Now that we've arrived at the end of the century, one can glance back over the decades and pinpoint the influential titans who shaped the music we hear in our heads, homes, and Walkmans: Robert Johnson. Hank Williams. Muddy Waters. The Beatles. Bob Dylan. And New Kids on the Block.
Yes, that's a joke or is it? The current invasion of dance-happy, earnestly harmonizing boy bands owes a huge debt (or at least an extra large tube of Oxy) to the New Kids, five Boston teens who were transformed by producer-songwriter-Svengali Maurice Starr into an adenoidal money machine in the '80s. All the ingredients that constitute a typical Backstreet Boys or 'N Sync hit can be glimpsed in the New Kids' Greatest Hits, the first-ever overview of their recorded oeuvre. The contemporary style of reedy, lover-boy ballads like Backstreet Boys' ''I'll Never Break Your Heart'' is rooted in ''I'll Be Loving You (Forever),'' just as the concept of injecting black-music rhythms into white-bread teen pop (think: 'N Sync's ''Tearin' Up My Heart'') is heard in the tinny-machine electro-funk of ''You Got It (The Right Stuff).'' (Greatest Hits makes clear that Starr merely updated the Pat Boone formula co-opting black music for white audiences for a new generation.) When the current boy bands try to show off their hardened side, they rap; the New Kids, operating in the days before hip-hop was mainstream, preferred flaunting ersatz metal guitars (''Hangin' Tough''). What cargoes are to parachute pants, the Backstreet Boys, 98 Degrees, 'N Sync, and Boyzone are to New Kids.
Besides an inevitably short shelf life, New Kids (who collapsed after one last album in 1994) share one other element with their late-'90s heirs: Their success had more to do with the marketing of a teen-dream fantasy than the music itself. As Greatest Hits repeatedly demonstrates, Starr had about, oh, two memorable moments in him: ''Step by Step,'' whose propulsive chorus makes you forget the song's lame ''step one...step two...'' midsection, and ''Let's Try It Again,'' a well-crafted homage to '70s upscale harmonizers the Stylistics. Otherwise, the Kids were saddled with a string of cliched, mall-bland pop (and, in the genuinely strange ''Tonight,'' their own slice of psychedelic pop call it Sgt. Pimple's Lonely Hearts Club Band). Their legend stands tall, but their music still doesn't.
Slipped inside the Greatest Hits CD is a card promoting the first solo work by a New Kid the artist formerly known as Joe (now Joey) McIntyre's Stay the Same. McIntyre may have added an extra letter to his first name to shave off a few years (he's 26), but he works overtime to convince us that he's beyond Kid stuff. One moment he's a Babyface-style balladeer (''I Cried,'' ''Stay the Same''); the next, he makes like a grown-up new-jack love man cruising with his posse (''Give It Up,'' ''Let Me Take You for a Ride''). Whatever it takes for a comeback, McIntyre's ready and willing. Want the retro-soul moves of Jamiroquai (''Because of You'')? No problem! Need to hear pallid rap shout-outs in the songs? You got it! Crave the overemoting of a male diva (''Without Your Love'') or a rewrite of the disco-era Frankie Valli/Bee Gees hit ''Grease'' (''We Can Get Down'')? Comin' up!
In that sense, McIntyre who just a few years ago forsook teen pop and was filming the starring role in an unreleased movie adaptation of the Off Broadway show The Fantasticks is still a New Kid at heart, shamelessly plundering any number of soul styles. There's no doubt he's a pro: His singing and the overall presentation are effortless and assured. But even coming from a former New Kid, Stay the Same is an oddly hollow project. McIntyre may be in sync with the charts and the trends, but it appears as if he's still a stranger to himself.
Greatest Hits: C
Stay the Same: C-