New Edition – New Edition (1984)

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New Edition were, like many a teen pop group before and after them, destined for obscurity after record one. A cute Jackson 5 knockoff updated for the 80s, silly high-pitched child vocals, songs about candy and popcorn and frivolous teenage feelings. Five marketable, talented young dancing men, all in the firm control of megalomaniacal boy band mogul Maurice Starr. He wrote all the songs, he produced the whole album, booked them, promoted them, turned them into (NO PUN INTENDED!!) stars. It was hard to imagine New Edition without Maurice. He WAS New Edition! What would they be, without each other?

Well. Wellllll.

The basic story, from what I’ve been able to gather: Maurice barely paid the New Edition kids after their wildly successful Candy Girl tour (the rumored amount I’ve heard is $1.87 per member, which feels like an obscene exaggeration but the music business is pretty weird so who knows!). Even at the collective age of 15, the New Edition boys knew they were getting fucked over, so they took legal action. And from the looks of it, our New Edition heroes made out pretty ok: Mr. Starr agreed to release them from their terrible, terrible contract and their lawyers hooked them up with a sweet deal with MCA Records. America’s First And Finest Boy Band were free, now and forever, and were ready to reap the benefits of their newfound stardom.

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Of course, a couple of caveats here. NE’s defeat over Maurice was short-lived – he might have lost control of a group that gave him more success than he ever could have hoped for as a solo performer, but losing New Edition gave him the freedom he needed to create a new group: the New Kids On The Block, billed as the “white New Edition.” In later years, Maurice would admit his frustration that New Edition never become as popular as they could have because they were black, and sadly the New Kids On The Block proved him right. Over time, the New Kids would crush New Edition in popularity, attaining the universal teenage audience New Edition always deserved and ensuring that successful boy bands of the next 20 years would be predominantly white.

Ick. Ychh. Because why would a record company take a chance on an all-black boy band when an all-white one was so much more “marketable”? “Safer”? How many mega-successful boy bands over the past 25 years have been all-black? Heck, how many have even had ONE black member that wasn’t a product of creepo tokenism like S Club 7? Just there to have “hip hop cred”? Garbage. It’s some sad horseshit. But that’s still where we’re at over 30 years later, and we can trace it back to Maurice Starr losing New Edition and replacing them with an inferior white knockoff. Teen pop, Ladies and Gentlemen.

Gosh, that’s sad. I have made myself sad. I didn’t mean to do that! We’re talking about New Edition! How could anyone be sad, talking about New Edition! Nobody, that’s who!!

Yes, despite never being as popular as they should have been, the story of New Edition is anything but a tragic one. It is one of victorious, excellent pop music. These guys did not fumble the ball with their second record, New Edition. They didn’t need Maurice, see. He wrote some solid songs for them, but let’s get real – Candy Girl, despite its charms, was full of some doofball songs for children. Not a winning strategy. If they stuck with that guy, he’d keep writing the same kinda cuteball candy songs for them and they’d never grow. They’d end up like, oh I don’t know, the New Kids On The Block.

Ahh! OOaaaah!!

So New Edition, now with the freedom to select whoever the heck they wanted to write their songs, picked some big names of the 80s, among which were Michael Sambello (the guy who wrote Flashdance‘s “Maniac”) and Ray Parker Jr. (who, of course, we know as the guy who wrote the Ghostbusters theme). Heck, they even wrote some songs themselves! One song was written entirely by them! A bunch of fresh-faced 15 year olds! Success!!

The results? Good. Positive. Hooray! Let’s talk about it!

SOME WORDS ABOUT “COOL IT NOW”: IF I LIKE THE GIRL, WHO CARES WHO YOU LIKE?

“Cool It Now” was important for New Edition for a bunch of reasons. As the first single from New Edition, it hit the top 10 and became their biggest hit at the time, proving without a doubt that the group were much more than a Maurice Starr puppet project. This alone would be a pretty remarkable accomplishment, but “Cool It Now” is also a wonderful step forward for NE, a well-written and charming pop song that pushes them into new territory while never threatening to upend their Candy Girl bubblegum image.

This might not be obvious at first. “Cool It Now” doesn’t sound like a huge leap from “Candy Girl,” but it is. It’s different. Careful listening. “Cool It Now” rejects the nice-kids-singin-about-nice-girls Maurice Starr vibe of “Candy Girl” and hits at more difficult, complex territory. It’s the first time we see the New Edition boys stepping out of their carbon-copy teen pop caricatures to become real, living human beings on record.

It’s a simple drama. Lead singer Ralph likes a girl, but his friends want him to cool it and not lose his head. Hence, “Cool It Now.” Nothing beyond the beyond here lyrically, but in NE’s hands there’s a real charm that transcends the typical. Right when you think you’re hearing a nice lightweight pop song, things take an unexpected turn when Ronnie and Mike rap some advice to silly lovestruck Ralph:

“When ya got a girl who takes her time / You must slow the pace you can’t mess with her mind

If she feels the same she’ll letcha know / Just prepare yourself or be ready to go

And I hope this message stays in your mind / Cause you almost lost a girl who was right on time

There’s one more thing that you got to know / Just cool it down and stay in control”

Now, all things considered, this is not terrible advice to get, yes? Especially coming from teenagers? I love this moment because there’s no malice here: Ronnie and Mike seem to really care about Ralph. They want to help out their bud. “’cause you almost lost a girl who is right on time.” Ralph has been hurt before! Ronnie and Mike remember! They don’t want to see their valued friend and band member get get heartbroken again!!

But then comes “Cool It Now”‘s clincher moment: Ralph, claustrophobic from his bandmates’ intrusive advice, defends himself via another rap. I will once again quote these lyrics in full, because I want to:

“Why you all coming down on me / Tryin to tell me how my life is supposed to be?

I know you’re only trying to help me out / Tryin to show me what life is really about

But this time I’m gonna make it on my own / So why don’t you fellas just leave me alone?

Ronnie, Bobby, Ricky and Mike / If I love the girl, who cares who you like?”

Oooooh Ralph. Ralph my man! You did it! Sick burn!!

I love moments like this, moments that push outside of teen pop cliche even a little bit. It makes me happy. It’s not only that Ralph’s defense feels like something someone would actually say (how many pop songs you’ve heard include the lyric “I know you’re only trying to help me out”?), but there’s one line that sets “Cool It Now” apart: Ralph mentions his other band members by name. This is not an anonymous pop song sung by an anonymous young man to his anonymous friends. This is Ralph of New Edition, singing to Ronnie, Bobby, Ricky and Mike of New Edition. “Cool It Now” is a fictionalized drama between the New Edition members themselves.

Yes, I am harping on this, because it’s great and it’s not something teen pop groups ever do. Not much, at least. The New Edition are inviting you in. They want you, the audience, to get to know them better as people. Can you imagine the Backstreet Boys singing lyrics like this? *NSYNC? One Direction, even?? As teen pop grew in the coming decades, more and more boy bands would build off New Edition’s innovations but forget the charm. The personality. This is important, to me. Personality, relatability, a strong voice. These are what separate great teen pop artists from the good. “Cool It Now” is where New Edition find their voice. It’s a cute and simple one, sure, but a voice nonetheless, and one that NE would refine and build through the rest of their career. It’s a great moment for NE, and a great moment for teen pop.

Oh, and it’s also catchy as heck! That too! And it’s funkier and catchier and dancier than anything on “Candy Girl.” No wonder it hit the top 10! Listen to it now and watch the video, one of the best-made boy band videos ever.

“KINDA GIRLS WE LIKE,” “MY SECRET (DIDJA GET IT YET?)”, AND OTHER GEMS AND LOVELIES

New Edition features a few more step-forward moments for our heroes. “Kinda Girls We Like” is a big one – the first New Edition track to be written solely by the guys themselves. Not sure if they only wrote the lyrics and had some ghost-help with the music (they were just kids at the time, after all) but it’s adventurous nonetheless. Not only is it NE’s deepest jump into hip-hop yet, but it features some detailed and ominous production. Especially for a song where the NE guys rap about the kind of girls they think are cute! Scary synths, wiggly keyboards, and a jammin guitar solo coda followed by a key change! Oooh!

Other popular single “Mr. Telephone Man” features tradeoff lead vocals between Ralph and Bobby, portraying a sad, desperate, and – let’s face it – kind of dumb man pleading with his telephone operator cuz he think’s there’s something wrong with his phone when he calls his girlfriend. You know, without realizing that his girlfriend is just hanging up on him. Because she hates him, or is cheating on him, or both. This would work just as a doofy little song, but NE’s pleading gets so desperate by the end of the song that it starts to get uncomfortable. These sad kids gotta wisen up!

Thankfully, we have “My Secret (Didja Gitit Yet?)” to lighten the proceedings and remind us that, sometimes, love is cute and fun instead of painful and stupifying. It’s a brisk, fun pop song that not only bears a passing resemblance to “Let’s Hear It For The Boy” (1984!) but has more in common with Candy Girl than anything else on New Edition. Which is OK! This is teen pop, after all. We need some light fun.

In fact, for the most part, New Edition doesn’t stray too far from the Candy Girl formula. The full-brunt maturation hasn’t happened yet. Ralph and the gang still have those high voices, because y’know, they’re still basically children. Funk tracks like “Hide And Seek” and “Baby Love” would fit right in on Candy Girl, and slower songs like “Lost In Love” and “I’m Leaving You Again” prove that New Edition have yet to master the Art of the Ballad. Gosh, can you blame them? It’s a tricky, elusive art. Takes some big hooks, serious schmaltz power. NE don’t have it yet. It’s OK.

New Edition is a modest, subtle step forward, but a step forward nonetheless. It served its purpose: it proved that the group could not only survive, but floruish without Maurice Starr, and it established them as teen pop’s primary force to be reckoned with in the mid-80s, critically and commercially. It might have stuck close to formula, but it’s where New Edition’s reputation for great pop music begins.

And it only gets better from here. Stay tuned!

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