In 2014, the people ready to see O-Town are roughly the same people who always were ready to see O-Town: People who were in middle school circa 2002.
O-Town in 2014 / Photo via O-Town on Facebook
“One million records sold, ten years in the making, you guys ready for some O-Town?” an unidentified bald man acting as O-Town’s hype man asked the audience at Irving Plaza in New York this past Tuesday. It was the first night of the group’s first tour in 11 years, and I had no idea what to expect. I had arrived early, and the venue was already crowded mostly with groups of friends, all of whom seemed exactly my age. There was plenty of reminiscing taking place. “I used to listen to L.F.O, on repeat,” one woman nearby told a friend, longingly. “What do you think the average age here is, must be 25?” another woman asked. I nodded to myself in agreement. In 2014, the people ready for some O-Town were roughly the same people who had always been ready for some O-Town, which is to say people who were in middle school circa 2002.
My first slow dance took place on a crowded outdoor tennis court at a YMCA camp in Connecticut. I had just turned 13. A short, pretty girl named Emily had come up to me and asked me if I wanted to dance. Reflexively, and with great fear, I said no. Immediately, I knew I had made a mistake. I had spent the previous year quietly watching my friends and crushes slow dance at bar mitzvahs and middle school dances. “Enough is enough,” I must have thought to myself. I spent the next several minutes sifting through the crowd, trying to track down Emily. When I found her, I tapped her on the shoulder and asked, nonchalantly, “actually, do you want to dance?” She said yes.
Emily and I slow danced (no grinding) to three songs that night. I wish I could say I remembered what each of the three songs were, but in my memory all of them were “All or Nothing” by O-Town.
“All or Nothing” was the signature of slow-dance anthem of the early and mid 2000s. Sure, there were others—“Hero,” by Enrique Iglesias, “Superman” by Five for Fighting, “This I Promise You” by NSYNC—but none of those quite reflected the life-or-death-seriousness of what happened when the lights dimmed and classmates slowly started disappearing to the middle of the dance floor in pairs. “All or Nothing” was the only song that treated the situation with the gravity it deserved: “Because I want it all… or nothing at all,” the group sang in melodramatic unison.
But when you’re in middle school, there’s no such thing as melodrama. All or nothing, that’s how I felt, lurking in the disco ball shadows as the privileged few paired off and stiffly swooned to the song’s dramatic piano: Either the next two and a half minutes were going to be everything, or they were going to be the complete absence of everything. “It’s now or never” was the line that wouldn't stop ringing in my ears. The stakes really were that high.
O-Town called it quits in 2003, after only three years as a band. They had come to prominence as some of the earliest network reality television stars in Making the Band, beginning their professional recording career just as the height of the late 90s boy band craze was slowly beginning to fade. Apart from “All or Nothing,” the group only had a couple other semi-hits, including “We Fit Together,” with its pop paradise music video that featured the band gleefully partying on a yacht, and “Liquid Dreams, ” their oddly literal ode to nocturnal emissions.
A quick YouTube search of the band’s early 2000s run gets pretty bizarre pretty quickly: There are videos of the group performing at something called Teenapalooza; there’s a clip of the band’s cross-promotional cameo on ABC’s All My Children; there’s footage of the band appearing on the Maury Show. It’s hard to tell whether O-Town’s history of televised appearances is just particularly well documented or if the group would perform literally anywhere during its brief existence. When an interviewer recently asked the band if they had any advice they’d go back and give themselves, knowing what they now know about the music industry, singer Erik-Michael Estrada quickly replied, “we probably could have said no a couple of times.”
At Irving Plaza, the evening's nostalgia machine started early with opener Todd Carey, an overly smiley singer-songwriter who makes Jason Mraz seem like Paul Simon. Fittingly, Carey covered “Rude” by Magic and later launched into a “History of Boy Bands” medley, which started with the Beatles and ended with One Direction. For his final song, Carey played his big hit, “Nintendo,” which, he bragged to the crowd, had been a number one song on the Billboard Twitter charts. The song namechecks Cap’n Crunch and has a chorus that goes: “You take me back like Nintendo / like when we were ten, yo / You take me back like Atari / like sleepover parties” and so on. By the end of the song I had had enough of Carey’s force-fed nostalgia. I was ready for the real thing.
The newly reunited O-Town (minus original blonde heartthrob Ashley Parker Angel) took the stage to “Liquid Dreams” with the first of several endearingly goofy choreographed dances. “Angelina Jolie’s lips to kiss in the dark / underneath Cindy C’s beauty mark / when it comes to the test, well Tyra’s the best / and Selma Hayek brings the rest,” they sang in four-part harmony. It was starting to feel like 2001 again.
The reunited O-Town’s live act was many things: standard fare boy band reunion, cheesy vaudeville act, vaguely sleazy frat party, awesome karaoke night. Pretty boys Dan Miller and Erik-Michael Estrada were the straight men, carrying the brunt of the vocal responsibilities and in general taking themselves fairly seriously. Trevor Penick (who was introduced as “Pool Party Trevor”) and Jacob Underwood, the scraggly guy with tattoos, on the other hand, played the role of affable goofballs and seemed to be getting a real kick out of their group’s unlikely comeback. During one song, Jacob and Trevor left the singing entirely to Dan and Erik-Michael while they made vodka-Sprites in white plastic cups at the back of the stage and, midway through the song, started handing them out to the audience. “We’ve got some beer in the back, we just need a few of these girls to come drink it with us,” Jacob announced at one point. “We’re older now, we drink coffee,” Erick-Michael said shortly after.
As for the music, O-Town sounded pretty good! The boys can still sing well enough. They relied heavily on songs from their new record, Lines & Circles, which the majority of the crowd seemed, amazingly, to be totally fine with. At one point, the group somewhat inexplicably launched into a very lengthy covers medley. Trevor rapped “Can’t Hold Us” by Macklemore and Kanye and Jay Z’s “Otis” while Jacob sang the Otis Redding refrain (Jacob, who also played acoustic guitar throughout the night, plays the classic boy band “soulful rock dude” role pretty well). Jacob then ran through questionable covers of Aloe Blacc’s minor hit “I Need a Dollar” and Sam Smith’s “Money On My Mind.”
Overall, the group’s new material sounded way better, on stage, than new material from O-Town in 2014 needs to sound. I was, however, slightly disappointed that the group didn’t play my favorite song from their new album. It's called “Sometimes Love Ain’t Enough,” and it's a slow, highly dramatic ballad that I like to think is the band’s explicit attempt at a sequel to “All or Nothing.” The opening lines read like stage directions for every socially incompetent, lonely 13 year-old the moment that first slow song of the evening starts up: “Look at us / why are we so far apart / both all alone in the dark / lonely with no one to hold.” Classic O-Town.
Still, the boys were making us wait. After they closed their main set with a few of the more upbeat songs from their new record, the crowd started buzzing with anticipation. They hadn’t played the song yet. A large group behind me started chanting: “O. Town.” O. Town. O. Town.” The group took a quick encore break.
Then they returned to the sound of "All Or Nothing's" perfectly schmaltzy piano. The crowd screamed much, much louder than they had all night. Everyone began shouting along as Dan sang “I know when he’s been on your mind, that distant look is in your eyes...” It was much louder than a middle school slow-dance.
Plenty of us had shown up to see O-Town perform with a mix of bemusement, sentimentality, and "haha O-Town" irony. Before they took the stage, someone behind me kept saying "this is going to be ridiculous," over and over again. But by the time the band reached the second chorus of "All or Nothing," no one was laughing. There was nothing all that funny, really, about belting along those immortal words—“with a simple telephone call”—alongside hundreds of fellow 25-year-olds, about conjuring up a long-past private memories, however traumatic or transcendent (sometimes both), that most of us have been hard-wired, ever since, to bury and suppress at all costs.
During the bridge, I looked up and noticed a spinning disco ball lighting up the dark room. Had it been going all along? As the band launched into a key change for the final climactic chorus, I turned around and looked at the sparkly-lit fans around me for a quick second, wondering what trembling, pubescent memories they were invoking at that very moment. It felt good to get a whiff of what used to feel like the most intense, dire feelings I could ever possibly have, to briefly bask in the crushing seriousness I faced on that tennis court in Connecticut, and on so many other nights. And by the look of the rest of the audience's faces, as they smiled along and sang, devastated, the song's closing words, that very same emotional flashback was happening to everyone else here as well. The song ended, but this time around it hadn't been nearly as scary to hear it alone.
Jonathan Bernstein wants it all or nothing at all. Follow Jonathan Bernstein on Twitter.