On June 11, 2011, New Kids on the Block, the (seminal? uber?? heart-throbbing???) 1980s boy band, played a sold-out show at Fenway Park. Enough time has passed now that I believe this occurrence can be discussed in a rational, emotionless manner – unless you are a woman, of a certain age, who happened to be at this concert. Then, all bets are off. If I were wagering in 1995, or even in 2001, I probably could have received better odds on the Red Sox winning the World Series before the end of time than on NKOTB playing a sold-out show at Fenway in 2011, or as the year is otherwise known, 20 years after New Kids on the Block first became popular. It was that improbable, that far removed from the potential landscape. But this was not simply one isolated show, a send-off of sorts for a group formed in The City of Boston. No, the group also played sold-out shows at places like Foxwoods and The Comcast Center. And apparently (improbably?) has more shows later this year in places like Orlando and London. If this were not unbelievable enough, then consider that these shows were played with the Backstreet Boys – in some sort of perverse, boy-band gang bang, mind you – a group that became popular two years after NKOTB broke up. So, the question that has to be asked is: How did this all happen?
The music industry, particularly the concert tour scene, has always relied on established fan bases to fill seats. That’s why you still see bands, or perverse versions of bands, like Led Zeppelin, the Grateful Dead and even Sublime still performing. That’s why I recently received a Live Nation email advertising concerts by Huey Lewis & The News, Motley Crue, and Peter Frampton. To wit, here’s the list of the top grossing concerts for 2010:
Bon Jovi – $201 million
AC/DC – $177 million
U2 – $161 million
Lady Gaga – $134 million
Metallica – $110 million
Michael Buble – $104 million
Paul McCartney – $93 million
The Eagles – $92 million
Roger Waters – $90 million
Other than Lady Gaga, none of those musicians or bands have been relevant in at least a decade, and that’s only because U2 released All That You Can’t Leave Behind in 2001 after being, more or less, irrelevant for the previous decade. So why is there an inverse relationship between cultural relevance and the ability to sell expensive concert seats? That is, why is it that as a band becomes less popular, it also becomes more popular (at least in some way)? The answer would seem to be nostalgia. (I realize that there’s a demographic explanation here – that older people with more advanced careers and higher incomes can afford to spend more on discretionary items like concert tickets than the teenagers to whom most modern music is marketed; however, it also means that those same people are willing to spend more on bands that have not been relevant for decades).
Nostalgia is an interesting elixir – a sort of all-purpose, all-body cleanser that washes away pieces of the past and leaves us feeling clean and whole and good. It is a time machine and a particle decelerator, able to transport you to a time when everything in the world coalesced in a perfect moment, and you could see everything clearly, all at once, like Keanu Reeves in The Matrix, like streaming fluorescent green strings of computer code (sort of), perfectly, as if you were seeing the world for the first time, and that moment was the only moment that ever existed or mattered. Nostalgia may also, simply, be a psychological survival mechanism. For better or worse, we tend to remember the good experiences and good people, and forget – or at least suppress - the bad ones. Nostalgia helps us forget things that we might be better off not remembering.
Here’s what I tell people I remember about my senior year at UMass: the origins of this website, for one; busy afternoons spent putting out a decent newspaper with people I liked and respected and, occasionally, engaged in office wiffle ball; endless nights spent with good friends at crowded bars; the freedom to take whatever classes I wanted, having completed the requirements of my major; spending time with my sister and my best friend at a place I loved; pick-up basketball games.
I also remember being emotionally crippled for the first two months of my senior year, having endured a heart-rending breakup during the previous summer, and a series of, in retrospect, ludicrous circumstances that thereafter strained (and broke) longtime friendships. It was a complete downward spiral. I know this because in the Fall 2000 Back to School issue of our newspaper, I wrote a column which concluded with this sentence: “I am 20 years old, and I have lost all faith in humanity.” And it was the truest thing I have ever written.
I don’t think that this discrepancy is some form of agency problem – that there’s a conflict between what actually happened and what I want people to believe happened. It’s not even that I prefer to remember the good things over the bad things. It’s simply that I do remember the bullet-stopping, green computer code moments more than the two-month pile of shit. On balance, I am nostalgic for that time period.
Chuck Klosterman recently suggested ( in this podcast I think) that nostalgic (he didn’t use this word) music fans will attend a concert, even of a band that they did not like originally, as long as the band playing was popular/relevant during their teenage years. It’s an interesting, and unprovable, assertion; though, anecdotally, it would help explain why our list above has such a heavy ’80s focus to it - those fans having achieved the necessary levels of personal career success and nostalgia to shell out consistently large dollars for concert tickets. A thought process like the following is pretty remarkable: In 1983, I never liked this band, nor the music they played, nor, perhaps, even the genre of music they embodied, but now, almost 30 years later, I want to see them perform music live to be reminded of 1983. It speaks, yes, to the deep emotional connection we have to music and, yes, to the fondness we associate with adolescence – primarily experiencing defining moments of self-identity, glimpsing our first hints of independence and hormones – but also to the allure of nostalgia. No matter how great any adolescence is, it is inevitably marred by clashes with parents, serious self-doubts about personal appearance, fear of rejection (and many times, things much worse than these). Yet, evidence suggests people are willing to pay lots of money to be reminded of music from their adolescence - perhaps even music they never listed to during adolescence.
During one of my favorite scenes in Garden State, Zach Braff’s character is talking about growing older and becoming more removed – physically and spiritually - from his sense of home; he explains that at some point, the place where you grew up, perhaps even the place where your parents still live, is no longer home. He concludes by saying, “Maybe that’s all family is – a group of people who miss the same imaginary place.” I think maybe the same is true about nostalgia.
So, here’s a concession: My original question does not have a good answer. There is no explanation that New Kids on the Block and the Backstreet Boys sold out Fenway Park in the year 2011, at least not for me. I couldn’t understand it; in fact, it still kind of fries my brain. But that’s the thing about nostalgia: it’s irrational and emotionally-charged and personalized. To get it, you had to be there (again).