1988, Music

Hangin’ Tough (1988) by New Kids on the Block

I had turned 7 just a few days earlier when this came out so, though I am aware of NKOTB, and I’ve heard two of these songs way too many times as a child, this isn’t really the boy band that annoyed me. Sure, my step-sister had the tape, and I guess that was annoying until she moved on to something else. But I was too young to care, really. With The Backstreet Boys and N*Sync and their ilk, I felt like I couldn’t get away from them because they were all over Much Music when I actually watched Much Music, and because the girls at my high school liked them. But when I was 7, I didn’t have that kind of exposure to music videos or to whatever the kids might have been listening to at my school.

So my strongest memory of this time is “The White Stuff,” a song I know at least some of the lyrics too 30 years later, and which makes me have a slight soft spot for “You Got It (The Right Stuff)” if only because I know the music so well thanks to Weird Al. (I cannot tell you if “You Got It” truly is the only decent song on this record or if, because I’ve heard the parody so many times, I know it too well to judge it.)

This is all an attempt to say that I don’t have any particular animus towards NKOTB, like I did with the ’90s boy bands. That should make me slightly more objective than I was when reviewing a Backstreet Boys album. So what do I have to say?

This is awful. It’s hard to put into words how awful and crassly exploitive this record is. Though might have fond memories of it from your childhood, it is terrible in just about every way I can imagine.

The songs are extremely generic and appear to have been written to satisfy a marketing plan. There are ballads, up-beat tracks, an attempt at “rock” with hilarious ’80s shredding, and a terrible attempt at (pseudo) hip hop (the title track), among other things. These songs make The Backstreet Boys look like the Beatles in terms of musical sophistication.

But those songs, as generic as they are, might be inoffensive if it wasn’t for the lyrics. For every time the word “girl” is sung, take a drink. If you make it through side A without dying, you have a drinking problem. Here are my favourite:

“Hold on, girl, ooh, girl, hold on
Girl, let’s rock around the clock, we can dance and never stop
Come on, girl, just hold on tight, I know you wanna rock tonight
Through the night into the day we could chase our blues away
So grab a hold, don’t lose control, I really know you got the soul
Hold on, girl, hold on, ooh, girl, hold on
Hold on, girl, hold on, ooh, girl, hold on
Girl, the feeling’s in the air, don’t you know, it’s everywhere
Everywhere around the block people dance until they just can’t stop
Through the night
Hold on, girl, hold on, ooh, girl, hold on
Hold on, girl, hold on, ooh, girl, hold on”

The instruments used to back these lyrics are the most ’80s sounding instruments you could imagine. We have gated drums, we have fender rhodes pianos, sythesizers handling keys but also seemingly masquerading as other instruments and when they do get guitars and bass, we get hilarious attempts at sounding contemporary, such as with the cliche guitar solos and that one point where there’s slap bass! (I should point out that the slap bass does not show up when Donny yells for “Bass!” which is really disappointing.) Maurice Starr seems to be responsible for most of these instruments, which is perhaps why they all sound the same.

The kids singing these songs sound way younger than I would have imagined. The youngest of them was around 15 or 16 but they often sound like they are 12 . I wonder whether they just sound like this or whether their voices were sometimes artificially altered. It’s weird when you’re listening to a song that is likely about sex and the kid singing it sounds like he’s 12. It makes me uncomfortable.

Basically, I can find nothing redeemable about this album. And I’m sorry so many parents had to be subjected to it. It must have been a painful, painful year.


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