This month, to celebrate the Internet’s unbridled love for wallowing in nostalgia and even greater relishing of talking about why certain cultural artifacts are horrible, Sound of the City presents First Worsts, a series in which our writers remember the first time… they ever hated a song enough to call it The Worst. (And to be fair, we’re also going to see how these songs have stood the test of time.) To kick things off, Voice Music Editor Maura Johnston recalls the battle lines that were drawn by fans of two very different, yet not all that dissimilar boy bands during her heated middle-school years.
THE SONG: New Kids On The Block, “You Got It (The Right Stuff).”
THE YEAR: 1988.
THE REASONS: Champion t-shirts, middle school hallway-clogging.
It was in middle school that cultural appreciations really started to double as definitions of the self—the mashing-up of student pools from different elementary schools meant that there were more places to settle and figure out who you were, or who you might become at some point. For me—a nerdy kid who had made a lousy impression on the first day of being in a class made up entirely of unfamiliar honors-tracked kids by cracking a sarcastic “how uplifting” after the English teacher ran an elegiac poem—that meant answering one question: Were you a New Kid or a Guns N’ Roses girl?
New Kids On The Block, “You Got It (The Right Stuff)”
Thanks to some complicated machinations involving mean-girl cattiness, general unease, and a fight over the final Champion-branded t-shirt in a store at the local mall—not to mention a love for Axl Rose’s yawp and the top-hatted cool of Slash—I came down firmly on the side of the latter, which meant that I had to also come down firmly against the former. It was so easy to do, really. Culture was on my side in a way; boy bands like New Kids were pariahs, deemed “unserious” music even by the radio DJs that were playing them, so much so that they were even the target of a “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer” parody one Christmas.
So I sneered when girls in my class—or even younger ones, like my sister—would swoon over Joey McIntyre’s blue eyes or Jonathan Knight’s bashful smile, or when they’d impromptu-sing “Please Don’t Go Girl” in the halls. Even though a few years earlier I’d loved “Cool It Now” and similarly frothy offerings by their also Maurice Starr-crafted Boston-boy-band heirs New Edition, I had rebranded myself as a rocker chick with no time for silly boys who were dancing around and making frothy pop music. (Unless it was by Milli Vanilli.) (Or Erasure.) (Or… oh, you get the drill.)
And I had ire for “You Got It (The Right Stuff)” especially. The “oh-oh-oh-OH-oh” chorus that got stuck in my head even when I flipped the radio from Z100 to WPLJ with as much speed as I could muster; the dumb dancing in the video, which the girls who I tolerated more than I liked mimicked in the hallways; the five guys singing to one girl, or five, or maybe two or three? It was never that clear. It drove me crazy, that song—so crazy, in fact, that I was smug when it only peaked at No. 3 on the Hot 100. Ha ha, I thought to myself, see? You aren’t that popular. It was a repudiation of sorts of the social order, a sign that maybe in 10 or 15 years I might actually get out of my hometown and find people who could sneer with me and watch the Appetite-era Guns N’ Roses lineup play a show, solid in the knowledge that we actually had The Right Stuff, and smirking at the way that those silly girl-beloved bands were just flashes in the pan.
If only I’d known.
SO HOW IS IT NOW?
Let the record show that while in high school and somewhat unencumbered by the dramas of eighth grade, I did enjoy “Weird Al” Yankovic’s Oreo-themed parody (“The White Stuff”!) quite a bit. But it wasn’t until 1998 or so, after I’d been out of the college-radio wilds for a year, when I really grew to appreciate the craft behind this particular track. This was because I flipped on MuchMusic, the Canadian music-video channel that was beamed into Cablevision, while it aired a clip of a bunch of pretty dudes running around in vampire and werewolf makeup. The spangly pop of “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)” by the Backstreet Boys, the group in the video, hit me right in the ear in a good way, and it wasn’t long before I was tracing the boy band lineage back to my middle-school sore spot. And oh, did “You Got It” sound great when liberated from the French-fry-strewn cafeteria that doubled as a social minefield (and it sounds even sweeter now, in an era where the people I was positioning myself against are at least OK enough to be my friends on Facebook). Great harmonies, excellent pitter-patter drums, and—most importantly—that sumptuous chord change on the chorus. Why more songs don’t do that now I don’t know, since it’s one of those songwriting tricks that reels me in instantly.