“New Kids on the Block” (1990) & “Hammerman” (1991)

I was pretty sure I came up with a word for what I do here, and that word is “nonstalgia,” looking back on something from my youth without any particular fondness, but rather a grudging “Yeah, that happened, I’m not going to pretend I don’t remember it.” It seemed like such a clever word, maybe not necessarily the next “humblebrag,” but certainly something close to it.

Then, of course, I Googled it and found a listing for it in Urban Dictionary, because any word you could possibly make up, even your own name, will have a listing in Urban Dictionary already. Nevertheless, I’m keeping it, because I can’t think of a better word than “nonstalgia” for how I feel about, say, New Kids on the Block, one of (if not the) biggest pop acts of my late teen years. I wasn’t cool enough to like New Kids on the Block. I wasn’t cool enough to not like New Kids on the Block. I had no strong feelings one way or another about New Kids on the Block, and believed that if I tried to pretend as if I did, I would be sniffed out as a traitor in the midst, a poseur, and shunned for my efforts. This manner of thinking ensured that I was very popular in high school, and had many dates.

Somebody had strong feelings about New Kids on the Block, however, and that led to a Saturday morning cartoon named for them which, despite their stunning popularity, sank without a trace after just one season. A shabby mix of animation and live action clips, it looks like something that should have been included as a bonus on a music video collection, viewed once and then fast forwarded past to get to “Cover Girl.” See how much I remember about New Kids on the Block, without having to look them up, without even particularly liking them? I can’t even remember my family’s phone numbers.

The premiere episode opens with New Kid Jordan Knight, in the flesh, talking about how much he enjoys being constantly harassed by ardent fans. “Girls, attack me! I’m gonna love it, it’s gonna be great!” he says, in a tone that could reasonably be interpreted as sarcastic, but probably not presented as such. Nevertheless, Jordan would prefer someone who wasn’t impressed with his stardom, who hasn’t picked up a magazine or turned on a radio any time within the past year. “I just wish that I could find a girl who would love me for who I am,” he says wistfully, as the scene cuts to a group of fans holding up a giant sign reading I ♥ JORDAN, and then everything turns into a cartoon.

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The show treats NKOTB’s fans, not always flatteringly, as a single-minded, organized collective, maintaining an underground control center so they can constantly keep tabs on the boys, and hiding in trash cans to spy on them. The fans swarm the hotel where they’re are staying, forcing them to remain locked in their room. Donnie and the rest of the boys find it amusing, but Jordan again states his desire to find a girl who loves him not because he’s a millionaire pop star, but because he’s a millionaire ordinary guy.

Luckily, their hotel comes equipped with all the amenities, such as a mini-fridge, free HBO, and five sheik robes, which the boys put on and sneak past both their put-upon bodyguard, and the fans. They go to the local mall in disguise, determined to find a girl who’s never heard of New Kids on the Block. This proves a frustrating task, however, as white girls, black girls, punk girls, nerdy girls, all go into fits of shrieking hysteria when merely shown a photograph of one of the boys. It’s not just that they know who they are, it’s that they can’t even hear them mentioned without sobbing or passing out.

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Meanwhile, Khalilah, a princess from some unspecified Middle Eastern country, lives with her father in a palace decked out to look like the Morocco pavilion at EPCOT. Her father, King Ahmed (who dresses in full Sheik of Araby gear, including a jeweled sword on a belt, even though they live in Beverly Hills), orders one of his servants to find “five modern American men” for Khalilah to choose from as a husband. The servant ends up accidentally picking up the New Kids as they flee the mall, and brings them back to the palace, where Khalilah and Jordan fall in love at first sight. It’s declared that they will marry, and while Jordan’s cool with that, the rest of the boys aren’t. When they try to leave, however, King Ahmed’s servant threatens to decapitate them.

Meanwhile, back at the hotel, the New Kids’ bodyguard and manager are just getting around to noticing that they’ve broken out of their room. “If they miss this concert, it’ll cause an international incident!” the manager cries. Speaking of international incidents, King Ahmed’s servant doesn’t let up on his murderous threats. While trying to escape, Jordan overhears Khalilah protesting their impending marriage. It seems that–doh hoh hoh!–she wants someone who loves her for who she is, not because she’s a billionaire princess. She helps Jordan and the rest of the guys flee (on camels, obviously), and once they return to the hotel, things are set straight with King Ahmed. “Khalilah and I are really cool together,” Jordan says, about a young woman he’s met a half hour ago. “But gettin’ married’s just not hip right now.”

Impressed by the sage wisdom of this American youth, King Ahmed gravely states “Jordan speaks the truth: the modern way,” and the wedding is called off. Naturally, it turns out that Khalilah not only knows who New Kids on the Block are, but they’re, of course, her favorite group. Why doesn’t she recognize them initially? Who cares? In the world of New Kids on the Block, not a single female, regardless of age, race, color, creed, or nationality, is immune to the charms of these five lovable schmucks from Boston, greeting their presence with nothing less than piercing screams of excitement.

Jordan tells Khalilah that he’s going to dedicate a song at the concert “especially for you,” which gives way to several minutes of live footage as NKOTB performs their hit “I’ll Be Loving You Forever,” and it can be safely assumed that, in real life, Jordan probably did, in fact, say that to all the girls.

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Because I try to make some rudimentary attempt at seeing the good in everything, I will say that, as opposed to the variety show created for the Bay City Rollers, New Kids on the Block was wisely produced while its namesake boy band was still at the peak of their career. At the time the cartoon premiered, it was possible to call a hotline where, for $2 the first minute (45 cents each additional minute), you could listen to the New Kids read from a script (and presumably pretend they were talking directly to you). They still owned most of the real estate on the cover of teen magazines, and a healthy part of MTV’s primetime airwaves too. The iron could not have possibly been hotter. Nevertheless, it looks every bit like the rush job it was, and evidently the finished product the production company received from the animators was such a mess that it had to be “patched” with random cutaways to concert and interview footage that only vaguely related to what was happening in the cartoon. One can assume that this was passed off as supercool video effects, but ended up making the show look like, as the TV Tropes page for it noted, “a YouTube Poop of itself.”

Considering fully half the show is dedicated to clips of the real New Kids, it’s unclear as to why the production company just didn’t go one step (by step, hooooaahhhh) further and have them provide their own voices. Instead, they got actors who sound nothing like them–in fact, it could be the same actor, but it’s hard to tell because most of the New Kids only get one or two very brief lines of dialogue in the entire episode–and spoke with the accent of a minor character in a 70s Scorsese movie (and suggesting there isn’t an appreciable difference is like suggesting there’s no difference between New York and Chicago style pizza–you’re basically asking to be killed). A cartoon about a pop group worth $25 million dollars, and looks like it was made for about $150. Thaaaaaaat’s entertainment!

Also not a misty watercolored memory for anyone is 1991’s Hammerman, a vehicle intended to turn MC Hammer into a Saturday morning cartoon star. Like Mr. T, it wasn’t enough to achieve fame in one particular area for MC Hammer, he wanted to be a role model for children too. Hammerman wasn’t just meant to entertain, it was meant to teach young people the morals and values held in great esteem for the man who brought the world “Pumps & a Bump.”

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Hammer only appears at the beginning and the very end of the episode I watched, leaving the heavy lifting of voicing the titular character to an actor. The alter ego of Stanley, a youth center counselor, Hammerman is a superhero, generating sentient musical notes from his magical talking shoes that can do things like help him fly and put out fires. The shoes were given to Stanley by “Gramps,” the neighborhood wise old geezer, who used to wear them and became a similar superhero named Soulman. I swear I am not making that up after taking an over the counter sleep aid.

In the premiere episode, Jodi, one of the kids who hangs out at Stanley’s youth center (and of course, as everyone else does too, fails to recognize that Stanley and Hammerman are the same person) becomes frustrated when no one at the center acknowledges her budding artistic talent. She soon finds herself caught up with the villainous Defacely Malmeister, a combination of Snidely Whiplash and Judge Doom, who’s created a special kind of spray paint that will make whatever one paints with it come to life. Using Jodi’s drawing talent, Defacely is able to take over the city with giant, monstrous stick figures and angry flames.

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Though Hammerman defeats the drawing monsters by dancing at them, it’s up to Jodi to capture Defacely, which she does–by using the magic spray paint one more time to draw a police officer. The lesson kids were supposed to take away from this, as told by Hammer himself? Graffiti is bad.

I will now make a confession that may stun you, and cause you to question everything you know in life: I kind of liked Hammerman.

Now, that’s not to say that I think it’s a misunderstood lost gem, or that I’m even going to bother seeking out the other episodes available online. But it’s certainly not the worst thing I’ve watched for this blog (hell, it’s not even the worst thing I’ve watched this month). Drawn with an angular style similar to that of Ralph Bakshi’s version of Mighty Mouse, it has a commitment to weirdness that I appreciate, making its tenuous connection to the real life MC Hammer rather puzzling. Hammer was a lot of things, but weird was not among them. Like his counterpart Tone Loc, Hammer put a safe, lovable face on rap, making it more accessible to white audiences. While Ice Cube was releasing songs with titles like “Once Upon a Time in the Projects” around the same time, Hammer was writing the theme song to the Addams Family movie, and making considerably more money for it. It’s only fitting that he was eventually usurped in popularity by an actual white rapper, who literally had the word “vanilla” in his name.

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But don’t take it from me: check out the commercials, which were left intact with the episode of Hammerman I watched: a bunch of scowling children in a convertible “rap” the familiar ABC “after these messages we’ll be right back” jingle, the Micro Machines guy dresses “street,” even the goddamn Campbell’s Soup kids are doing the hippity hop thing, and this relentless whitewashed and sanitized treatment of black music truly makes you understand both the relevance of groups like N.W.A. and The Geto Boys, and how white people really do insist on ruining everything.

New Kids on the Block original airdate: September 8, 1990 (watch it in two parts here)

Hammerman original airdate: September 7, 1991 (watch it here)

 

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