Oct 10

NEW KIDS ON THE BLOCK – “Hangin’ Tough”

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#639, 13th January 1990

The video for “Hangin’ Tough” flicks between scenes of the New Kids in concert – watched by air-punching and weeping fans – and images of them street-dancing in sync on a graffiti-heavy background. One of them hefts a baseball bat – cut to the concert and it’s a jacket, which he hurls moodily to the floor. Underneath he’s wearing a T-Shirt, black-on-white lettering, Katharine Hammett style: “HOME BOY”.

If the cultural coding of the New Kids wasn’t pretty obvious already, “Hangin’ Tough” makes it absurdly glaring. The kids are streetwise, tough guys, but “streetwise” and “tough” now mean nothing but “hip-hop”. And a particular version of hip-hop, too – at a time when rap itself was splintering in twenty different directions, a cartoon image of urban youth gained currency: B-Boying, shape-throwing, high on attitude, vaguely New York, not necessarily black. One massive source for this – especially in Britain where they were the first hip-hop act to have household name pop-culture impact – is the Beastie Boys, and you can definitely hear a low-alcohol, decaf version of the Beasties in the snotty bark the New Kids use here.

Every 90s boy band who tried to be tough as well as tender – which is most of them – owed something to this hand-me-down idea of hip-hop. We’ll see it repeatedly as the decade goes on, though never quite this egregious again. Musically, “Hangin’ Tough” is crude but effective – a basic stomp-stomp-clap beat, a chant, an electro riff: take out the horrible guitar solo and it could have been intriguingly dirty. But this approach needs frontmen who are absolutely convincing, and the New Kids fall terribly short. The “We’re rough!” and “Are you tough enough?” shouts wouldn’t fool a five-year old. At least it’s funny.

Even though strictly speaking it’s a hangover from ’89, this is the perfect opener for 1990’s Number Ones, which provide us with a grand tour of hip-hop inauthenticity: rapping Europeans, rapping footballers, rapping queens of pop, kids’ TV tie-in raps, all leading up to – well, wait and see. Some of these records were excellent: all are better than “Hangin’ Tough”, but it’s this one which provides the decade’s boy bands with a crucial part of their DNA.



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  1. 31
    MikeMCSG on 21 Oct 2010 #

    # 25 I think you have to give RUN DMC or more cogently. Rick Rubin, equal credit on that score.

    Interesting that in chart terms The Beasties’ c.v. isn’t that impressive – nothing for Tom or Lena to dicuss, only one LP for Marcello.

  2. 32
    Steve Mannion on 21 Oct 2010 #

    re #15 check the video for “Tonight”, and the Kid wearing a hash-leaf t-shirt that is pixellated out

    isn’t it just an AdiDAS logo? this was the first time i’d seen a pixelled out logo in a music vid.

  3. 33
    punctum on 21 Oct 2010 #

    #31: as with all such things, this means that TPL entry #595 is going to be a fairly long one.

  4. 34
    Matthew H on 21 Oct 2010 #

    On the one hand, the Beasties inspired kids like me to grow intelligent beards and make terrific jazz-hip-hop mixtapes, on the other they led to my mate snapping the badge off a Mercedes. Yes, a Mercedes.

    NKOTB, well, they firmed up a template that produced some decent pop even if they never quite had the chops themselves. They just seemed so squaaaare. ‘Hangin’ Tough’ is of course rank, a showcase for “street” “smart” Donnie Wahlberg to look all unconvincing. I was disappointed in the British public – they should have been obsessed with Happy Mondays or The House Of Love. Or, erm, My Jealous God.

  5. 35
    Chelovek na lune on 21 Oct 2010 #

    #32 I must admit I wondered that as well; possibly, I guess.

    Maybe I am being too Holden Caulfieldish in my attempts to describe the Kids as “phoneys”…

    It strikes me that by far the best track of this broad genre (and not a #1 so we can mention it in passing) is Justin Timberlake’s “Rock Your Body”; its proficient, it has a really rather decent rap, and the pay-off line, in context, “Gonna have you naked by the end of this song” sounds far more convincing than the NKOTB menaces here.

  6. 36
    Tom on 21 Oct 2010 #

    There’s a sort of law-of-averages effect at work with JT: if you’re going to ask people in boy bands to approximate street culture, and if hip-hop and R’n’B are increasingly the bedrock of that street culture, then the chances of getting people in your boy bands who can actually do it well begin to increase, even if that was no way your intention going in.

    Of course, once this actually happens, it has massive implications for streetwise-ness in teen pop. This is a story we’ll get to tell, though.

  7. 37
    MikeMCSG on 21 Oct 2010 #

    #33 We’re presuming #108 is quite a lengthy one too :-)

  8. 38
    punctum on 21 Oct 2010 #

    Probably not; #108 is a bit late this week due to a combination of lousy weather on Tuesday, resultant colds and um Jamie’s 30 Minute Meals but I’m typing it up tonight.

  9. 39
    Erithian on 21 Oct 2010 #

    A common feature of looking up these videos on YouTube is the comments section where people invariably go “Aah, 80s music, so much better than the crap that’s out today”. Often, understandably, linked to what their 20-years-younger selves were doing. Here too, you get the likes of “Boy this brings back memories – I loved them then and still do – Joey is so cute!” Looking at the chicks in the audience in the video clip, you wonder what they’re doing now and how fondly they look back at the whole thing.

    As for me, I’m back at boot camp saying to the whole sorry bunch, “It’s a no from me.”

    Just looked at the vid for “Tonight”. Marginally better, but still the sort of thing Gary Barlow would write when he woke up in the middle of the night, look at in the morning, blame it on a cheese sandwich and file under W.P.B.

  10. 40
    ParkyPark on 23 Oct 2010 #

    Hello all

    I am new to Popular and at present in 1986 trying to catch up

    As Donnie’s brother gave me my, hopefully ironic, nickname I thought this would be an ideal opportunity to say hello and to say how much I am enjoying your comments

    Pretty average fare from NKOTB so a 3 from me as well but my comment would be that for me this record highlights an issue about the 90’s in general.

    My memory was that the New Kids were rightfully pilloried in the UK for their supposedly tough image at this time not entirely representing what they were.

    My question would be as Record companies became ever more sophisticated in creating images and personas to sell more product, as a reaction to this did we as an audience develop a greater cynicism in the nineties and demand that the acts were somehow more authentic?

    In the Eighties I always felt that authenticity mattered less but we will soon see Seattle bands dismissed for being opportunistic and not Grungy enough, Sylvie Young Theatre pupils criticised for acting at Hangin’ Tough and not being actually tough and a Colchester band mocked for being Mockney.

    I appreciate that some of this will be coming up (Is this what you mean by Bunnyable?)and we may not be able to discuss it.

    The next record featured was No1 on my 18th birthday so it may just have been I started to become more cynical about the music industry but interested what other think in general?

  11. 41
    wichita lineman on 25 Oct 2010 #

    Hello Parky. Not an explanation, but looking back at the mid 90s it seems beyond belief that this trend peaked (or troughed) with two of pop’s major players taking their lives because they felt they couldn’t live up to the ‘authentic’ ideals they had placed upon themselves. It’s pretty much impossible in the digital, ad-raddled, Crass-on-itunes-but-not-Spoitify age to imagine a singer or guitarist committing suicide for fear of being seen as a sell-out. Or am I just out of touch with tha kids?

    I’m intrigued to know where the perceived split between ‘authentic’ and ‘commercial’ in pop first began. Bob Dylan?

    Hopefully not baiting the bunny there.

  12. 42
    MichaelH on 25 Oct 2010 #

    @41 Maybe the first massive, for-obvious-commercial gain split between authenticity and commerciality came in the 1930s, when the folklorist Alan Lomax befriended and began promoting Leadbelly. Leadbelly was former convict, so Lomax ordered him – against the singer’s will – to wear prison overalls on stage, knowing that a white audience would not want to see a black man dressed in a clean and pressed suit, that the way to reach the largest audience possible was to present a noble savage. American folk musics, especially, have tended to be presented in massively contrived ways, despite their apparent authenticity being their main selling point. Faking It, by Yuval Taylor and Guy Barker (pub Faber) details this very well.

  13. 43
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 25 Oct 2010 #

    Seeing as Edison kicked Rachmaninov out of his studios with the immortal words “you;re a pounder sir! a pounder!” (Edison was deaf in one ear and anyway disliked music) there’s a case for saying that the relationship between producer/manager and artiste is ALWAYS the structural foundation of this tension… artiste wanting to do (a) but professionally canny adviser forcing them to do (b) instead…

    So I’m gnna go with little Wolfie Mozart’s tiny tot tours under the instruction of his dad Leopold…

    Or — less cheekily — Barnum touring Jenny Lind the Swedish Nightingale?

    (I’ve never read George Du Maurier’s “Trilby”, but it was a super-popular 1890s novel about this kind of stuff — Trilby’s svengali is a fellow called, oops, SVENGALI! Who hypnotises her into being a Diva… )

    (and yes! Trilby wears a trilby!)

  14. 44
    punctum on 25 Oct 2010 #

    Probably the first music producer was Pope Gregory I at the tail end of the sixth century when he tidied up all those awkward free-form chants which were being used or (more commonly) improvised throughout different strands of Catholic churches in Europe and set them to a standard musical procedural for common use (i.e. the Gregorian chant). There may be earlier Hebrew and/or Byzantine precedents but this is most likely the first occasion when the form of music is imposed from outside circles of musicians.

  15. 45
    wichita lineman on 25 Oct 2010 #

    Faking It is one of my dozen favourite music books. I suppose, for no good reason, I was thinking of the modern pop era,Rock Around The Clock onwards. No one, for instance, thinks of Bill Haley as inauthentic. The r&r era seemed to by-pass this mire and the punk/diy era took it to an extreme.

  16. 46
    pink champale on 25 Oct 2010 #

    it took me a while to work out who the second major player was – at first all i could think of was poor rob from milli vanilli!

    agree that ‘faking it’ is a brilliant book. i think maybe there’s too slightly different splits. there’s the traditional authentic vs commercial (i.e. doing what you do for the love of it and if anyone else likes it its a bonus vs compromising with the man to make it) this was kurts problem (among others) and i think i’d agree that this peaked as something people really cared about with grunge and has since declined –on a localised level maybe a lot to do with britpop deliberately stepping over that line, for better and worse, but probably also a lots to do with a more general societal acceptance that in a consumer capitalist world there’s not really any way to avoid being compromised.

    maybe because of this, the idea of ‘real’ vs ‘fake’ on a personal level seems a lot more important now both for pop and for young people generally (judging by what i see on big brother). so you get fans of the x-factor (none more beyond the pale according to the first test) hating on Katie because she’s somehow failed the second test by presenting herself on the show in a way that doesn’t quite tally with the biographical details of her life. (i thought she was great on Saturday, incidentally).

    having read ‘bring the noise’ over the weekend, with its ‘white music does this, black music does that’ running theme, i’m duty bound to say that both these things have probably always worked slightly differently in mainly black and mainly white music cultures.

  17. 47
    Tom on 25 Oct 2010 #

    Isn’t there a bit in Awopbopaloobopalopbamboom where Nik Cohn writes about his enormous disappointment at seeing Bill Haley in the jowly flesh? That could have just been late-60s revisionism tho.

  18. 48
    punctum on 25 Oct 2010 #

    Not really; it was a common reaction – Haley came here in 1957 to a hero’s welcome but once the audiences saw him close up they realised that he didn’t quite fit the bill. Note the abrupt drying up of Haley UK hits from early ’57, which was a direct consequence of this.

    The current problem – namely, the international lingua franca of accepted modes of Soul, Passion and Honesty and the main reason why you can’t stand The X-Factor – stems from early eighties guilt about New Pop.

  19. 49
    Chelovek na lune on 25 Oct 2010 #

    #44 That is as it may be, but I maintain that Gregory VII remains the only pope to be celebrated in house music: Human Resource’s classic “Dominator” (“I’m bigger and bolder and rougher and tougher, in other words sucker there is no other”) being as clear an illustration of his understanding of the role of the papacy and its relation to the secular powers of Europe as anything he wrote himself. If only they had thought to record a version in Latin.

  20. 50
    swanstep on 25 Oct 2010 #

    Second major player = elliot smith?

    At any rate, I don’t believe smith was eaten up by stardom/authenticity/faking it kind o’ worries, he was just a tragically lonely and insecure guy (this is from reading about him and from knowing people in Portland who knew him a little).

  21. 51
    Tom on 25 Oct 2010 #

    “I wanna bless myself”

  22. 52
    Tom on 25 Oct 2010 #

    #48 I enjoy the X Factor a great deal! The records it causes are another matter.

  23. 53
    punctum on 25 Oct 2010 #

    #50 – I think he’s referring to a Welshman.

  24. 54
    pink champale on 25 Oct 2010 #

    yes, i thought so too. though “major player” might be pushing it a bit. (also not sure how much 4 realness had to do with it).

  25. 55
    Chelovek na lune on 25 Oct 2010 #

    Ah, I see. I thought it was an Aussie (who was once involved with another Aussie, the performer of the next #1 after this one) being referred to ….

  26. 56
    wichita lineman on 25 Oct 2010 #

    A Welshman, yes. Well I’m definitely stepping into the bunny’s lair if I have to defend him as a major player! Obviously I don’t know the reasons why he disappeared but after all their promises (committing suicide on totp etc) i wouldn’t doubt he felt compromised. More on this subject later, I’m sure.

    Bill Haley was a disappointment to uk audiences because he was jowly, not because he was inauthentic. It was purely a visual problem.

  27. 57
    Steve Mannion on 25 Oct 2010 #

    And I thought Gary Barlow/Robbie Williams were hard done by…

  28. 58
    Mutley on 25 Oct 2010 #

    #48 and #56 No doubt Bill Haley’s jowly appearance contributed to his decline in the UK, but that was not the only reason. He was already in decline before he came to the UK in early ’57, despite being mobbed on arrival. His time was the early part of ’56 when he had little competition in rock’n’roll records in the UK. From mid ’56 others started to appear in the charts (notably Elvis)and teenagers had more choice of artists on which to spend their limited money. Bill had continuing minor success in ’57, but he had run out of steam and his records deteriorated, symbolised by “(You hit the wrong note)Billy Goat”, which, with a title like that, was an open target for critical abuse by Radio Luxembourg DJs such as Gus Goodwin. Probably because of this rapid decline, he has never really recovered the important position he should hold in the history of rock’n’roll.

  29. 59
    wichita lineman on 25 Oct 2010 #

    Thanks for that Luxembourg info, Mutley. Most of the R&R originators had short but intense chart runs and their decline is normally blamed on non-pop reasons – plane crash, jail, army, jowls. But Buddy Holly’s fame was fading before he died: his last single Heartbeat, though a Top 10 hit for Showaddywaddy and Nick Berry later, only reached 30 in the UK and 82 in the US; Fats Domino had 20 UK hits but 7 were in the first year; Little Richard likewise had most of his hits in the first 12 months; Jerry Lee Lewis’s records, child bride issues aside, just got pretty ropey in ’59 after High School Confidential.

  30. 60
    Billy Smart on 27 Dec 2010 #

    MMWatch: The Stud Brothers, January 13 1990;

    “New Kids On The Block are five small American adolescents full of weak American bravado. Backed by a superannuated hip hop beat they warn us in squeaky unison not to cross their paths or, God help us, we’re “gonna get stopped” and, if we try to keep them down they’re “gonna come right back”. Would you be surprised if we said we don’t believe them? Would you be surprised if we suggested that the sweet and diminutive Kate Bush could have all five of the little pricks with her hands tied behind her back? Would you be shocked that *we would* have the sweet and diminutive Kate Bush if she *did* have her hands tied behind her back? Would you be violently repulsed if we stated in no uncertain terms that if we ever see your ugly face again, yes *you*, we’ll beat you senseless with a baseball bat and sodomise you again and again until you die?

    Hangin’ tough. That’s us.”

    The Brothers awarded single of the week to ‘Enter’ by Static. Also reviewed that week;

    Public Enemy – Welcome To The Terrordome
    Terence Trent D’Arby – To Know Someone Deeply Is To Know Someone Softly
    Adamski – NRG
    Jimmy Somerville – Mighty Real
    Yell – Instant Replay
    Lonnie Gordon – Happenin’ All Over Again

  31. 61
    Patrick Mexico on 2 Mar 2016 #

    @61: File the Kate Bush comments under “you couldn’t say that these days” misogyny klaxon! Reads like something from UniLad.. oh dear! :-/ :D

    I’m sometimes worryingly defensive of this “song”, I think the appeal is in the sheer so-bad-its-good bluntness of it all, and the Anthony Soprano Jr. middle-class suburban white boy posturing at being “street” which makes me positively roflcopter. Though if 1989/90 was a fertile, flowering garden of pop, they were one of Groundskeeper Willie’s unneccessary trumps. (Pun fully intended.) 4.

  32. 62
    Izzy on 3 Mar 2016 #

    61: you should take a look at their later video for ‘Games’, if posturing is your thing. Donnie poncing about in a Malcolm X jacket iirc. I have no idea who was supposed to be the audience for that one.

    I always liked him though, and he’s turned out good. I really enjoy his work on Blue Bloods.

  33. 63
    MUSICALITY on 24 Apr 2017 #

    Ok so New Kids did kick start the modern era style boyband but their songs were and are just so awful!
    The boybands who followed them were far superior in all aspects.

  34. 64
    Stephen Emmett on 4 Apr 2020 #

    Interestingly, the week that this climbed (not debuted straight in – it went at No.9 the previous week) to Number One was also the very same week that Radio 1 had a brand new Top 40 theme tune for their chart show, which, coincidentally, launched one day before the rest of the then-new 1990 jingle package.

    # 1 – That artwork was actually the American 7 inch artwork. At the time, most Americans were only used to getting company or plain white sleeves with their 7 inches, so picture sleeves were becoming rarer.

  35. 65
    Gareth Parker on 29 Apr 2021 #

    There’s plenty of attitude here but not much of a song! 4/10

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