10 QUESTIONS : Donnie Wahlberg of New Kids on the Block
S quealing girls could be heard in the background when New Kid on the Block Donnie Wahlberg called from backstage at the Gene Stone Stadium in Greenville, N . C . Shrieking girls are, in fact, the unofficial trademark of this teen phenomenon. In the tradition of Frankie Avalon, the Monkees and the Bay City Rollers, the New Kids--Jordan Knight, Danny Wood, Jonathan Knight, Joe McIntyre and Wahlberg--drive the little girls wild and the critics to distraction.
Conceived in 1985 by producer Maurice Starr (who writes and produces most of New Kids’ material), this group from Dorchester, Mass . , has racked up worldwide sales of more than 18 million copies of their four albums, and they’re currently in the midst of a hugely successful tour that brings them to the Pacific Amphitheater on Wednesday and Thursday (both shows are sold out), and Dodger Stadium on Friday . (Tickets are still available for that show . )
Wahlberg, 20, was the first to join the group and often assumes the role of spokesman. A thoughtful, intelligent young man, Wahlberg views the craze surrounding New Kids with a detachment that’s impressive for one so young.
QUESTION: The kind of success New Kids are enjoying can’t last. Do you dread the day when the career shifts gears, or are you looking forward to having things cool off a bit?
ANSWER: That’s an interesting way to ask that question--most people just say, “Brace yourselves ‘cause it’s all gonna come crashing down.” Actually, it may be kind of nice for it to end, to get a little freedom. Everyone tells us New Kids are just a fad and that like all teen idols we’ll disappear, but we’re doing things a lot of those other groups didn’t do because this is a different age.
When the Beatles were around, you watched Ed Sullivan and that was it, but music is everywhere now. It’s in your car, in school on your Walkman, and there are TV channels devoted to music. Music is in a different state now than it’s ever been and that may play a part in our longevity.
Yeah, the girls are gonna grow up and stop screaming, but we give our fans everything we’ve got and I think a lot of these people ain’t gonna forget that. But if this all ends tomorrow, it’s not gonna be the end of my life--I’ll just go on and do something else because there’s lots of stuff in my life besides this. I was alive 15 years before I was a New Kid and I’ll probably be alive at least 15 more after New Kids.
Q: New Kids have been criticized for involving themselves with merchandising tie-ins. Is it necessary for you to do this to finance your tours, or do you do it simply because you like the products?
A: When you tour with a stage that costs over a million dollars, it’s hard to pay for. So when McDonald’s tells me--a guy who came from a family on food stamps--that we wanna help pay for your stage and all you have to do is have a McDonald’s sign on stage, am I so great that I gotta say hell no, get outta here? There are companies I wouldn’t work with and we turn tons of stuff down, but there are five people in the group. If four Kids wanna do something and one Kid don’t, sometimes you gotta sacrifice.
Q: How do you feel about the fact that so much of what’s written about you focuses on the marketing of the group rather than its music?
A: It’s true that critics usually only write about the screaming girls and the McDonald’s signs and hardly mention our work as entertainers. I think a lot of writers are afraid to write anything else because it wouldn’t be considered hip. How can a 30-year-old, supposedly hip rock critic give us a good review when our shows attract 10,000 girls between the ages of 8 and 20?
Q: Maurice Starr is often credited as the creative force behind the group. How true is that?
A: He’s the creative force in the sense that it was his idea, but I don’t know why people see that as a knock on the group, because every group comes from an idea. I’m sure U2 wasn’t every member in the band’s idea--it was one guy’s idea and he got the other guys together. Maurice’s role has been very much exaggerated. I’m shocked when supposedly serious writers ask me, “Does Maurice pick what you wear?” Are these people crazy?
Maurice put the group together, he writes and produces the music, and that’s it. He didn’t teach me to dance, sing, rap or have soul--the reason we got in the group was because we knew how to do that stuff. These rumors are all a reflection of ignorance on the part of the press. For instance, there’s the lip-syncing rumors. Reviewers have come to our shows and said New Kids are lip-syncing--when I’m singing notes out of tune and my voice is cracking! You can hear it clear as day and they’ve still got the nerve to say I’m lip-syncing! (New Kids manager Dick Scott told The Times that during some vigorous dance numbers in concert, the group does lip-sync to vocal tapes.)
Q: What does the group represent to people? What do you see as being its image?
A: Everything written about us focuses on how clean-cut we are. I feel bad about our image because we’re not responsible for it--it’s something the media created. I’ve never been a clean-cut person, but I do consider myself a positive person, and that’s why I speak out against drugs. I grew up with drugs in my own family and saw them take some of my family members down, so I know what a serious problem it is and I’m committed to working against them. But that don’t make me a goody-goody--that’s just being smart and positive.
This wholesome image the press has foisted on us is a double-edged sword. They’ve put us on this pedestal and now they want to knock us down, and they’re all waiting for one of us to have a baby or get caught doing drugs. If I spit on the sidewalk or get in a fight--stuff that’s been happening all my life--it’s a big deal now. But I refuse to be constrained by that. People can write what they want, but I’m gonna keep on being me.
Q: How do you feel about the fact that you’re a role model for thousands of kids; do you feel a sense of responsibility about that?
A: I didn’t get into this intending to brainwash 10 million white kids. We came out as ourselves and they accepted us as role models.
Q: What’s the best thing about having money?
A: That’s a funny thing. All my life I wanted money ‘cause I never had any, and now that I’ve got it I don’t want the gold jewelry that I wanted or the cars and the clothes--all I want is to do for my family. And that’s all I’ve done. I bought a house for my mother and a house for my father, a car for my brother, and put 50 grand into my brother’s album, which I’m producing.
Q: The New Kids are together around the clock. How do you all manage to get along?
A: We were surprised when we first discovered that we didn’t always get along. We were just having fun when this started, then all of a sudden we’re together 24 hours a day every day of the year. It hit us like wham! This is not just fun and games! We realized we were different people with different tastes and beliefs, and we’ve gone through phases adjusting to that.
On the first tour we did everything together, then on the next tour people started wanting to do different things--and we realized we didn’t all have to do everything together. It was hard at first ‘cause you feel left out and stuff, but this tour everyone’s just doing their own thing. It’s helped the unity of the group ‘cause it’s taken a lot of pressure off us.
Q: Has what’s happened to you in the past two years made you grow up fast, or has it arrested your natural development as people?
A: That’s hard to say. What’s happened to me is kind of weird and I try and deal with it the best way I know how, which is to have fun with it. But I don’t think it’s changed me that much. When this first started I remember my father saying to me if I ever came home and wasn’t the same kid, he was gonna kick my ass, and remembering that has helped me a lot.
Q: Is it true that New Kids have on-stage hugging contests at their concerts?
A: Naw. It may have happened a few times because things often happen out of the blue on stage. We do a lot of spontaneous stuff. I used to bring like 10 girls on stage and kiss ‘em all. It wasn’t a part of the show--one night I just did it. As to how serious the kisses were, I try and be fair but sometimes the fans get a little too generous with their kisses.
RELATED STORY: For more on the New Kids, see Page 76.