It's 7:55 p.m. on a Friday and I'm can't-read-a-map stoned in the middle of Times Square, trying to go see Nick & Knight, the resurrected boy-band portmanteau duo featuring—you guessed it—Nick Carter and Jordan Knight.
"Wait a second," says my friend Luce. "You told me we were seeing Brian McKnight."
"I did?" I say, eyes googly.
It is up to Luce to lead us to the Best Buy Theater, a 2100-cap venue that Bill T. on Yelp liked enough to give four stars. "The different levels make it easy to determine how wild and funky you want to get," he wrote. I am always ready to get funky. We see the Best Buy logo and know that we have arrived. "I can't wait to get up really early tomorrow and go purchase a variety of expensive electronics at Best Buy," Luce says. I agree.
The man behind the counter waves us through the door without asking to see our tickets. In the empty atrium we get ID'ed, wrist-banded. Muffled noise starts wafting up the escalator as we descend underground to a space that feels like a movie theater in a live Sims recreation: harsh jewel-toned lights flashing onto abandoned stand-alone booths; three large bars serving alcohol, not a single body in line to be served.
Church noises are coming through the walls, diluted power-pop with a wholesome, exultant melody. Two women slip out of the bathroom wearing knee-high boots and going-out tops. They disappear into mysterious double doors and Luce and I follow them, unhindered. No one has checked to see if we have tickets! (Strictly speaking: we don't!) Normally this would give me the illusion of being "Very Important," but there's a hurried strain in the air here, and I feel like I'm late for church.
Immediately upon entering the three-quarters-full performance space, the vibes of sober Christian rejoicing go straight through the roof. There are no drinks in sight; everyone's hands are in the air, swaying softly. (Later I listen to the Nick & Knight album in full and identify "Take Me Home" as the culprit: a classic love song-cum-Rapture-analogy, it features praise-band lines like You are the only one who can take away the pain and Can somebody save me, I need you to take me home.)
But, my god: Nick Carter and Jordan Knight are onstage. They are real and they are dressed like middle-school boys performing at a jazz recital: shiny vests, shirts with large collars. Jordan Knight is 44 years old. They're both in amazing shape and their eyes only seem a little bit weary.
I want to get closer. Everyone at this show is terrifyingly mild-mannered—no bodies are touching at all—and so Luce and I push right to the front, the better to see Nick & Knight mugging, playing off each other as they sing and spin around. The faces in the audience look entranced but unfocused, as if the figures onstage are holograms.
Everyone is watching the idea of Nick & Knight rather than Nick & Knight themselves. This sense solidifies abruptly when Nick & Knight bounce offstage and leave the song's track to play disembodied at full volume, including full-on lead vocals. This goes on for two minutes; the audience's turn-up needle (0.3 out of 10) doesn't move. When Nick & Knight return, it's as if no one noticed they left, and when the track turns off, the crowd cheers obediently.
I cheer too, for their costume change: Knight in a white button-down and jeans, Nick in a very tight gray T-shirt. They have their arms around each other, they're turning up the charm. "NYC baby," they keep yelling. The audience, more "NYC baby" than NYC, goes wild. It's a distinct crowd: 95 percent female, ethnically diverse, a range of ages but a strong median around 35; a few gay couples lope around, texting; I scan for guys flying solo and find about four, all of whom look like Roman from Party Down. There are lots of multigenerational situations going on. I'm at a sister convention, I write on my phone. Nick & Knight deal with the age range as best as they can: they're flipping between "father, son, stripper" vibes too fast for me to keep track.
Their stage banter goes on for some time, and they're on this accent that—well, you've heard it! Charitably, it's "Southern"; at minimum, I would call it "racial"; in context, I would call lightly racist, full stop. It's very distinctively the sort of "I'm-feelin-soulful" drag that white entertainers often adopt when instructing their audience to "get down," a la Taylor Swift on her "Shake It Off" spoken-word bridge.
This note of racial discomfort contributes to my feeling that I'm at church.
"Our throats hurt," Nick & Knight say, arms around each other, their faces fixed in a cruise-ship smile. "Nick has a cold. He almost couldn't do it. But we couldn't disappoint our real fans!!!"
The crowd goes wild. I note on my phone: They wanna leave.
Nick & Knight start the second part of their set, sitting down while Nick plays the guitar and Knight struggles through a beginner-piano-songbook ballad that I later identify as "Halfway There."
Not very turnt up church, I write.
They break into a knockoff-Bieber R&B song that has them both riding low and quick on a suspended melody that dissolves into a pitch-dropped Timbaland-type refrain. (This song is "Paper," and it's certainly not not a jam.) They sound good on it, particularly Nick, whose voice is obviously strained from the aforementioned cold. In general, the two of them—competent vocalists who are too old to keep pushing the puppy vibes that made them famous—need real genre definition to make this third act play, and on "Paper," they've got it. They've been describing this song as "urban," and playing "urban" works.
They start working the stage hard. Nick slips into an Abercrombie-model crotch-grab crouch as he rolls through the verses; he's moving lightly, confidently, and his arms threaten the delicate cotton of his shirt sleeves. Yeah, let's just get it out in the open: Nick Carter has gotten immensely hotter since his Backstreet Boys days. "He could definitely pick you up," says Luce approvingly. We note his new aura of casual, low-key sleaze. Phone notes from this portion include Would hit in literally any circumstances.
Nick & Knight take a break for banter and start shouting out the '80s. "How about those '80s," they yell. Luce and I look at each other like ".........." as the crowd goes wild. "Bet we've got some '80s babies in the house!"
The audience is whooping. "Bet we've got some '90s babies too!!" shout Nick & Knight, who then proceed to institute a pep-rally style cheering war between the '80s and '90s. Then they spend a few minutes braggadociously aw-shucksing each other about which decades their own careers have spanned. "THIS guy," they keep saying. "THIS guy."
And then something beautiful happens: they start singing "I Want It That Way." My heart melts immediately. Luce and I are clutching each other like fifth-graders in the throes of our first below-the-belt tingles. Then we are rapidly blue-balled when they cut off the song before the bridge. I feel hurt and abandoned, and hum the final key change fervently to myself until I am distracted by the sudden presence of a '90s medley. The backing track of Ma$e "Feels So Good" comes on, and Nick starts rapping as Knight does a mellow, dad-like Dougie.
Do Knight got the ladies? Yeah, yeah!
Do Nick drive em crazy? Yeah, yeah!
Bad, bad, bad, bad boys. This transitions into "No Diggity," which Knight sings while Nick does the "wow-wows," and then "Gettin' Jiggy Wit It," then "Jump," and then, in an incredible power move, "Thong Song." During the chorus, they turn around and shake their asses while the audience screams.
And then. And then, their Sisqo transitions into Ginuwine's "Pony." Nick starts humping the air in a full-on Miguel. They tell the crowd to sing the words (literally no one knows the words) and they get on the floor like they're about to do push-ups. "Use your imaginations, ladies," they say, and then they air-fuck the stage—right across from each other—for a solid minute. Every camera in the room is in the air. Nick & Knight are biting their upper lips, smacking huge imaginary asses, simulating an incredibly vivid deep-dicking in NKOTBSB style.
Finally they get up and sway off-stage, still grinding, still smacking. I am speechless, thinking only (1) I desperately want to have sex with Nick Carter, and (2) of course the best part of their show is a cover medley where every single artist is black.
When they come back they've put the jazz-recital costumes back on. They do a Michael Jackson-sounding song ("If You Want It"), a Justin Timberlake-sounding song ("Switch"). They do the sort of Ne-Yo/Walk the Moon single "Drive My Car," which is one of the only two songs on their album where they have a writing credit; they do "One More Time," their current single, which I like a lot. Interspersed through every song on this set is a sort of '90s Jock Jams lightning-bolt sound I associate with megamixes from cheer camp, and I keep jumping like I've forgotten the moves.
It's the end of their set, all of a sudden. "We're doing great!" they yell. Like a living Christmas letter, they go on at length about all the things that are new and cool with them. Everything is going great! They're on this tour, they've got this new album, Nick Carter's got a reality show. "Give it up for THIS GUY," shouts Jordan, putting his arm around Nick. "He did this whole show sick! Nick Carter did this whole show with a cold!" The crowd goes ecstatic for Nick's act of devotion. "Next time we do this, he won't be sick! Will you still come back and see us?"
It's a real question, and it hangs in the air. But the audience has made it this far—24 years since "The Right Stuff," 18 since Backstreet Boys—and they cheer gamely.
"Everything's going amazing, thanks to you!" Nick & Knight shout, into the house lights, and then the past catches their eye and starts to glimmer. "Wasn't it just great, though, when BSB was the biggest thing?" Knight yells. "When NKOTB was the biggest thing?" yells Nick. Together: "Wasn't that great? Wasn't it?"
The crowd goes wild, and promises to return, next time, when Nick Carter doesn't have a cold anymore. A girl with a pageboy haircut gently places her rave stick on the floor.
Nick & Knight are doing great, I guess. The third round's a tough one, and they—Nick certainly more than Knight—are hiding, pretty well, the level of weariness involved when your audience has been winnowed from all the teenage girls in America to only the girls who have gotten older and not seen their musical tastes change at all. Nick & Knight are out there doing it: they run gamely through their choreography; they wink, they throw their arms around each other; they air-hump like frat boys at a talent show and scream "NYC, baby" until the timid women in boot-cut jeans go wild. They've got a couple of legitimate jams, even. But those last lines are a tell. Wasn't life better when we were famous? All night I was trying to figure out what their die-hard fans might have in common. I emerged into Times Square two hours later with a theory, at least.
Image by Tara Jacoby, Photos via AP.