“I once believed that my flame of passion for NKOTB was eternal. I now believe that $45 is an offensive amount of money to charge for a cheap concert T-shirt, and that any band famous from the ’90s should do their songs from the ’90s“, writes blogger Beth Spotswood in her review of the ‘Main Event’ in San Jose. I love reading concert reviews, and even more if they’re about boy band from the late ’90s who took up touring again. So, let me use this review (which I consider an example of how many people probably feel about such events) to shed a light on aging stars and their fans.
Now, let me start again with stating that this is not a personal attack or anything on Spotswood and her experience of the event. Many of the people I tell about my research (& even a few of those who I talked to for some of the cases I work on) give off a similar feeling, and question why on earth a boy band would produce new songs? Or why a boy band – now a men band – would stick around? And what about those ‘screaming girls’, are they still there?
I like to think that such questions are driven by curiosity – that’s what got me researching this. There’s an enormous revival of ’90s and ’00s acts going on (think about all those ’90s parties – the Big Reunion – but also the tours of Boyzone, the Backstreet Boys and New Kids on the Block). But this has been going on for quite a while now. On the one hand, this ties neatly in with the high nostalgia factor currently present in society. On the other hand, I would argue that this is about ‘aging’, and not just facing the aging of the star (who’s career it is to perform, why don’t we find it problematic if actors stick around growing old gracefully?), but also facing your own aging (yes, you might be a mom now, or working on your career – and for both music from the past might be something to relax with).
Nostalgia or Aging – the Fan-side
What bugs me really about the review Spotswood wrote – and in which these elements of aging pop up, are moments like this she writes about:
“To say that I deeply loved Joseph Mulrey McIntyre would be an understatement. But I am now 37 years old, I had to put on my glasses to see the stage, my ears have been ringing for the past 3 hours, and it’s 11 p.m. on a Sunday. Put on your shirt, Joe. It’s past my bedtime.” These statements are still very personal, reflecting on her aging (I had to put on my glasses, my ears kept ringing, it’s 11pm on a sunday), asides the ‘put your shirt on’…A bit further in her review she refers to the other people attending the concert: “The SAP Center was about 75% full, jam-packed with women our age wearing NKOTB T-shirts and statement necklaces.” Women ‘our age’ are 37 – and apparently not allowed to wear NKOTB T-shirts? Why not? If the 37-year old husband (or partner) of the women wear jerseys to support their local baseball, basketball, soccer – or whatever team! – no one will point that out.
What then, is it that we do emphasize this when discussing a female fandom? For many fans wearing a band-shirt is – alike the sports fans – a way to express their love for the band, or to demonstrate their proud of the band & being a fan of them. Others buy it as a souvenir (the concert is an intangible experience, you can’t take it home) to have a tangible item to connect to the memory. For some it might also be a habit or concert attire: to have that specific shirt of that specific tour – as a personal archive item, to remember that they witnessed that tour. Plus, it is also a way – to go to this concert & to be active and ‘out’ your fandom – to reclaim that specific part of your youthful identity, an element that sprung even further in a Twitter conversation I had about this with Bertha Chin and Eva Hayles Gledhill: (read from bottom to top)
Nevertheless, there is the other 25% Spotswood doesn’t reflect upon in her review – what are they wearing? And why aren’t they wearing the shirt? Many of the fans I spoke to like to dress up for the concerts, buy unique outfits for every concert or afterparty they attend. Is that crazy? Let me then ask you: Do you wear the same thing every Friday when (if) you go clubbing or if you go to a friend’s birthday? Now, I don’t want to be defending these fans, but I do want the experiences described in the review to be contextualized a bit stronger, and to give it some nuance in how this ‘behavior’ might actually already be present in everyday life.
Nostalgia or Aging – the Star-side
“Occasionally, the fellas would break into a song we knew, but NKOTB did an alarming number of recent songs, as if any of them were ever played on the radio” – There’s a lot of discussion – among fans, but also among producers – whether these ‘reunion’ groups should actually give in to making a new album. Boyzone did, the Backstreet Boys did so too, and NKOTB is apparently doing it as well. The boys – ok, created by a producer that’s one of the elements that makes the group a boy band – might consider this a new shot at fame too and see this as a commercial opportunity. But, remember that this is also what got the band together in the past: their love for music. And what you – as a fan – were attracted to besides their looks. At least, that’s my assumption. That your music taste might have changed over the years is normal – this happens. But I’m not sure whether you can expect from a band to only play classics (the way the classics were framed – even more interesting). Music evolves, musical taste and style develops, and so does the band.
Lastly, one of the observations Spotswood describes: “Joe, now 41 and the father of three, is no longer baby-faced“. Joe, one of the band members grew older – obviously this is visible (although – there are some people who don’t seem to age…). He is a father of 3 – yes, why not if your a 41-y old man? It feels a little like male objectification/the female gaze here – the idol from one’s youth that should never grow old, or ‘desexualize’ in some way. The fans I interviewed often found it great that some of the Backstreet Boys had become dads – they could relate to being a parent (it makes the BSB ‘more human’), and some of the songs became much more meaningful to them having this understanding that they are now parents too (like some of the interviewed fans). Think about the recent posts about men and their ‘dad bods‘ – even Stars grow older… and there’s just things that happen to our bodies when we grow older.
All in all, I can see how the concert Spotswood attended didn’t live up to her expectations – she went there to have a good night, like old times, with her NKOTB-friends. What she got was NKOTB 2.0: different songs, no babyfaces & 5 men working their hardest to offer these women a great show. Spotswood realized she transformed – from a Joe-girl to a Jordan-girl (who had aged ‘best’ according to her). In my opinion, her fandom has changed too – from a teenage crush who saw the band and the world rose-tinted, to an adult who sees the flaws and imperfections of the band and the world. And who, as far as I can review, rather had a time-machine to travel back to 1989.