. In their younger days, 98 Degrees was a ballad group, but ballads have all but disappeared from the pop music landscape. ("One Night (Una Noche)" was their sole uptempo hit; it held up surprisingly well at Barclays, its shameless trend-jumping only a memory.) How to hold the audience's attention? The answer was as old as culture itself: Just show some skin. There was a decided Magic Mike air to 98 Degrees' set: loosened ties, suspenders hanging around the waist—these clothes, they were telling us, were not staying on. Halfway through, the moment came. The boys stripped down to their undershirts and ran into the audience, looking for women to serenade. The audience, having expected this, went wild. (Yes, even for Justin.) The band performed in the undershirts for the rest of the set—one of the top acts of the '90s looking like a bunch of well-muscled Sunday-morning dads.
Elsewhere, there were brief acknowledgements of the years that had passed since the TRL days; "I Do (Cherish You)" went out to "all the sexy married ladies out there," while another song was dedicated to all the dads in the audience. (It was Fathers' Day.) "It's a hard job—or so I've heard," quipped Justin. For their part, the guys in the stands were unfazed by the shoutouts. While some of the husbands and boyfriends didn't mind slow-dancing to Boyz II Men, the most 98 Degrees got out of them was half-hearted swaying.
New Kids on the Block
If you didn't follow the Package Tour, you might have thought that Boyz II Men, 98 Degrees and New Kids on the Block were roughly equal on the boy-band hierarchy. Not so. The other two groups had their fair share of fans, but nothing compared to the way the women of Barclays—young and old—went crazy for NKOTB. From minute one it was clear they were the top dogs on this tour. They had the most fans, the most costume changes, the most songs. They had a robotic voice telling fans that they didn't need to feel guilty for what would ensue: "I deserve this night," it instructed them to think. They had a rotating platform that send them singing into the sky together, and they had five smaller versions of the same so each member could be raised up individually. They had new songs, and not only that, they had new songs that the crowd actually sang along to.
How did NKOTB come to rule the man-band roost? One answer seems to be their catalogue. Boyz II Men and 98 Degrees wanted to seduce you with their loving ballads, but the New Kids only wanted to play fun, good-time dance music, exactly the type of music that's ruling the airwaves today. NKOTB's hits may have been written when George H.W. Bush was president, but add a 4/4 beat to them and they wouldn't sound out of place on a Justin Bieber setlist. (Their current single, "Remix (I Like The)" is arguably better than half of what's played on the radio right now.)
It also helps that the New Kids have been at this since 2008. (Like Britney Spears, they've been on the comeback trail longer than they were famous in the first place.) At Barclays, their showmanship was tight, and everybody knew their roles. Jonathan Knight, always the shy one, seemed happy to stay on the sidelines. Danny Wood did too, as long as he got a moment in the spotlight to show off his dancing. Joey McIntyre made the most of his role as the 1A guy, knocking his solo on "Beautiful Girls" out of the park. Jordan Knight strode around the stage with the quiet swagger of a man glad the world agreed he should be famous again.
And Donnie Wahlberg... well, if you only knew Wahlberg as the weird guy from The Sixth Sense, it may have been disconcerting to see to go to an NKOTB show and see the reaction he received from the crowd. Gone was the gruff character actor—in his place was an odd combination of master of ceremonies, hype man and sex object. When he wasn't grabbing a camera and taping the show from the stage, he was grabbing random women from the audience and making out with them for what seemed like a solid minute each. His finest moment may have been "Cover Girl," a solo performance that he kicked off by doffing his shirt and ended by bending over and finished to roaring cheers by bending over and slapping his own ass.
After 25 years, the New Kids have also turned into top-notch panderers. They knew when to do the male stripper thing, flashing their abs and shaking their hips, and they knew when to play the bat mitzvah DJs, spicing up their set with brief covers of today's hits. Sometimes they even did both at once, as when Jordan Knight raised his shirt Situation-style as the band sang LMFAO's "Sexy and I Know It." To close out the show, they put on Nets jerseys and had Donnie declare an end to the ancient feud between Boston and Brooklyn that he may have just invented. Then they played a mash-up of "Shipping Up to Boston" and "Empire State of Mind." Shameless, yes, but these guys went 15 years without hearing any cheers. Who could blame them for milking us of all they could get?
*An earlier version of this post mistakenly reported that Nathan and Wanya Morris of Boyz II Men were brothers. They are not related. Popdust regrets the error.