Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Hangin' Tough From the Chimney With Care

It's easy to get lost in the hubbub of the holiday season. Traveling to family get-togethers, last-minute shopping, sussing out stocking stuffers, planning big holiday feasts...

Finding costumes to enable this scenario to play out...
...it can all get overwhelming in a hurry. In that shuffle it's easy to see how even something so important as a discussion about our most essential and lasting Christmas-related song might not get the full attention it deserves.

And that is why I've chosen the middle of spring to write about America's most beloved holiday singalong, the New Kids On the Block classic "Funky Funky Christmas."

There's no denying the runaway success of the New Kids on the Block when they hit the scene during the transitional period from the 80s to the 90s. Anyone who was a teen or on the cusp of it at that point was a fan; if they tell you otherwise, they are a liar.

Or Nick Carter.
I bought a blank cassette and dubbed their breakout album from a friend's copy, and wrote "NKOTB" on the label as a point of pride so strong that future blank cassettes kept the branding nomenclature (e.g. "NKOTB II", "NKOTB III - Electric Bugaloo", "NKOTB IV: This Time It's Personal") despite there being no actual music from the group on them.

Pictured: the just-leaked cover to "NKOTB XXXIX - The Legend of Curly's Gold."
My sister and I pooled our allowances to buy a VHS copy of the Hangin' Tough world tour, which we proceeded to watch roughly 937 times and develop favorite moments and parts we knew even then were worthy of our mockery, like how Jon Knight yells to the crowd that "the party is just beginning!" with 1.7 songs left in the show. Only a complete idiot would misjudge proper timing in such a careless and pandering manner. Now then, back to my early-May blog about Christmas music.

At least two of the shirts on this album cover qualify as hate crimes.

Everyone had a favorite New Kid, and myriad reasons to support their decision. The decibel level at which you were given these talking points varied wildly depending on the gender of the kid you asked, and how receptive they were to the strange tingling sensation of awakening they couldn't begin to put words to just yet.

Which I now cannot caption, because I don't want to go to prison.

Most of the girls I knew favored Jordan Knight, the co-frontman of the group and who at the time sported a hairdo I'm reasonably sure wasn't scientifically possible. Donald Trump's coif looks more reasonable and defensible than what Jordan walked around wearing at the dawn of the 90s. Look at those photos of him now and you'd be forgiven for assuming that a pile of burning tires had exploded between him and the photographer just as the photo was taken.

Did... a pastry just fall on his head?
His brother Jonathan was also in the group, and that's just about the most descriptive thing anyone could say about Jon Knight. He was the oldest of the group, by about seventy years if his general energy and memorability were anything to go by, and was not exactly a wellspring of charisma.

Pictured: Jon Knight preparing for a concert in Cedar Rapids, 1989.
Co-frontman Donnie Wahlberg started out in the New Kids already living in the shadow of his little brother Mark; let that sink in for a moment as your admiration for Donnie Wahlberg swells out of simple bewilderment that someone could live in the shadow of Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch and still have the courage to get out of bed each day.

Sometimes I go searching Google for an image, and the universe does me a wonderful, hilarious favor and writes the whole joke for me.
Perhaps in an effort to carve out his own image distinct from his brother and from his bandmates, Donnie Wahlberg embraced the notion that the group needed a "bad boy." For instance, he could reliably be the one New Kid found not smiling in a group photo, because he was hard and streetwise, y'know.

The hat was just pragmatic, standing so near the base of Jordan Knight's hair as he was.

Invariably Donnie would be the one wearing a bandana or a skull-and-crossbones on his jacket, or both, in a misguided attempt to convince us that he was the dangerous outlier of the group, the real hardscrabble New Kid you wouldn't actually want to run into on The Block, or at the very least that he wasn't careful enough when signing the contracts and actually thought he was joining Guns N' Roses or Public Enemy.

"Okay, guys, say cheese!... eh, close enough."

When the group gathered for photo shoots, and the other guys said "The image we're going for is Fun Loving Young Guys, Dressed For A Night On The Town!", and Jordan showed up as The Hillbilly Neighbor You're Pretty Sure Is Making Bathtub Meth just to thumb his nose at convention, Donnie Wahlberg had to take even greater strides to assert himself as the nonconformist of the group.

By showing up as Dr. Ruth Westheimer.
Danny Wood was my favorite of the group, mainly because he had an awesome rat-tail which I chose to emulate for far, far, far, far, far, far, far, far, far, far, far, far, far, far, far, far too many years after I should have come to the realization that it was a big piece of the plate mail which made up my Virginity Protection Armor.

Armor we wore with misguided pride, in my circle of friends.
There was a certain symmetry to my identifying with by far the least attractive New Kid, though. That's not a subjective statement, it's an observable fact. As proof, I now present a picture I found dozens of results deep while browsing for more examples of Donnie trying to look cool, which I swear I didn't touch up in any way, that expresses things more succinctly than I ever could.

I laughed for a solid minute when I stumbled across this. Then I cried for forty more.

No photographer arranging a Halloween-themed photo shoot involving the New Kids on the Block would have kept his or her job beyond nightfall had they gone with any other costume for Danny than "Frankenstein's Monster." You wouldn't even need makeup, just some glue and a couple of carriage bolts.

"It's alive (and mostly just talking on tracks because he's got a very limited vocal range)! ALIVE (AND MOSTLY JUST TALKING ON TRACKS BECAUSE HE'S GOT A VERY LIMITED VOCAL RANGE)!!!!"
Finally there was Joey, who went from being so baby-faced that you'd think he was only in the group because he complained to Mom that the older boys weren't including him, to Joe, who looks like one of those guys who goes out of his way to shake your hand way too hard just so you know he's a man's man.

"Nice to meet you. I'm coursing with testosterone in a way that will RUIN your handwriting for the next hour."
These five kids had the keys to the castle in 1989. In the wake of Hangin' Tough and You've Got It (The Right Stuff), it was clear that anything they released would be insatiably devoured by a generation of not-especially-discerning youth. This occasionally yielded some not-bad pop, as with their best song, Step By Step. I'm not even being snarky here. It's still a catchy enough pop ditty today.

Also, a tour de force performance by Donnie's hat and pout.
It also yielded some pretty cynical "Hey, I need to finance my cocaine habit, get those kids in the recording studio pronto!" material like Funky Funky Christmas, which transcended its genesis to be the timeless classic we all sing at least once with our families before going to bed on Christmas Eve every year.

Donnie's hat soldiered on even after Donnie's pout left the band, citing creative differences.
The song begins with a New Kid doing a bizarrely mush-mouthed Santa Claus impression that sounds like he did it around mouthfuls of ham sandwich in the recording booth. "Santa" extols the joy of "another great Christmas" before another New Kid not bothering to do a stupid voice unknowingly sets the audience tone by scoffing that "it's boring, it's the same thing every year."

To which Santa has perhaps his worst idea of all time and replies, "So let's have a funky Christmas!"

Damn you, Kringle. This day was supposed to be special. Now it's all funked up.
Donnie takes point on this song, spitting the hardcore rap verse "New Kids on the Block, It's Christmas time, we're gonna celebrate it with a rhyme!" so they can check off every box on the pre-recording checklist during the first stanza.

Did we identify ourselves? Did we identify the season? Did we show indisputable street cred? Did Danny drown a little girl in a lake while attempting to play with her because he doesn't know his own strength?
He then launches into a call-and-response segment meant to give each New Kid his own brief moment to shine, and as a general paean to readiness. He starts off with a "Danny D, are you ready?" and receives a somnambulant "...ready as I'll ever be..." in response.

Ready for a funky, funky Christmas.
Donnie has enough time to say the word "steady" afterward, before Joey, evidently in the throes of a manic episode, shrieks "YOU KNOW JOEY JOE'S READY!!!" in a manner I cannot do justice without exceeding my personal boundaries on exclamation points.

Possibly annoyed and assumedly following his scooping all of the surprise-shit out of his pants, Donnie forgoes the "everyone gets his own moment" theme and lumps the last two together, with a quick "Jordan and Jon?" To their credit, Jordan and Jon know they can only disappoint after Joey's bizarre screaming, and instead each simply blurts out a quick "Yeah!" and "Come on!" to move things along.

I should note at this point that the chorus is forever. It is eternity. The New Kids are so enamored of it that they repeat it a dozen times in the four minute song, even though each repetition seems to take at least ten minutes.  All it is is the New Kids repeatedly sing-talking the phrase "Have a funky funky Christmas" over a ridiculously stripped down accompaniment which sounds like little more than a cowbell and someone's elbow absently pressed down on a Casio keyboard.

So, we're treated to more of that for awhile.

Christ, did they think we were gonna forget the name of the song if we weren't constantly hearing it?
Donnie then resumes his emceeing duties, and the creepy factor instantly skyrockets. Let's not dance around it; these were five guys ranging from their late teens to very early twenties when they were sudden superstars, with all the spoils that go along with it. There's no way Donnie Wahlberg and Jordan Knight weren't leaving a trail of first-time Plan-B users in their wake in towns across America.

The group average was a bit lower.

So it's disconcerting to hear him announce that "I swear we got ourselves a party here" which consists of "Girls on the floor, Northside posse at the door," especially when the following line is "Should I stop? Nah."

I'm reasonably sure the New Kids on the Block just implicated themselves in a gang rape, but did it with such holiday cheer that we all just failed to notice.  The girls were probably more than willing, Donnie! What drug did you give them to leave them on the floor, and why? Do I even want to know what your Northside posse did to them?

My god, She's Got It (the White Stuff)!!! I can't unsee!
Then Donnie orders Santa Claus to kick the ballistics, which is singlehandedly the reason why white people have such a hard time being taken seriously while rapping. We have plenty of time to contemplate this malfeasance against racial harmony, since "kicking the ballistics" evidently means "nine more minutes of our tiresome chorus" to the New Kids on the Block.

And in case you harbored any uncertainties about whether this song was written while on the drive to the studio, we're then treated to a stanza-length primer about fire safety couched in a story about a time one of the New Kids encountered Santa on Christmas Eve. The tale involves Santa burning himself on a still-lit fireplace fire while coming down a chimney, and admonishing the New Kid for it. It is conveyed with all the verve and forethought of a conceptual joke being told to you by a five-year-old.
Also, for no reason I can discern, this Santa-burning-his-butt story is told in a British accent. Someone heard the Mush-Mouth Santa performance art from the beginning of the song and thought, "Finally, we're doing rich character work!"

Unbelievably, we're now treated to an extended version of the chorus, including breakdowns of both the backing track and my central nervous system.

Several hours later, if my senses are to be trusted, we finally reach a new stanza. It's Danny's turn to do his brand of essentially spoken-word poetry, since the dude just couldn't sing even by boy-band standards. It's just embarrassing, listening to him... rapping, I guess?... through his verse about slippin' and slidin' through the city streets. At one point he indicates that he's "throwing fresh rhymes" but no evidence exists to support that claim in this song.

Though he also insists that "it's snowin' outside but we're ho-ho-hoing," which serves a dual purpose as a signifier of holiday cheer and a telling, tragic clue toward how Danny made ends meet during the lean years after the New Kids on the Block star faded.

Because no amount of Google image searching yielded a screencap of Dirk Diggler trying to jerk off in that dude's passenger seat for fifteen bucks, here's this.
Aaaaand we're back into the chorus for awhile, to contemplate the various ways we've gone wrong with our lives, and how those decisions led us to listening to Funky Funky Christmas.

Finally, blessedly, we begin the final verse, in which a remarkable thing occurs. First we have a New Kid suggesting that a "funky dope jam" is on top of our Christmas lists, but dances around mentioning that our wish has gone sadly unfulfilled if this song was the only yield from that wish list.

And then, as if to acknowledge a crowd of people reacting hatefully to this song and its 80:20 ratio of chorus repetition to actual verses, Donnie Wahlberg actually says the following line:

"How could you be booin' it with Donnie D doin' it?"

The assumption that any audience would be actively booing the performance of this song is written into the song. This is possibly the most self-aware moment in pop history, courtesy of Donnie Wahlberg.

Even more astonishing when you consider he once thought these pants were a good idea.

I think we're done with the proper song at this point, though the track continues for another entire minute. Gotta make time for the chorus, y'know. Then we finish with Mush Mouth Santa Claus once again wishing us a merry Christmas, but poisoning the sentiment by finishing with the phrase "We're gonna kick the ballistics of our Christmas wishes," which makes no sense on top of setting race relations back yet another six years.

And the music fades out as Santa and his friend decide to "get all them reindeer and let's bust out of here," as every parent in America silently contemplates just telling their kids the truth about Santa Claus rather than risk their ever hearing this song.

If nothing else, Funky Funky Christmas serves a valuable anthropological purpose, in that we now have isolated the definitive cause of Seasonal Affective Disorder, and can attack it at its root.

Here you go, ladies/gay men/porn mustache enthusiasts. You earned it.