Music critics are misleading you. Their lists are cataloged lies. The greatest single of all time is not “Fight the Power,” or “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” or “Johnny B. Goode,” or “Anarchy in the U.K.,” or “Billie Jean.” The deception is strategic; uncovering the truth would only upset their carefully constructed pop music hierarchy. They don’t want you to know that the greatest single ever released was written and performed by three lily white, chaste, evangelical hayseeds from a podunk town in Oklahoma.
Yes, I’m referring to Hanson and to its No. 1 smash “MMMBop,” released 15 years ago this week. The reasons for this song’s unparalleled magnificence are nearly infinite. For the sake of brevity, we shall select four.
A much-needed pick-me-up
Throughout the spring and summer of 1997, the pop music landscape was shrouded in dark clouds. Notorious B.I.G. died in March; “I’ll Be Missing You,” a funereal ode to the slain rapper by Puff Daddy, Faith Evans, and 112, spent a record-breaking 11 weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. The subject matter from other hits during this time period was just as gloomy: drug dependency (Third Eye Blind’s “Semi-Charmed Life”), arson and tortured pasts (Shawn Colvin’s “Sunny Came Home”), the unchecked horrors of PMS (Meredith Brooks’ “Bitch”). An Entertainment Weekly piece from July of ’97 contended that pop culture had America “slouching toward the millennium.”
“MMMBop” was a toasty fire on the hearth after a night of wandering through a cold, desolate wilderness. It was a much-needed reminder that pop music could still warm the heart and get listeners to break out in big, toothy, idiotic grins. Songs that give audiences something they sorely need (in this case, a pick-me-up) make them a clear product of their time and place of origin, while allowing them to be eternally remembered outside both.
Nonsense words are fun!
“MMMBop” continued pop music’s longstanding tradition of popularizing gibberish. Little Richard exclaimed, “A-wop bop-a loo-mop, a-lop bam-boom!” The Ramones yelled,“Gabba gabba hey!” Slick Rick said, “La di da di.” And Hanson gave us, “Mmmbop ba duba dop.”
Nonsense words are fun, whether they’re being merrily enunciated by our favorite music artist or us. Pop song babble also has a wonderful way of crossing boundaries. As Steve Greenberg, the Mercury Records A&R executive who signed the band, once pointed out, “MMMBop”‘s silly-sounding chorus meant the same thing in every language.
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How adorable were these guys?
When “MMMBop” was released, Isaac, Taylor, and Zac were 16, 14, and 11 respectively. Isaac’s hair reminded you of the floppy ears on a cocker spaniel. Mischievous, good-natured Zac was the type of kid who slipped whoopee cushions onto unsuspecting victims’ chairs. Comedian Jay Mohr famously said of the androgynous Taylor, mired in his awkward tweener years, “That’s the hottest kid I’ve seen in my life. My friends say, ‘He’s a boy,’ and I go, ‘I don’t care, he’s the hottest little girl I’ve ever seen.'” The Hanson brothers were like three plush, dimple-cheeked, twinkly-eyed dolls. You wanted to gather up all three of them in a big bear hug.
The group got its start at county fairs. Greenberg described how his second-ever visit with the boys consisted of a trip to a Tulsa-area amusement park, where they rode go-carts and bumper boats together. Taylor, describing the music scene in that aforementionedEntertainment Weekly story: “For a while, there was that alternative thing, and it was huge. And now it’s coming back to music being fun.”
“That alternative thing.” Weren’t these guys simply adorable? “MMMBop”‘s wholesome, giddy message became even more potent once you realized how genuine it was, how the purveyors of it were without the slightest hint of pretense.
Adult themes in kids’ hands
“MMMBop” compared human relationships to roses, urging listeners to dutifully plant them throughout their lives. Doesn’t that just make you tingly all over?
The song was like one of those group studies where psychologists ask kids to define love and they manage to characterize it in a more lucid and profound manner than any adult. “Love is what’s in the room with you at Christmas when you stop opening presents.” “When someone loves you, the way they say your name is different.” That sort of thing. With lyrics like, “So hold on to the ones who really care / In the end they’ll be the only ones there / And when you get old and start losing your hair,” “MMMBop” did much of the same. Weighty, grown-up themes were transformed into something listeners of any age or era could grasp, giving the single a true timeless quality.