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.
When the New Kids On The Block recorded “Hangin’ Tough,” the title track from their sophomore album, nobody really thought of the group as an act put together specifically to appeal to preteen girls. Nobody really thought about the New Kids at all. This was the problem. The young boy band had made no impact whatsoever with their self-titled 1986 debut album. That first album hadn’t charted. Neither had either of its singles. Columbia almost dropped the New Kids.
Maurice Starr, the guy who put the New Kids together and who wrote and produced all the songs on Hangin’ Tough, has said that he wrote “Hangin’ Tough” about the trials that the New Kids had gone through when their album didn’t sell. Donnie Wahlberg, the New Kid who sang lead on “Hangin’ Tough” has said that the song was written for the Boston Celtics — or, at least, as a song that could potentially play over the speakers during Celtic games. Both of those accounts might be totally true, but that’s not the role that “Hangin’ Tough” played when it rose to #1 at the end of the summer of 1989.
By the time “Hangin’ Tough” topped the Hot 100, the New Kids were a cultural phenomenon, and they were very much an act for preteen girls. At this point, the New Kids had reached the top 10 three times, and their most recent single, the gooey ballad “I’ll Be Loving You (Forever),” had made it all the way to #1. Hangin’ Tough was triple platinum, a few days away from hitting quadruple. The whole merchandising feeding frenzy behind the New Kids — the group’s faces on magazines and bedsheets and lunchboxes — hadn’t reached its peak yet, but it had definitely started.
At the same time, lines were being drawn. As the preteen girls of America fell in love with the New Kids, the preteen boys decided that the group was a clear and present menace to anything good. Even though “Hangin’ Tough” hadn’t been intended as a rebuke to a soft image, that’s definitely how it came off. These guys whose faces were on pillowcases at K-Mart were jumping around with baseball bats and trying to convince us that they were “rough.” Donnie Wahlberg — by most accounts, an actual teenage hooligan in his pre-New Kids years — had been given the task of presenting himself and his group to the world as teenage hooligans, or at least as guys who would stomp you. Wahlberg failed. The New Kids still landed a second #1 hit in the process.
The most interesting thing about “Hangin’ Tough” is the way the New Kids On The Block presented their own toughness. Two years before the New Kids recorded “Hangin’ Tough,” previous Number Ones artists Poison, another group of just-starting-out heartthrobs perilously aware of their own girly appeal, opened their debut album Look What The Cat Dragged In with a song called “Cry Tough.” Lyrically, “Hangin’ Tough” and “Cry Tough” have the same basic, vague message: These groups are out in the streets, hustling to make a dream happen, and they’ll do whatever it takes. But Poison presented that image through the medium of knowingly trashy glam metal. Two years later, the world had changed, and the New Kids In The Block were fronting like rappers.
That’s mostly circumstantial. The New Kids were the creation of Maurice Starr, a Black ex-singer who’d previously managed New Edition. The New Kids were just a white version of New Edition. With “Hangin’ Tough,” Starr was grabbing sounds and poses from rap music — or, more likely, from new jack swing, which was grabbing them from rap music. On the album version of “Hangin’ Tough,” Starr plays a keyboard solo that sounds like his attempt at something Teddy Riley might’ve done. There’s some Fat Boys-style beatboxing in there, too. But on the single that reached #1, Starr had swapped out his own keyboard for a screeching metal-adjacent guitar solo. In the video, Joey McIntyre took the opportunity to play air-guitar on a baseball bat.
That guitar solo is a concession, but “Hangin’ Tough” is still a time capsule of a moment when rap music was ascendant and when pop music was trying to figure out what to do with this new presence. The first actual rap song to hit #1 was still a year away, but currents were shifting. In the “Hangin’ Tough” video, the New Kids jump around like breakdancers, and Donnie Wahlberg drops his leather jacket to reveal that his T-shirt simply says “HOME BOY.” The beat is a programmed stomp, and it’s full of whistles and timbales and the little chattering riff that Maurice Starr took from “Jungle Fever,” a 1972 Latin funk jam from the Belgian group the Chakachas. (“Jungle Fever” peaked at #8. It’s an 8.)
So “Hangin’ Tough” sounds like a New Kids attempt at rap because that’s what Starr would’ve been used to hearing at the time. It also made a natural fit for Donnie Wahlberg, the New Kid who most wanted to be a rapper. (When Wahlberg was born, the #1 song in America was Zager And Evans’ “In The Year 2525.”) On “Hangin’ Tough,” Wahlberg doesn’t really rap, but he doesn’t really sing, either. Instead, he just sort of chants vague motivational tough-kid talk: “Everybody’s always talkin’ ’bout who’s on top!” Behind him, the other New Kids chant back in call-and-response: “Don’t cross our path ’cause you’re gonna get stomped!” They sound like drama-club kids in a high school production of West Side Story.
Really, the New Kids of “Hangin’ Tough” sound, more than anything, like a bubblegum attempt at the howling, cartoonish delinquent-chic goonery that the Beastie Boys had brought onto the pop charts a couple of years earlier. (The Beasties’ highest-charting single is 1987’s “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!),” which peaked at #7. It’s an 8.) Even that guitar solo is a sanitized version of something that might’ve been on Licensed To Ill.
The Beasties themselves had lost interest in that whole pose by 1989; they released their sophomore album Paul’s Boutique about six weeks before “Hangin’ Tough” reached #1. That means the New Kids’ Muppet Babies version of that whole act had a clear lane to the top. The New Kids had none of the Beasties’ anarchic glee, and that probably only helped them on the charts. They were the safest possible version of a few converging trends that, at least in the moment, could’ve seemed potentially dangerous.
“Hangin’ Tough” isn’t dangerous, and it never has been. It doesn’t even try to be dangerous. Instead, it does its best to project a certain wild-boy energy. That gives the song a daffiness that I find slightly endearing. In a lot of ways, “Hangin’ Tough” sounds like an attempt to update chanty ’70s bubblegum for a new jack swing era; it shares plenty of DNA, for instance, with something like the Bay City Rollers’ “Saturday Night.” “Hangin’ Tough” is a tinny, goofy little nothing of a song, and it’s got none of the urgency or inventiveness of its era’s actual rap music, but there’s charm in its boisterous loopiness. “I’ll Be Loving You (Forever),” the New Kids’ previous #1 hit, is probably a better-written song, and it definitely has a better lead vocal, but I have a slight preference for the general giddiness of something like “Hangin’ Tough.” It’s not good, but it’s at least memorable.
The video made it more memorable. The “Hangin’ Tough” clip is all motion — synchronized dance moves, close-ups on cocky faces, fast cuts between live-performance footage and scenes of the New Kids strutting around against tagged-up walls. In that video, you can see an early version of the marketing tactics that every company would use to sell things to young people in the first half of the ’90s. The New Kids, just like the kids in ads for Sunny Delight or whatever, didn’t actually have to be streetwise. They just had to be able to look like they were having fun on camera while wearing their baseball caps off to the side.
In 1989, for the New Kids On The Block, those poses worked. The week that “Hangin’ Tough” topped the Hot 100, two more New Kids singles were the highest-charting new entries on the Hot 100. Both of them would go on to the top 10. The fifth single from Hangin’ Tough was the peppy, blippy “Cover Girl,” which peaked at #2. (It’s a 5.) The other song that hit the charts that week was the New Kids’ cover of the Delfonics’ Philly soul classic “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time),” which the group had included on that 1986 debut album that flopped so badly. The New Kids re-released “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind)” as the B-side of “Hangin’ Tough,” and then as its own single, and it peaked at #8. (The New Kids’ cover is a 3. The Delfonics’ original, which peaked at #10 in 1970, is a 10.)
By the end of 1989, Hangin’ Tough had sold seven million copies, and it was the year’s second-biggest seller behind Bobby Brown’s Don’t Be Cruel. Fans had also started buying the New Kids’ debut, and it had sold a million copies by the end of the year. (It would eventually go triple platinum.) A couple of weeks after “Hangin’ Tough” reached #1, the New Kids also released the quickie holiday album Merry, Merry Christmas, which sold another two million copies. That album’s single “This One’s For The Children” peaked at #7. (It’s a 4.)
The whole New Kids On The Block blitz wasn’t over yet. The group will appear in this column one more time.
BONUS BEATS: On the “Hangin’ Tough” 12″ single, the club-music great Arthur Baker remixed the track, making the fascinating decision to put the bassline from Wayne Smith’s 1985 dancehall classic “Under Me Sleng Teng” under the New Kids’ voices. Here’s the “Hangin Tough (In A Funky Way)” remix:
(Arthur Baker’s highest-charting single is the 1992 Nikeeta collab “I O U,” credited to Arthur Baker & The Backbeat Disciples. It peaked at #93.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Beavis and Butt-Head, on a 1993 episode of their show, watching the “Hangin’ Tough” video and identifying the New Kids as “those dudes on Stuart’s lunchbox”: