Late August 1984. Half past midnight on the haunches of what has been, for most kids, the first day back to school. Up and down the quiet suburban streets, the bedroom lights that burned brightly all through summer vacation have been snuffed out cold. "Not on a school night," the forbidding phrase welcomely retired for the past three months, suddenly reappears in the vocabularies of parents everywhere. But sixteen-year-olds Ricky Bell, Michael Bivens, Ronald DeVoe, and Ralph Tresvant and fifteen-year-old Bobby Brown ain't worried about rising early for the school bus. The five members of New Edition, MCA's hot new teen sensation, have just bopped out of a trendy Phoenix nightclub on the arms of foxy ladies easily ten years their seniors. It's all too much for a group of club regulars, four eligible bachelors in their mid- to late twenties who've followed the shapely sirens out to the curb in a last-ditch attempt to steal them away from the young pop stars. "Yo!" hollers one of the men. "What do you ladies want with kids? This here's the Old Edition! C'mon over here." But the cradle-robbing cuties are not deterred from their mission. Sure, the fresh-faced fivesome stepping into their sport coupes are kids. But with a couple of hit records on the charts and a professionally groomed look straight out of the latest MTV fashion portfolio, the pubescent quintet still has more on the ball than most of the heavy hitters at the bar. Besides, after a summer of pop trends ruled by youngsters, kids are suddenly, in a way, the hip Eighties escort. "I think kids are the new thing in the music industry now," says Ralph Tresvant a couple of hours before leaving the club. "Breakin,' rappin,'" he says, rattling off the latest sensations. "It's mostly the kids that are behind that." "It seems like history's repeating itself," adds Michael Bivens, recalling the period in the early Seventies then the young, exuberant sound of the Jackson 5 sparked a kid-group trend that introduced a handful of similar acts like the Osmonds and the Sylvers. "Now we're coming out, and we're bringing the young sound back again, and we're getting copiers." "Everybody's looking for these kid groups," says Tresvant. "They see that young kids are making it now, so they all want to get a piece of the young action." Including, it seems, older women. Everywhere the boys go, they admit, they're approached by the kind of twentysomething babes most kids their age only get to see in David Lee Roth videos or the intimate-apparel pages of the J.C. Penney catalogue. Unfortunately, everywhere they go the boys are also followed by their ever-vigilant manager and a bodyguard so enormous he could eclipse the moon on any given romantic evening. The beefy bodyguard intercepts every drink the kids are offered and tastes it first for traces of alcohol. The manager cordons off his young charges like a human "Crime Scene--Do Not Cross" banner every time a leg-weakening temptress approaches. And when the five drive off in the back seats of those damsel-driven coupes, they're followed close behind by--yep, the record company chaperones. There is, after all, a highly bankable image to protect. New Edition, as Bivens observed, is MCA's updated answer to the cartoon-era Jackson 5, a squeaky-clean quintet who sing perky bubblegum ballads to "Candy Girl" and do radio ads urging their pip-squeak peers to "Cool it now, don't be a fool--stay in school!" It would hardly do to turn them loose in a hotel room with a covey of freaky foxes and risk having plaster casts of their privates turn up in some enterprising groupie's rock-curio road show. That kind of action would have to wait until the boys were old enough to shed their teen-dream image. Until they were established enough to reintroduce themselves as an older, more mature Edition. Until, until . . . FAST-FORWARD TO January 1989. Nineteen-year-old Bobby Brown, now a solo superstar on tour in support of his multiplatinum album Don't Be Cruel, is arrested after a sold-out concert in Columbus, Georgia, for violating the state's "lewd law." According to arresting officer Sergeant Bobby Horne, Brown was nabbed for "simulating sexual intercourse" onstage with an eighteen-year-old fan--even though Brown himself insists he was three to five feet away from the girl at all times (a testimony to white America's exaggerated image of the black male's tool if ever there was one). A year later, under the corporate-sounding moniker Bell Biv DeVoe, New Edition's back-up singers release an album jam-packed with such throbbing backbeats and licentious lyrics it prompts one Rolling Stone critic to exclaim, "If the true spirit of the male love jones could speak, its words would be BBD's." Indeed, the album's first single "Poison" is aired only in carefully censored versions on many Top 40 stations, with many programmers squeamish about broadcasting lines like "Me and the crew used to do her" over the car radio while Mom's toting the tots to school. BBD responds to the controversy with a second single more explicit than the first. "Do Me Baby," a sizzler with a title as subtle as an erection, even comes complete with instructions: "Slap it up, flip it, rub it down--oh noooo!"
The same year finds the remaining New Edition alumni, Ralph Tresvant and Johnny Gill, releasing their own hot 'n' heavy albums. Gill and Tresvant, however, opt for a more suavely seductive approach than their former partners. Tresvant, New Edition's sweetest tenor voice, casts himself as "Mr. Sensitivity" in his debut solo single of the same name. And Gill, employing his rich, mature-sounding baritone to the fullest effect, goes for a cross between a young Teddy Pendergrass and a muscular Luther Vandross. Both albums, though, work as great modern make-out music. They're the records a heavy-petting twosome might put on after dirty dancing half the night to Bobby Brown and Bell Biv DeVoe. SO HOW DID the Eighties' most polite and gentlemanly bubblegum group turn into the Libido Liberaces of the Nineties? It may have something to do with all that bodyguarding and image preserving the five members were subjected to during their first years of fame. Keep a bucking bull cooped up for so long and he's bound to go charging horns first when you open the gate. Especially after you've been taunting him repeatedly with a red cape--or in the Edition's case, a tight red dress. "We wasn't into drugs, we wasn't into liquor," Brown told Rolling Stone in 1989, recounting New Edition's reactions to the many adult vices that passed just outside their protected circle as young bucks. "We was into girls." But if New Edition's chaste image was something the young men saw as a giant "Get Smart" dunce cap they were happy to have suddenly lifted off their heads, not all of their good-boy grooming immediately went to waste. Before January's American Music Awards presentation, many observers speculated as to how nasty the competitive spirit could rage between Bell Biv DeVoe and Johnny Gill, both up for Favorite New Artist in the Soul/R&B category. But BBD's gesture upon winning the award, bringing both Gill and Tresvant up to the podium to accept the sharp-tipped trophy, was an impressive and touching show of camaraderie. They might all be in competition to bed down the most groupies before they hit thirty, but at least the guys haven't forgotten how to bond. More importantly, in an era when most of what passes for Top 40 titillation are the sexist come-ons of misogynistic rap stars, the graduates of New Edition haven't forgotten how to show respect for the fairer sex. Indeed, this particular pack of pop Lotharios actually tend to exalt the women they stalk in song. "To me, `My, My, My' is a song that compliments a woman," Johnny Gill told Essence recently, explaining his motivation for recording the growling, sexy, slow jam that's now up for two Soul Train awards and one Grammy. "You have to tell your woman when she wakes up in the morning how good she looks." Bobby Brown, too, advocates putting a woman on a pedestal for more than just a good view up her dress. "Women are God's gift to the world," he proclaimed in his first People appearance. "They're not equal to men--they're more. They've got so much more to offer emotionally." Granted, the parents who bought their ten-year-olds a New Edition album in '84 might be a little rattled to hear some of the things those sweet young boys are singing to their teenagers today. But if it's going to be up to any pop stars to lead the kids of the Eighties to the back seat of the car in the Nineties, let's face it: Better BBD than 2 Live Crew.
Bell Biv DeVoe will perform with Johnny Gill, and Keith Sweat at Veterans' Memorial Coliseum on Thursday, February 7. Showtime is 9 p.m.
So how did the Eighties' most polite and gentlemanly bubblegum group turn into the Libido Liberaces of the Nineties?
In an era of the sexist come-ons of misogynistic rap stars, the graduates of New Edition haven't forgotten how to show respect for the fairer sex.