For millions, the 1991 Bills v. Giants Super Bowl, which aired 10 days into the first Gulf War, will be remembered for Whitney Houston’s ground-shaking performance of the National Anthem. Few people recall that New Kids on the Block headlined the halftime show — the first contemporary pop act to do so. But as Donnie Wahlberg relates here, this had less to do with the performance itself and more to do with an interruption from the President.
Read on for Wahlberg’s account of that very surreal day, what it meant for the band and how it changed pop music.
I was online somewhere a couple years ago and someone had posted something about “The Forgotten Halftime Show.” I was like, “Holy crap!” I had forgotten about it completely. Maybe I blocked it out.
I had gone to my manager’s office in New York. Someone from Disney was there, and someone from the NFL was there. And they asked if we would be interested in performing at halftime. Until that point it was mostly marching bands and floats and stuff like that. And in the meeting they talked about this being an experiment, the first of its kind.
But we weren’t terrifically excited about it — mostly because of the Disney aspect. We were at a point where we’d seen enough dolls and cartoons and toys and merchandise and lunch boxes. We were trying to grow out of the kids stuff and become young men. So here is this amazing Super Bowl halftime situation. But it’s gonna be based all around Disney’s “It’s a Small World.”
It was a conundrum for us — even more so because the night after the Super Bowl we were performing at the American Music Awards. Flavor Flav from Public Enemy was gonna come out. We had 20 dancers on stage, including Jennifer Lopez, which was sort of her big break. It was during the Gulf War and I wore a T-shirt that said “War Sucks.” That performance was going to be the changing of the guard for us. So it was like, “Okay, we’re gonna do this one last performance for everyone else at the Super Bowl. And then tomorrow night at the AMAs we’re gonna do what we want to do.”
Plus the fact that it was the Super Bowl was a big deal. Because most of us were football fans. You mean these people are letting us, these five goofy kids, onto the field at the Super Bowl? Okay.
The whole experience was very surreal because A) it was the Super Bowl, B) it was this massive Walt Disney production and C) there was a war going on. There was a lot of heightened security. A lot of extra focus on that. And here are the five of us standing in the middle of it all.
I don’t think we would have Nipplegate or any of this stuff if the New Kids didn’t do it first.
But that’s how the band is. We get in the most absurd situations. We could be in the middle of 10,000 screaming teenage girls ripping our clothes off and we would be laughing and sharing the joke. I always had fun at events like that. The bigger the spectacle, the more fun I usually had. You know, we saw Whitney there. We said hi to her. But we did a good job of staying calm in big situations.
We were in a green room and right before halftime we walked out to the field. I never rehearsed for the Super Bowl. I was in New York with the dancers and editing the music for our AMAs performance. I flew down the day of, and I missed all the rehearsals. So right before we go onto the field the guys are telling me, “You’re gonna go here and then go there.” I knew what the music was, but I had never walked through the show with all the dancers and all the kids and all the props. Maybe that’s why none of the kids ran up to me and sat in my lap. Or it could’ve been the cutoff T-shirt and the tattoo and the nose ring. I might’ve just given the kids a dirty look.
We were a boy band at a time when boy bands were looked at a little different. We were the only one of our kind at that time. So in 1991, it didn’t add up. “Okay, we’re gonna put a band in the middle of 80,000 screaming guys and they’re gonna stand there watching five boys sing.” I got a sense that most of the people in the building were like, “Get this shit off the field and let us get back to this incredible football game.”
Afterward, we found out it didn’t air during the game. It had been preempted. George Bush made a speech. I’m sure my mom was pissed off that she sat watching this Super Bowl game that our team wasn’t playing in. I’m sure a lot of our fans were upset. But it made me very happy. We all breathed a sigh of relief. And it felt appropriate. I remember when U2 performed at the Super Bowl right after 9/11. When those names were going by and they were singing “Beautiful Day.” I was just in tears watching that. It felt more fitting that George Bush made a speech during halftime than this “Small World” Disney thing.
Some of us stayed on the field after and goofed around. I was seeing old players and retired players walking around and getting to say hi to them. It was a lot of fun. I think we just got back to our tour bus right as the final field goal was being missed by Scott Norwood. I was pulling for the Bills that day. That might be my karma — why the Giants always beat the Patriots nowadays, since I definitely was never a Giants fan.
But that’s why most people don’t know of or acknowledge it as the first of its kind — you know, the grandfather of all these halftime performances: because they didn’t see it.
Michael Jackson gets credit for doing the first one. But I’m sure he was influenced by us doing it before. I’m sure. I don’t think any of these halftime shows would be happening the way they have — I don’t think we would have Nipplegate or any of this stuff — if the New Kids didn’t do it first. There’s always someone, especially in music, who has to go first and take all the hits so someone else can do it later. MC Hammer came out and danced around in flashy clothes, and the spectacle of the show was more important than his rap skills. And he paid the price for that. Ten years later Diddy did the same thing, and it was okay. New Kids on the Block came out and MTV didn’t want to play our videos and Rolling Stone voted us the worst of everything and didn’t want to put us in the magazine. And 10 years later they put NSYNC and Backstreet Boys on the cover. And MTV built a video countdown show for boy bands.
It was the same for the Super Bowl. I don’t know how much pride I take in the actual performance. But I take pride in the fact that we were the first ones to do it.