The Number Ones

June 17, 1989

The Number Ones: New Kids On The Block’s “I’ll Be Loving You (Forever)”

Stayed at #1:

1 Week

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

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I can still remember the moment when a kid told me that I had to hate New Kids On The Block, that it wasn’t even an option. He talked about the New Kids being a blight on society like this was a self-evident thing, like we were discussing a hole in the ozone layer. At a certain point in the early ’90s, New Kids On The Block reached some kind of tipping point, that inevitable moment where teenage-heartthrob omnipresence triggers a momentous and overwhelming backlash. It’s an old story: A whole generation of girls loves these boys, so a whole generation of boys hates these boys. That massively gendered backlash is probably what ultimately doomed the New Kids, at least after a couple of years of wild popularity.

When this kid told me about how terrible the New Kids were, I think I played along, but I mostly didn’t know what he was talking about. When the New Kids scored their first American #1 hit, I still lived in London, where the New Kids had not yet broken through. I moved back to Baltimore in the summer of 1989; the New Kids scored their first UK #1 a few months later. After I got back to America, I went to a predominantly Black school, where nobody talked about New Kids On The Block. The group had initially been marketed to Black audiences, but that’s not who was buying New Kids records when the group achieved pop-chart dominance.

The kid who told me about hating the New Kids was the son of one of my dad’s colleagues, and he was adamant and passionate about it. The idea of hating a pop group was new to me; there was just stuff that I liked and stuff that I didn’t. New Kids weren’t even really on my radar. I’d see ads for New Kids on TV, or I’d see their pillowcases up for sale at K-Mart, but they didn’t make much of an impression on me. For most American kids my age, things were different. New Kids On The Block were a much-discussed concern, a love-it-or-hate-it proposition. They existed at the center of the pop universe, and I figured that out for myself once my parents took me out of that public school and sent me to an all-boys Catholic school, where everyone hated the New Kids. There, hating the New Kids became an article of faith. They were an unmitigated and inarguable force of evil, as universally loathed as our assistant principal. The matter was not up for debate.

Looking back, the New Kids On The Block era was a relatively harmless and anodyne little blip, though their success was an indicator of some fucked-up rot at the heart of American culture. Maurice Starr, the man who’d once managed the pioneering Black boy band New Edition, recognized that there was a market for a fresh-faced white group who looked and sounded just like a bleached version of New Edition. He figured out that New Edition would’ve been a whole lot more famous if they were white, and so he put together what amounted to a white version of New Edition. America proved that Starr was absolutely right. Within a few years, New Kids On The Block had become a kid-culture flashpoint in America, and those of us who didn’t care were compelled to take up a certain position on the group. When the New Kids scored their first #1 hit with “I’ll Be Loving You (Forever),” that process was already very much underway, but that first #1 hit made it official. The New Kids were now a phenomenon.

Maurice Starr, born Larry Curtis Johnson, is a rarity in popular culture: A Black man who got rich by packaging and exploiting white teenagers. Usually, things happen the other way around. Usually, it’s old white guys profiting on the work of young Black singers. Starr had grown up in Florida, but he and his brothers Michael and Soni got their start in the early ’80s, when they founded a bugged-out electro-funk group called Jonzun Crew. Jonzun Crew never made the Hot 100, but they had bangers.

Starr also made his first solo album in 1980, but he wasn’t much more successful on his own. (Starr’s only charting single, 1981’s “Dance To The Funky Groove,” peaked at #66.) But Starr proved a whole lot more successful as a behind-the-scenes force. In 1983, Starr was judging a talent competition at Boston’s Strand Theatre, and that’s where he discovered a group of Boston teenagers who called themselves New Edition. Starr got New Edition signed to the indie Streetwise Records, and he co-wrote and co-produced every track on the group’s 1983 debut album Candy Girl. That album’s title track was a #1 hit on the R&B charts, and it peaked at #46 on the Hot 100.

Starr sent New Edition on tour, and he paid the members of the group next to nothing. But Starr hadn’t created New Edition, and the members of the group took control of the situation. In 1984, New Edition fired Starr, and they also hired lawyers who got them out of their deal with Streetwise. Later that year, New Edition signed with MCA. When they came out with the #4 hit “Cool It Now,” Maurice Starr was out of the picture. (“Cool It Now” is a 7.)

In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, Starr says that he had the idea to form a white group while he was still working with New Edition. He thought maybe the two groups could co-headline. It never happened. After New Edition fired Starr, he started putting together his white group. At first, this wasn’t easy. Starr tells Bronson that he approached one kid on the street and asked him if he wanted to be a star: “I left my number and said, ‘If you want to do this, give me a call. I won’t take your number.’ I got a call, all right — it was from the FBI.” So Starr partnered up with his friend Mary Alford, a talent agent who also worked at the Massachusetts Department Of Education, and she helped Starr find kids.

The first two kids to join Starr’s group were Donnie Wahlberg and his younger brother Mark. Mark eventually left. (He’ll appear in this column soon enough.) Donnie brought in some of his high school friends, and when one of them dropped out, Starr replaced him with 12-year-old Joey McIntyre. The kids were mostly from the Dorchester neighborhood. They loved rap, and a couple of them wanted to become rappers. Starr gave the group the nonsensical name Nynuk, and he got his brother and Jonzun Crew bandmate Soni to give them singing lessons.

Starr booked Nynuk to perform anywhere that would take them: Outdoor festivals, retirement homes, a prison where one of Donnie Wahlberg’s brothers was locked up. In Nikki Van Noy’s New Kids biography, Wahlberg says, “I just knew prisoners loved cigarettes, and I also figured it’s the only way we wouldn’t get humiliated. When we threw those packs of cigarettes out, that’s it. We were heroes. The whole prison was going crazy. Any movie you’ve seen with a prison or, like, Marilyn Monroe singing at the USO, it was like that. Except we were boys singing at a man’s prison.”

Eventually, Starr convinced Columbia to sign Nynuk. The label had one precondition: The name sucked, and the group needed a new one. Starr and Donnie Wahlberg had written a rap song called “New Kids On The Block,” and that became the group’s name. Columbia signed the New Kids to its Black music division, and at first, the label marketed the group as a kind of novelty — white kids making Black music. It didn’t work. The group’s self-titled 1986 debut went nowhere. Their debut single “Be My Girl” made it to #90 on the R&B charts, but it missed the Hot 100 entirely. (Eventually, after the New Kids blew up, that first album went triple platinum.)

Columbia could’ve easily dropped the New Kids after that first album bricked. But the label kept the group around long enough for them to release their 1988 single “Please Don’t Go Girl,” a bubble-soul ballad that Maurice Starr had originally written for Irving And The Twins, another group he’d been managing. A pop station in Tampa started playing “Please Don’t Go Girl,” and the song started to take off, especially after Columbia paid for a new music video. The label started to aggressively market the group’s image, sending videos out to radio stations. Eventually, “Please Don’t Go Girl” took off nationwide, peaking at #10, and it got the New Kids a gig opening for Tiffany on tour. (It’s a 4.)

While “Please Don’t Go Girl” was taking off, the New Kids released Hangin’ Tough, their second album. As with the group’s debut, Maurice Starr wrote and produced the album. He played all the instruments and sang some of the backup vocals. But the New Kids themselves took a more active role. Three of the New Kids — Donnie Wahlberg, Jordan Knight, and Danny Wood — co-wrote one of the songs with Starr, and they got associate producer credits on the album. Wood also helped with some programming, mixing, and engineering.

The video for the album’s second single “You Got It (The Right Stuff)” presented the New Kids as swaggering, high-stepping teen-idol types. I’ve always wanted to know more about Jordan Knight’s Bauhaus shirt. There must be a story there. “You Got It (The Right Stuff)” did better than “Please Don’t Go Girl,” peaking at #3. (It’s a 5.) By the time the group released “I’ll Be Loving You (Forever)” as a single, Hangin’ Tough was already platinum.

“I’ll Be Loving You (Forever)” is a total late-’80s attempt at evoking the sensitive grace of Philly soul, right down to the extraneous parentheses in the title. After he wrote the song, Maurice Starr thought about pitching it to Smokey Robinson. Instead, he took it straight to the New Kids: “When it came to the New Kids, they were a priority. Every song I wrote was going to the New Kids. If it sounds like a hit to me, it’s going to them.”

“I’ll Be Loving You (Forever)” is essentially a solo showcase for Jordan Knight, the New Kid with the creamiest falsetto. On the song, the other New Kids are relegated to backing-vocal duty while Knight, who’d just turned 19 when the song hit #1, takes the spotlight. (When Knight was born, the #1 song in America was the Guess Who’s “American Woman.”) Knight’s vocal is the best thing about “I’ll Be Loving You (Forever).” He sings the song in a tender, wounded upper-register wail, and while he never takes flight the way a true Philly soul singer would’ve done, he avoids falling flat on his face. (Knight’s highest-charting single as a solo artist, 1999’s “Give It To You,” peaked at #10. It’s an 8.)

Passably soulful vocal aside, though, “I’ll Be Loving You (Forever)” is nothing special. The instrumentation is canned synth-gloop that mostly just highlights how much better those real strings and horns sounded on real Philly soul records. The lyrics are teenage-love sweet-nothings that come off clingy and maybe a little bit creepy: “I’m not that kind of guy who can take a broken heart/ So don’t ever leave, I don’t want to see us part.” There’s a reason why “I’ll Be Loving You (Forever)” hasn’t had any lingering cultural resonance, even as the New Kids themselves have come to encapsulate a certain moment. It just sounds like hot air. It expresses nothing. It works more as a brand extension for the whole New Kids empire. As in: Look how sensitive they are! Look how non-dangerous!

“I’ll Be Loving You (Forever)” evidently means something to somebody; Knight sang it to his wife at their wedding. But it ultimately sounds like little kids playing big-kid dress-up, and it falls victims to all the issues that plagued most of the big ballads of the late ’80s. The things that were embarrassingly fun about the initial New Kids explosion — the dance moves, the grins plastered on Trapper Keepers, the Bauhaus shirt — have no place on a song like this. The track simply has no energy.

As a marketing strategy, though, “I’ll Be Loving You (Forever)” worked. Hangin’ Tough went on to sell eight million albums. In 1989, only one album sold more copes: Don’t Be Cruel, the sophomore LP from the former New Edition member and Number Ones artist Bobby Brown. Maurice Starr was ultimately right that a white version of New Edition would sell a fuck-ton of records. But by the time they took off, the actual members of New Edition were doing pretty well, too. I wonder whether Starr got frustrated at a former protege beating out his new cash cows or whether Starr was too busy diving into his new Scrooge McDuck money tank to notice.

As a category, the boy band is a complicated thing to trace. New Kids On The Block were explicitly patterned after New Edition, but they had plenty of stylistic clones of their own. In 1989, for instance, the genuine creep and predator Lou Pearlman had a business renting out blimps and charter flights. That year, he rented a plane to the New Kids, and he was surprised that this fresh-faced pop group could afford his fees. Pearlman asked his cousin Art Garfunkel, a guy who’s been in this column a few times, about the New Kids. Garfunkel, who was the New Kids’ labelmate at Columbia at the time, told Pearlman all about the kind of business they were doing, and Pearlman saw dollar signs.

Over the next few years, Pearlman worked on creating his own boy band, patterning that group after the New Kids the same way that the New Kids had been patterned after New Edition. Pearlman’s creation, the Backstreet Boys, found gargantuan global success in the late ’90s. (The Backstreet Boys’ highest-charting single, 1996’s “Quit Playing Games With My Heart,” peaked at #2. It’s a 7. *NSYNC, another Pearlman creation, will eventually appear in this column.)

That’s how pop music works — one influence stacked up on another in an unending chain. But when “I’ll Be Loving You (Forever)” reached #1, New Kids On The Block hadn’t yet become a blueprint, and their moment was nowhere near over. They’ll appear in this column again.

GRADE: 4/10

BONUS BEATS: “I’ll Be Loving You (Forever)” is not a song that’s lived on in covers or samples or soundtracks. Instead, the version of the New Kids that people prefer to remember is the flashy, upbeat New Kids. But here’s something interesting: A video of the New Kids performing “I’ll Be Loving You (Forever)” on The Mickey Mouse Club, a moment that feels historically significant even if all the future late-’90s teen-pop stars hadn’t yet become Mouseketeers:

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