In terms of sheer quantity of product moved, the New Kids on the Block are the hottest act in pop music today. Their second album, "Hangin' Tough," produced four Top 10 singles last year, sold 8 million copies and launched the two best-selling titles in the history of long-form music videos. The sellout audiences at their concerts spend as much on T-shirts, posters and merchandise as they do on tickets.
A lot more product will be moving this summer. This week the New Kids released a new album, "Step by Step," and a new long-form video of the same name. The title song is bulleting up the singles charts, and the group has already sold out every seat of its summer tour (which stops July 17 at RFK Stadium).
Others are jumping on the bandwagon, eager to move some product of their own. A certain soft-drink company (which won't get any free publicity here) has an ad at the beginning of the new video and is sponsoring the summer tour. The New Kids' Svengali, Maurice Starr, has produced two more albums of bubble-gum soul by the Perfect Gentlemen and the Superiors, who hope to ride the New Kids' coattails.
There's a temptation to belittle the New Kids on the Block as a triumph of marketing over music, but they can sing, and they're even better dancers. Starr is a talented pop craftsman who comes up with radio-ready melodic hooks and feet-itching rhythm tracks. In the history of pop prodigies, the New Kids may not be nearly as good as Frankie Lymon, Michael Jackson or the Everly Brothers, but they're a whole lot better than the Osmonds, Milli Vanilli, Fabian or the Cassidy brothers.
As always, there's a good story behind this pop phenomenon. Starr was a veteran singer and musician in Boston who had tried a dozen different angles -- from working on Peter Wolf's debut solo album to co-producing dance hits for Arthur Baker -- in search of a big break.
One of his angles was to create a hip-hop bubble-gum group, a modern version of the Jackson 5, and when he spotted New Edition at a talent show in 1981, he knew he had his vehicle. New Edition's 1983 debut album, "Candy Girl," was such a success that MCA Records lured the teenage group away from Starr's Streetwise Records.
Starr went to court to claim that he owned the New Edition name, because he had created the group's sound and image. He had a good argument -- after all, he had conceptualized, produced, arranged, mixed, co-written and played most of the instruments on the New Edition records. Starr eventually lost the three-year court case, but he vowed revenge. He swore he'd create a new bubble-gum group that would be even bigger than New Edition. That new group was the New Kids on the Block, and this time Starr locked up the rights to the name.
In America, race always adds an extra zing to a story, and this is no exception. Starr is black and the New Kids on the Block are white, a tantalizing role reversal. There's a long history in rock-and-roll of white acts adopting a black sound and reaping profits the originators never tasted. The New Kids fall into that pattern, for their music is definitely African American in origin (a combination of bubble-gum soul and hip-hop), but this time a substantial share of the profits is going to Starr, the black man who created the sound.
There's also a long history of black singers (Dionne Warwick, the Coasters, the Crystals, Donna Summer) controlled by white managers, songwriters and producers behind the scenes. The New Kids are the most successful example ever of a white act controlled by black managers, songwriters, producers and musicians. Starr stays so well hidden behind the throne that he never speaks in the New Kids' new video -- in fact, he's barely glimpsed at all. This reversal delights not only our sense of irony but our sense of justice as well.
One of pop music's most enduring myths is that of the battle by the "artist" (the singer or musician) for creative freedom from the "businessman" (the manager or producer). The fallacy of that myth is that the real artist behind a great record may well be the producer.
Who deserves the credit, control and rewards -- the one who conceived and executed every aspect of the music or the singer who did as he was told and posed for the cover photo? Who's the real artist, Phil Spector or the Crystals? Maurice Starr or the New Kids on the Block? If the New Kids demand and win more involvement in their recordings, thus reducing Starr's control, will that be an advance or a retreat for artistic freedom?
'Step by Step'
Starr is still firmly in control on the latest New Kids on the Block album, "Step by Step" (Columbia). If you can accept that the album's totally devoid of substance and originality, it's easy to enjoy its professional craftsmanship and pubescent fun.
Starr shows excellent taste in stealing from the past. The first single is the title song, and with its galloping drum program and classy string charts, it sounds as if it came off "Chic's Greatest Hits." It's not the only song on the album that reminds us just how good the best disco hits were.
The follow-up single will probably be "Tonight," a clever impersonation of late-'60s Paul McCartney ("Here, There and Everywhere" crossed with "Penny Lane"), even if it's closer to the Rutles than to the Beatles. Less clever is Donnie Wahlberg's minstrel imitation of Jamaican patois on the reggae exercise "Stay With Me Baby." Wahlberg (who wears a Public Enemy T-shirt in the "Step by Step" video) cowrote the protest rap "Games"; the protest is rather lame, but Starr's very funky bass line and Russian work chant give the track street credentials.
The album is dominated, though, by romantic soul ballads in the style of the Delfonics, the Manhattans and the Miracles. Jordan Knight sings the lead tenor parts and Joe McEntyre the falsetto parts, and if they aren't in the same league as the Delfonics' William Hart or the Miracles' Smokey Robinson, they're good enough to breathe convincing life into Starr's small gems of juvenile sentiment.
"Happy Birthday" is destined to be played at 13th-birthday parties for the rest of the decade. "Where Do I Go From Here?" is an effective remake of the Jackson 5's "I'll Be There"; "Baby, I Believe in You" and "Let's Try It Again" deliver what every young girl wants to hear; and the falsetto tour de force "Funny Feeling" is probably the best track the New Kids have yet done.
"Step by Step" is being hyped as the first album released simultaneously on CD, cassette, vinyl and long-form music video. That claim's misleading, for the "Step by Step" video (CBS Music Video) includes only two songs from the album, and the video of "Tonight" consists of random concert footage with no connection to the song on the audio track. Director Larry Jordan does a nice job of mixing color with black-and-white in the same shot on the video for the new single, but for the most part the long-form video is a sloppy, hastily thrown together hodgepodge of interviews and concert footage.
Backstage interviews are the always the deadliest parts of pop music films and videos, but these candid conversations with the New Kids set new lows for exposing pop singers as inarticulate, empty-headed models. Much better is the concert footage, where we at least get to see them dance. Danny Wood, who looks like John Travolta, dances like him too, and the other four Kids also have a knack for blending breakdance moves with disco strutting.
The 40-minute video includes two songs that have never been on a New Kids album: a concert version of "I'll Be There" and a video montage of swooning fans set to "Valentine Girl," the sugary ballad on the flip side of the new single. Also included are the video for "This One's for the Children," the Top 10 single from the "Merry, Merry Christmas" album, and the highlights from their pay-per-view TV concert last year, featuring a version of the Delfonics' 1970 hit "Didn't I (Blow Your Mind This Time)." The New Kids' vocal limitations are mercilessly exposed in the live footage, and the video as a whole lacks the perfectionism of Starr's productions.
Of course, raw musical talent counts for less in this MTV era, when visuals can compensate for a wobbly vocal. Madonna, another superstar of the video age, isn't much of a singer either -- like Starr and his young proteges, she relies instead on disco professionalism blended with marketing genius. If the New Kids lack the substance of a Prince, these Boston prodigies at least deserve to be taken as seriously as Madonna. In fact, the only major difference between the New Kids and Madonna is the artistic pretensions of her hackneyed symbolism -- a difference that's clearly to the youngsters' advantage.
The Superiors: 'Perfect Timing'
Having created the biggest-selling act on the planet today, Starr has set out to prove that his formula can work with any group of teenagers picked off the Boston streets. The Superiors are a quintet in the same 17-22 age bracket as the New Kids, but Starr has positioned their new album, "Perfect Timing" (Columbia), as a funky jack-swing sound closer to Bobby Brown than to Madonna. The Superiors actually have better voices than the New Kids, but Starr has clearly saved his best songwriting for his moneymakers. The melodies on "Perfect Timing" aren't as catchy, and the beats aren't as fresh.
For example, Starr produced a 1987 single for the Superiors that paired "Step by Step" with "The Boy's in Love." This year the single's A-side wound up on the New Kids album and the B-side wound up on the Superiors' album. The Superiors may be better than the New Kids at street-savvy rap, but they are far short of many better rappers, and can't sell the romantic ballads that Starr is so good at with the same sincerity the New Kids muster.
Perfect Gentlemen: 'Rated PG'
Starr's other new group is the Perfect Gentlemen, a trio of 11- and 12-year-olds that includes Maurice Starr Jr. Their boy sopranos haven't broken yet, and their debut album, "Rated PG" (Columbia), is aimed at the prepubescent market. They sing and rap about puppy love, dancing and "Mama," whom they dearly love no matter how many times she punishes them.
The three boyish Gentlemen have sweet, sweet voices like the early Michael Jackson's, and they blend appealingly. Starr has given them better melodies and rhythms than he gave the Superiors, and the PGs have an excellent chance of scoring big with the grade school and junior high sets.