Backtracking is our recurring look back at the pop music that shaped our lives. Our friends may come and go, but we’ll be spinning our favorite albums forever.
The last few years of the ’90s saw a transition in music from angsty grunge and gangsta rap toward high-gloss pop (see Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears). But before there could be a “…Baby One More Time”, and before boy bands could rule MTV, the pop world had to be cheered up. The band that did it — Hanson — wound up setting a course for pop’s future by evoking its past with a twist.
With yearning vocals that recalled the Jackson 5 and the sunnily innocent harmonies of The Cowsills, three blond brothers from Oklahoma swept across the landscape with their breakthrough album Middle Of Nowhere. While their hit songs had help from veteran songwriters and producers like Desmond Child, the music worked because it felt unaffected — Taylor, Zac and Isaac, with their long long golden locks and not-quite-cracked-puberty vocals, wrote their own songs, played their own instruments and didn’t rely on stylized costumes and synchronized pelvic thrusts to get their music to the masses. It was the return of honest bubblegum.
Released on May 6, 1997, Middle of Nowhere was welcomed by critics as a breath of fresh air and brought in five hits worldwide, including their only #1 single in the US “MMMBop.” The album peaked at #2 on the US album charts, eventually selling 10 million copies worldwide — and even for the pre-iTunes world, that was a lot of CDs.
The Hanson brothers may have only been in their teens (or tweens in Zac’s case) when they landed a major record deal with Mercury/Polygram Records, but they already had about five years of experience writing, recording and performing their own work. Prior to Middle of Nowhere, they independently recorded and released two other albums, Boomerang and MMMBop. But when it came time to polish Middle of Nowhere, the boys teamed with hit-making producers The Dust Brothers, who most notably transformed “MMMBop” from a ballad into an infectiously upbeat track with a grammatically nonsensical chorus and hip touches like turntable scratches. The track eventually nabbed two Grammy nominations, topped the singles charts in over 20 countries and today makes regular appearances on “Greatest Songs of the ’90s” lists.