The music industry has forced itself into a marketing conundrum: in an attempt to maximize profits, it spends most of its time playing one generation against another. It used to be enough to market rock n’ roll to rebellious youths while peddling Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin to their parents, but as time wore on they realized they could squeeze every last penny out of kids’ pockets by convincing them they had to be up-to-the-minute in hipness. The only problem? Figuring out what to do with all the artists (and albums) passed their five-minute shelf life.
The answer seems to be to continue to market them to audiophiles (if they’re good), or to wait a couple of decades for nostalgia to kick in and then send them on a reunion tour (if they’re not so good). Tulsa was host to both in the past week, as country legend Loretta Lynn took the stage at Oral Roberts University’s Mabee Center Sunday night and quarter-century-old boy (man?) band New (Old?) Kids on the Block played the BOk Center on Monday. Both concerts certainly had their moments, but after taking in both, it wasn’t all that hard to see whose music had the staying power.
The Mabee Center was packed with members of the over-forty set when Loretta took the stage, preceded by nearly every member of her extended family. The singer-songwriter, known for such hits as “I’m a Honky Tonk Girl,” “Dear Uncle Sam” and—yes—“Coal Miner’s Daughter,” doesn’t leave any family members at home when she goes on tour, and her son Ernest warmed up the crowd with (among other things) Toby Keith’s “I Ain’t as Good as I Once Was,” followed by his twin sisters Peggy and Patsy (who record occasionally as the Lynns), who sang a number of songs (including the always-obligatory “Tulsa Time”).
After much fanfare, Loretta herself took the stage, decked out in what can only be described as a dress you can only get away with wearing if you’ve had 16 number-one country hits. (After a couple of songs, it wasn’t hard to see it was weighing on her—“Do you mind if I sit down?” she asked. “This dress only weighs about a million pounds.”) After sitting, she and her band whipped through as many songs as they could squeeze into an hour and a half (we are talking about a 40-odd-year career, after all)—not wasting any time on jam sessions, or even much patter (though what was there was pretty funny—most highlights featured Loretta berating her son for his well-known binge drinking).
What was truly memorable about the evening was how inclusive it all was. Not only did she tour with her family, but she invited most of the band members to sing a couple of songs as well. Her granddaughter Tayla even took the stage for a couple of numbers (she possesses an appealing voice and an enormous stage presence—assuming she can escape her grandmother’s shadow, she could have a long career of her own). The band even took the trouble to announce the birthdays of the audience members (don’t ask me how they know), and finished up the set by 9:30, presumably so the audience (and the performer) could get some sleep.
If Lynn’s show was short and sweet, the New Kids on the Block were an exercise in how to go on well past the moment you’ve overstayed your welcome—not that the fans were complaining, of course. Monday night, the BOk Center was almost completely filled with excited fans, most of which consisted of thirty-year-old women dressed as teenagers. If there was any doubt about the momentousness of group’s reunion, the video screen dispelled it all just before they took the stage: “FIFTEEN YEARS AGO…THEY WALKED AWAY…ONE YEAR AGO…THEY SHOCKED THE WORLD…TONIGHT, THE PARTY CONTINUES…ARE YOU READY?”
The crowd answered in the affirmative, and the quintet took the stage, singing their 1991 hit “Call It What You Want,” and throwing every available ounce of energy into the performance, pulling off a litany of complex dance moves with ease. (The boy band tradition is one that emphasizes overall performance rather than musicianship, which is why you really have to catch a group like New Kids live to see what they’re all about—recordings don’t really do them justice.) From there, they continued to perform their early hits like “My Favorite Girl” and “You Got It (The Right Stuff),” while peppering in an occasional new song like “Dirty Dancing” and “Single.” It was a night filled with flash—bouncy teenybopper songs, flashy dance moves and hundreds of LEDs (which, by the way, weren’t even practical as stage decoration the last time these guys were together—this is the sort of thing you think about if you’re a 24-year-old male at a New Kids concert)—and as little substance as possible, please.
That last part is the clincher, because despite the fact that they’re all nearly 40 now, New Kids are still very much operating in a teen pop vein, and never mind that the world has faced not one, but two generations of teen pop since they disappeared (I’m referring, of course to the now-stale Britney/’NSYNC brand, as well as the so-bland-it’s-awesome form represented by Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers). Actually, I can’t put it any better than Donnie Wahlberg did: “Remember back when you were thirteen, and coming to our concerts, and everyone said you were too young to understand what love was? And that we were too young to understand what love was? Well guess what? You’re not thirteen anymore. Who’s too young now?”
I’m really not sure what any of that means (and, odds are, neither is he), but after all, this is teen pop we’re talking about—essentially designed to be disposable, to take away the money of teenagers, then disappear for a while, and then, twenty years later, take away the money of nostalgic adults. In that respect, the New Kids are a resounding success, and I’m not ashamed to say that they put on a pretty spectacular show while they do it, too. When they returned to the stage in Boston Celtics uniforms for a rousing encore, and then showered the crowd in shiny green confetti, it was clear there was something special going on.
It was called marketing.
About the author: