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Jodi Angel, author of You Only Get Letters from Jail and Matthew Spektor, author of Amerian Dream Machine reading at Powell's Books Monday, July 22, 7:00pm
Emma Straub on Emma Straub, with Essay!
Q: Emma, you look lovely today. Thanks so much for talking to me.
A: Thank you. So do you! And it’s my pleasure, of course.
Q: On a scale of one to ten, how embarrassed are you that all of your cool literary friends now know that you’re still obsessed with the New Kids on the Block?
A: Well, I like to think that the essay is a more complicated portrait than that. My experience watching Joey McIntyre have a bit of a meltdown on stage didn’t trigger feelings of obsession, it triggered feelings of pity, and compassion. To answer your question, though: I’d say about a three.
Q: If you had to pick another New Kid to write about, which one would you pick?
A: That’s tricky. My first impulse is to say Donnie Wahlberg, because he’s always posting self-help-y inspirational messages on Twitter, and plays a cop on TV, and is Marky Mark’s brother, and they’re opening a burger place called Wahlburgers. But I’d also be interested in talking to Jon Knight, who recently came out of the closet, and has always been the very, very worst dancer in NKOTB. I imagine both of those things made his youth difficult. Also, he likes horses, and so do I. Decisions!
Q: Do you ever worry about Joey McIntyre and/or his mother having Google alerts for his name, and finding your essay?
A: All the time. But I like to think that Joey—now a father of three, and happily married, by all tabloid appearances—is in a better place now. In case he is reading, though—Joey, I love you. No hard feelings, okay?
A few years ago, God gave me a birthday present. Joey McIntyre was coming to Madison, Wisconsin, four days before my twenty-seventh birthday. My boyfriend and I bought tickets the day they went on sale, and when I looked at the stubs in my hand, I saw that we had just purchased numbers one and two.
At the height of their popularity, Joey McIntyre and his bandmates from New Kids on the Block sold millions of records and played sold-out concerts around the globe, and I had the cheesy merchandise to show for it. I had NKOTB bedsheets, two sets of dolls (one each in concert outfits and street wear), life-size cardboard cutouts, posters, trading cards, earrings, buttons, novelizations, comic books, a coffee-table-sized collection of photographs, and a fanny pack. I was a Blockhead. It wasn’t that I thought they’d made perfect music–some of the Kids had better voices than others, let’s be honest. But my Joey–he was good. During the band’s golden years, Joey hadn’t yet gone through puberty, and the high, clear tone of his voice was as beautiful as a choir of angels, if the angels happened to be from the Boston suburbs.
I had seen Joey in person twice before. When I was eight years old and at the height of my devotion, the band appeared in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, riding down the street on a float shaped like a Red Delicious apple. There are two photographs taken of me that day: the first is a blurry shot of the side of my face, my mouth hanging open in disbelief as I see Joey for the first time. I am unaware of the photographer (my mother, no doubt), or of anyone else near me (which must include everyone in New York City). Seeing Joey live, in tender, human flesh, completely took my breath away, and I look like Saint Theresa, pierced by Joey’s falsetto. The next photograph in the series shows me scowling directly into the lens, after Joey has moved on with his float, as if in doing so he has broken up with me. The fact that he was gone, and I knew he wasn’t coming back, ruined my mood for the rest of the day, if not the rest of the month.
The second time I saw him was more than ten years later, when I was home from college. Joey was on tour supporting his first solo record, and I went to the concert alone, after friends told me that, if I wanted them to come, I would have to pay for their tickets and an additional sum in order to make it worth their while. I was surrounded by women my own age, all of us more or less adults, all of us more or less pretending we were there out of some nostalgic curiosity. When the lights went out to signal that Joey was about to come on stage, I screamed, losing my voice in the chorus of screams around me. The sound was completely involuntary, and came from a part of my psyche so deep that I had genuinely forgotten that it was there.
Before the show in Madison, I was consumed with anxiety. My best friend sent me heart-shaped NKOTB earrings for my birthday, and I was wearing them, which made me feel both loyal and a little bit guilty. I didn’t want Joey to think I was one of those girls who only loved him for his past–I was there for contemporary Joey, Joey 2007, whose tour blog declared that his (self-released) record was made up of jazz standards.
There was a line outside the Orpheum stage door when we arrived. I am not used to being the thinnest person in the room, but Joey’s fans seemed to have increased in size, if not number. My boyfriend gave nods to the few other gentlemen who had escorted their ladies and then tried his best to blend in to the side of the building.
My fellow fans were, on the whole, female, white, and hovering somewhere in their thirties. Each one had a camera in her lap and drummed her fingers nervously. I snagged two seats in the front row while Mike went to the bathroom. My rough head count clocked eighty people; the room fit three hundred. When I was in elementary school, at the apex of my devotion, I was one of only a small handful of devotees among my classmates. It was neither cool nor uncool to love the New Kids; it was just My Thing. Now I found myself in a room packed with heavy, suburban-looking women, wearing flowery tunic tops and too much hairspray, women I would normally think that I had nothing in common with. We shared something so deep and profound that I wanted to throw my arms around each of them, which, after all, wouldn’t have taken more than about fifteen minutes. I struck up conversations with everyone I made eye contact with, and we were all buzzing with excitement. Finally: a sisterhood.
Mike came back looking stricken.
“What happened?” I asked him.
“There were two girls in the bathroom,” he said, “and one of them said, ‘I don’t care if we have to double-team him, I’m not leaving here without getting some.” I bought him a drink.
The house band–keyboards, drums, guitar, and upright bass–came on stage first. Joey trotted out with a smile, treating the stage as though it were larger than ten feet by six feet. He was dressed in a narrow black suit, complete with vest, and a matching fedora, stylishly askew. We swooned.
Joey started the show with a Nat King Cole song. He danced around the stage, snapping his fingers and using the mic stand as a dance partner. The applause, much to my surprise, was tepid. This did not escape Joey’s attention.
“Google Nat King Cole,” he told us. “It’s good music for necking.” Then he repeated the word necking a few times, realizing that it sounded odd. I laughed. Joey was funny. This was something I hadn’t seen before; in all the gloss and costumes, even the clasped, outstretched hands, there had been precious little human interaction. This Joey in front of me was more interesting. He had a gigantic, pulsing, throbbing chip on his shoulder.
His stage banter got weirder as the concert progressed. Despite the aforementioned heft of the audience, Joey seemed taken by our attractiveness. “Where were you back then?” he asked, referring to the group’s heyday. “You were babies. Babies! With enormous buttons.” Joey did an impression of a baby with a Flavor Flav–sized button around its neck, weighing it down, complete with “goo goo ga ga” noises. The crowd laughed. We knew how big the buttons were; we’d all had them. “Why couldn’t you switch places? Back then, you were babies, I couldn’t do anything about it, and now I’m married.” Marriage seemed to be a touchy issue for Joey. Before playing “My Funny Valentine,” he launched into the murky waters of extramarital temptations. “It’s okay to look,” he said. “You can get right up to the point, right up to the point”–here he used his hands to show us his two palms nearly touching–“as long as nothing happens, it’s not a sin.” We all knew Joey was raised Catholic, the youngest of nine children. We all understood where he was coming from. According to Wikipedia, Joey was the first person on MTV’s show Cribs to enter his bedroom and say, “this is where the magic happens.”
During the ballads, women would shyly get up from their seats and walk in pairs down the aisles in order to get a better picture. While most of the women were in dressy tops and jeans, one woman wore a 1940s-style dress and danced in the aisle. Joey clearly liked her best. Every time someone took a picture, Joey would turn his face toward the camera without actually acknowledging the photo being taken. This seemed all well and good until Joey did the inevitable and sang “Please Don’t Go Girl,” the song that launched a million first crushes, not to mention the song that I lip-synched at my tenth birthday party. Women gasped, then shrieked, then tried not to sing along at full volume. I took a thirty-second video with my camera, swaying in time with the music. The high notes weren’t as high, but the song seemed more plausible now, more authentic. Joey could have been singing to an actual person. He could have written the song himself. It’s unusual for me, as an adult who has zero interest in professional sports, to be in a room surrounded by people who are deeply moved simultaneously, and I felt woozy with connection.
Even after the New Kids on the Block song, our dearest and dirtiest wish come true, some of my fellow Blockheads were still not sated. Two women sitting at a table near the stage called out requests for more New Kids songs. Joey demurred, first politely, and then with more force. “What do you want me to sing, fucking ‘Popsicle’? Fuck you!” This was when Joey started to swear at the audience. “Popsicle” is a song on the very first New Kids record, released in 1986, when Joey was fourteen years old. “Fuck you!” Joey had seen his window of opportunity open and close. The crowd had turned. My boyfriend began to laugh, delighted that he was finally getting a show. I covered my mouth with my hands. Who were these girls, who would taunt our Joey so? I would have politely clapped through Irish step dancing, through magic tricks, through Tuvan throat singing. I wanted to muzzle the noisiest girls, to shut their mouths so that Joey would never know he hadn’t been a smash hit. “How many of you think I’m crazy?” Joey asked. Several people in the audience raised their hands.
The girls in the bathroom were right; sexual encounters were there to be had, if one understood the rules about temptation and intercourse. Joey was teetering on the edge, a place he’d likely been for years, since his first solo record. He wanted us to love him; no, he needed us to love him, enough to put up with our middling applause for the songs he wanted to sing. That was when I realized that what I felt for Joey was empathy. I’d known him so long, more than half my life. It was my dolls and buttons–my voice screaming at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade–that made it impossible for him to find any other career path satisfying. On stage, Joey tried to block us out and nodded his head as the other musicians soloed, snapping his fingers in time with the music. He was done with us.
I own a well-worn VHS copy of “Hangin’ Tough Live,” a concert video shot when Joey was a prepubescent teenager. In it, he skates along the surface of interaction with his fans, smiling up toward the lights. He keeps his distance from the screaming crowd, even while performing his pelvic thrusts, leaving it to Donnie Wahlberg to really wink at the fans, to smile, to suggest he might like to take the prettiest girl backstage and have his way with her. Joey, on the other hand, looks like an angelic child, his voice high and sweet, his movements gangly and boyish. At the time, Joey seemed to me to be a man, but he wasn’t. I’d had no idea.
Despite all of this, there was no way I was going to miss the meet and greet. The curtain had been pulled back, and we had all seen the wizard. No one was going to leave now. How many opportunities would I have to see Joey so close up? Surely he would recover. And true enough, ten minutes after the show was over, Joey wound his way through the mostly empty theater and took his spot in the lobby. Every woman in the audience got on line, and, one by one, we got our pictures taken and our CDs signed. While we waited, I agonized over what to say once he was standing in front of me. I thought about telling Joey that his birthday remains my ATM pin number, but decided that was too creepy.
By the time Mike and I reached the table, my entire body was vibrating. I know I hugged him, and I remember the satin back of his vest, and how blue his eyes were, but little else comes back to me. Even though I was aware that my reaction–compassion, affection, horror, pity–was complicated, the fact of Joey’s physical body in my arms made me quiver with excitement. Still scrambling for something to say, I offered the cringe-worthy “I even brought my boyfriend!” Joey, generous in the moment, looked toward Mike and then back at me, already resigned to hearing such sentences for the rest of his life. “You really owe him,” Joey said. I felt terrible. And yet, I had touched Joey. Joey had touched me. There was photographic proof. There was something about the longevity of my love for Joey that made it legitimate. Joey might be crazy, but I was, too. My heartbeat didn’t return to normal for several hours, maybe even a full day.
Almost exactly a year after the concert in Madison, Joey and the rest of the New Kids appeared on the Today show, officially announcing their reunion. The segment begins with Meredith Vieira and Natalie Morales standing outside the studio in the dripping rain. Thousands of fans line the metal barricades, many of them wearing New Kids T-shirts, hats, and the aforementioned dinner-plate-sized buttons. A giant red curtain falls, and there are the New Kids, all five of them, just standing there, like animals in a zoo.
“And what can we expect from the New Kids this time around?” Meredith asks.
“Three things,” Joey says. “The economy, health care, and job security.” He shakes his head, still unable to believe that he has committed himself to live this life all over again. “Long live the Block.” The hosts laugh politely and throw it back to Al Roker, on location outside a motel in Memphis, Tennessee. It is also the fortieth anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. Roker has a brief, solemn exchange with Al Sharpton before going back to Vieira and Joey and the New Kids, still mugging for the crowd and each other. Joey’s mouth is already open in the same practiced smile I’d seen him make over and over again. Danny’s face has mysterious lines. Donnie’s hairline is a memory. Jordan smiles dumbly and wanders slightly out of the frame. Did Joey really have to share a dressing room with Jordan Knight again? Some fates did seem more cruel than obscurity. The crowd, as zealous as ever, doesn’t flinch.
It can’t be a coincidence that the reunion came soon after the concert I saw. In my imagination, it was that one night that broke the camel’s back. Joey had seen the alternative route, the small crowds and tepid cheers, and he had made a choice. His was not going to be the life of an artist, with room for growth and change over time. Joey’s life was going to be static, frozen in place. The money would be better, but I was sure that wasn’t the issue. The decision that Joey had made was simple: it was better to be adored, no matter the cost.
Emma Straub’s debut story collection, Other People We Married, was published in February.