This post is a long time coming, and is honestly something I should’ve written years ago. I don’t really have an excuse as to why I haven’t written it, except – if I’m being really honest with myself – I think it’s because a large part of me still feels that my relationship with this band (and especially Jonathan, my fav) is something to be kept private… a habit learned through years of being teased, patronized, and even bullied for loving them. But… after seeing them live in concert in their Cincinnati kick off of the #MixTapeTour a few weeks ago, I was reminded of just how much FUN being a New Kids fan is, and how much love and positivity I’ve experienced as a result. So, today I want to talk about how the boy band, New Kids on the Block, and band member Jonathan Knight, impacted, changed, and yes — even saved — my life.
(And if you too, perhaps, were helped through mental health issues in your youth by boy bands, read on. I’d love to know I’m not alone here!)
The New Kids came into my life when I was in the 5th grade (1989ish). I got the Hangin’ Tough cassette for my birthday that year, and a friend in my class liked them too, so we spent all our free time listening to their music and finding and sharing pin ups from Teen Beat and Tiger Bop or whatever the hell those magazines were called. It was an innocent joy.. pure, and positive (except, perhaps, for the sadness of feeling so far away from the boys, but hoping to meet them someday was half the fun). It was the perfect outlet for someone like me who was painfully “shy,” (quotes explained later) and had a really difficult time connecting with other people. Jonathan was my favorite instantly, because he was also “shy,” and seemed happy to be with the band, but not in the spot light. This was intensely relatable for tweenage me who loved to sing, who *wanted* to connect with people, but was terrified of being the center of attention, ever. His stunningly beautiful smile and absurdly gorgeous hair didn’t hurt, either. 😉
For most people my age, that’s how their relationship with the New Kids remained… something magical and fun and light (well… maybe not light. We were a pretty intense bunch. 😂). But for me, life took a much more serious turn around this time in the form of a series of traumas that repeatedly and thoroughly devastated my nuclear family. The details of those traumas aren’t important, but suffice it to say the dynamic of my family changed drastically, and I — an already deeply introverted kid — became even more deep in my head and more afraid of the world. My parents, who loved me very much, just didn’t have to the tools to manage everything that was happening to all of us, as well as to be on top of my mental health needs, and frankly I don’t know anyone who could’ve. Mental health simply wasn’t well understood back then, and since I was quiet, well-behaved, and got good grades, my good functioning was assumed. The problem, of course, was that I was quiet, well-behaved, and got good grades because I was terrified of literally everything. Grades were one thing I could easily control, and quiet and well-behaved came from being terrified of stepping out of line for fear more horrible things would happen to me/us. I was a deeply unwell adolescent.
Many people, when upset, want to listen to music that mirrors their moods. I have been there and I understand that well, but I cannot overstate how dangerous this would’ve been for me at this point in my life. Though I didn’t know the word for it, I was suffering from severe depression, and anything that fixated me more strongly on those dark thoughts inched me farther into the danger zone that I was already flirting with. I didn’t know it consciously, but what I *needed* during this time was words of positivity, of strength, and of love. Words telling me I was important and needed. Words specifically and explicitly asking me to stay. The type of words that my family, for as much as I knew they loved me, weren’t the best at regularly saying (or that maybe my adolescent self just couldn’t hear).
Let me share with you, then, song titles and some lyrics from the album Hangin’ Tough (that you likely already know), that I listened to so much through these years that I literally destroyed three cassette tapes. However, instead of hearing them through the framing of a “silly boy band with their silly, simple lyrics,” hear them instead through the lens of a adolescent girl drowning in depression, feeling deeply alone and entirely unimportant to the world:
Here we have again the last song on the side, which was not a big single, that had lyrics so pointedly relevant to my state of mind it’s like it was written for me (thanks, Maurice!). Throughout this album, the lyrics are almost entirely positive. There is exactly one song where they are lamenting a girl actively hurting them (What’cha Gonna Do (About It)), and even in that song the message is she hurt them, and while they aren’t going to accept that, it doesn’t change the fact that they love her. The rest of the songs talk about girls in the most positive of ways, talking about how much they are loved, how much they are valued, and asking (so very politely and respectfully, Joey Joe), to please not go. Add in a little bit of Hangin’ Tough on top, which is yet another nod to holding on and not taking any shit, and it’s like the New Kids had recorded a ten song care package to my mental stability.
Throughout the next few years my love for the New Kids grew, as did my love for Jon. Because of my terrible long term memory, the haze of adolescence, and a dash of repression, I’m not sure I can state specifically what it was about Jon during these years that continued to draw me in so thoroughly. When I look back, the general feelings I had about him were that he was quiet, but caretaking, sweet and kind. Even back then I was well aware that I didn’t know the real him, especially since he was so private, but even the vibe of the public persona was just nice to have (and if he’s not these things, he’s certainly gotten a lot of people to lie for him over the years. 😉 ). Whether it was real or illusion, he felt like a kindred spirit. And as a loner kid, that’s what was important for me at the time.
As the years passed, the strain of my personal traumas got harder to cope with, and so far as I could tell, the strain of fame was getting harder for the boys. Being a New Kids fan was also becoming its own source of emotional stress, because sudden fame of that magnitude breeds jealousy and contempt in those outside the love circle, and I literally couldn’t walk down a hallway at school with a New Kids shirt on without someone degrading them, me, or both. I was bullied for a variety of reasons, but having the one major source of strength and joy I had make me a bigger target was just particularly difficult to cope with.
I’m not terribly proud of how I handled these years, but I survived them, so I guess that’s enough of a win. A vast majority of the way I coped was listening to all things New Kids, and internalizing a lot of the lessons they were teaching. They spoke a lot about helping people, and about always looking to raise the bar on kindness rather than violence or negativity…. so I worked to be a kind person, even when I wanted to lash out and hate from all the rage I carried around. They frequently talked about staying away from drugs, so I made sure to stay away from those too, though they would’ve been an easy way to escape some of those feelings of pain. Jon himself showed me that he could miss a dance step here or there (love you Jon!), not be super interested in participating in interviews and such, and yet still keep going, and still be a valued member of the team. His being more in the background made me deeply value and appreciate every little nugget we got, from Step 5, to Happy Birthday, to his few answers in interviews. He also showed me that even if you were scared, shy, or nervous, you could do things that were huge. The importance of seeing that in action, even if I couldn’t yet do it myself, cannot be overstated.
While all of these messages were important, one of the biggest over-arching lessons the New Kids taught me during this time was about positivity. Now, I will not even try to say that I was a positive person at this point, because I 100% was NOT. But.. the New Kids made me want to be, which was incredible enough, considering my mental state. When they released No More Games/The Remix Album in 1990 (god, was it really only 6 months after Step By Step came out? Adolescent years are dog years, I swear…), they released a remix of the song “Games” called The Kids Get Hard Mix and it became my anthem for.. well, forever. The song was essentially about the hate they received for being in a popular boy band, and how much judgment and stereotyping and general bullshit they had to fend off as a result. The song easily could’ve been full of anger (and I believe some of it was), but despite all the negativity they dealt with just for singing songs that made people (especially – god forbid – GIRLS) happy, the first line and overall message was this:
No More Games is about positivity.
And positivity is not about being soft,
It’s about being smart.
All the hate they dealt with, all the drama, mocking, stereotyping, jeering, media hate, etc etc… and the message they come back with: Being positive doesn’t make you weak, it makes you strong. So stay positive. We really do care.
Can you imagine the impact that had on adolescent me?
As I said, the New Kids didn’t magically cure me of my negativity, anger, or pain into my teenage years, but by god they did keep me going through it. They gave me something positive and fun to focus on, they gave me things to look forward to (new music, interviews, concerts, etc), they gave me a way to bond with my sister (SO MANY HOURS spent listening to New Kids music and playing the New Kids card game), and it gave me a way to form relationships with other people which was so hard for me to do. Being a New Kids fan eventually became kind of like Fight Club, in that you just didn’t talk about it… but when you were able to find a way to recognize a fellow fan out in the wild, it was so comforting and an easy topic to bond over.
I remained a fan of the boys as long as they were active, and even saw them for their Face the Music tour, despite Jon not being part by the time they got to Cincinnati. The official story was that Jon had “fallen off a horse,” and so he couldn’t continue with the tour. Even back then as a naive teenager I knew that probably wasn’t true. I was disappointed not to see him, but strangely (for a selfish teen) I was actually really happy that he was doing what he wanted, and hoped he was taking care of himself. While I never stopped loving them, that show was kind of the final hoo-rah as an “official” NKOTB fan, as they broke up shortly after.
Throughout the next decade, the New Kids continued to be a presence in my life, but in the background… a safe space that I only brought out when I needed them. I kept a copy of all the CDs in my car, and I listened to Hangin’ Tough on the worst of the worst days (and still do). It was during these years that the Internet came into popular use (yes we’re old, shut up), and so I was able to pick up bits and pieces of what the boys were up to, as Jordan and Joe worked on solo music careers, and Donnie started acting.
I can’t remember when exactly I saw it, but at some point I was made aware of an interview Jon did on Oprah in 2001. Knowing how private and “shy” Jon was, hearing that he was on Oprah by himself was jaw dropping. When I finally saw it, however, I can’t even explain how overcome with emotion I was.
During the interview with Oprah, Jon shared his struggles with anxiety and panic attacks, which he had struggled with throughout his life, and definitely throughout his career with the New Kids. He had a panic attack on camera, and shared exactly what he was feeling both physically and emotionally in that moment, as well as throughout his time with the New Kids. He talked about why he left the group (yep, anxiety, not the horse story), and how he coped (or didn’t) for several years after the band ended. I couldn’t decide what to feel first.
Pride, in that he did this obviously immensely difficult interview because he wanted to prove to himself he could and he wanted to help raise awareness for anxiety disorders?
Compassion, in finally knowing that he was never really “shy,” but dealing with panic attacks?
Pure unadulterated love, in wanting to reach through the television and hug him more fiercely than I’d ever wanted to before?
All of these things, absolutely.
But the other thing I felt, very, very clearly… was realization. What Jon was describing was how I felt, all the time. Like someone had jumped out of a closet at you and screamed BOO? Constant adrenaline? Constant worry? Fixation on things that may or may not happen in the future? Fixation on things you’re worried about that you know are coming? Constant fear of being judged because of your constant fear? Oh yeah, all of that. ALL OF THAT. Turns out that while my flavor of anxiety (social and generalized) is slightly different than Jon’s panic disorder, neither Jon nor I were just “shy” back in the day. We were both struggling with significant anxiety disorders, but neither of us knew that was a thing.
Talk about a lightbulb moment.
While I was already in therapy at this point, this was one of the first times I’d really tried on the idea of “anxiety” as a word that applied to my issues. I’d come to terms with depression, low self esteem, and trauma, but anxiety was new. But it was right. Seeing Jon speak so openly about it made me go back and re-think about everything that he did with the New Kids through the lens of this new information. What I used to see as being able to do huge things when shy was now the realization that you can do big things even when you have severe anxiety. That you can be scared of something to the point of panic and still do it… like going on Oprah to talk about your anxiety disorder. And, perhaps an even more important message, you can also STOP doing huge things if and when you need to take care of yourself, as he had when he left the group.
These are lessons I keep with me to this day.
When the New Kids came back for a reunion in 2008, I was in heaven. My sister and I got second row VIP seats at the closest show to us (Cleveland), and went to as many shows after that as we could. I actually got to meet Jonathan and the boys at that first show, but of course didn’t talk, because helloooo social anxiety! But here we are 11 years into their “reunion” (quotes because the reunion has been going on longer than the original!), and these boys continue to bring me nothing but joy. They were some of the first celebrities on Twitter, giving incredible access to their lives to a fandom that was starved from 14 long years apart. The rare few times Jon has interacted with me on social media, I feel like I’ve won the fangirl lottery. ❤ I’ve made lifelong friends from those early reunion shows, enjoyed so much incredible new music that has led to car singing parties with my daughters, and I’ve gone on epic adventures to dance in the rain in Fenway Park, among other places. I’ve watched Jon continue to work through his anxiety, just like I’ve continued to work through mine, and every one of his successes makes my heart want to burst with joy for him. I didn’t even try to stop the tears the first time I saw him sing Survive You live.
And so here we are, 30 years into this journey. Jon and his delicious sparkly plaid shirt seem to finally be enjoying his time on stage, he’s got an HGTV show about doing what he loves coming out, I’ve got a PhD, I’m a licensed mental health counselor, and my academic specialty has become fandom’s impact on mental health (what a coincidence!). We’ve both come a hell of a long way since being our “shy” selves in 1989, and I know for a fact Jon and the rest of the band played a huge role in that for me. Hell, I think I’ll actually even be able to chat with him if I’m ever lucky enough to meet him again! I just hope against hope that as a fan, maybe I’ve helped him a bit too. ❤
And to anyone out there — especially young girls — who take any kind of teasing or belittling because you love a boy band: Please know that your musical tastes, your joy, and your experiences are EVERY BIT as valid as anyone else’s. And you have a generation of Blockheads who will stand behind you and back you up on this if ever you need us. Hang tough, girls!