Get it out of your system: Mmmbop. Da ba du bop. Du ba da ba du bop. Da ba du. Maybe grab a shaker or a friend to harmonize. One of the most appealing things about Hanson’s contribution to pop culture (which was released as a single 20 years ago tomorrow) is how easy it is to imagine coming up with it yourself. Hell, it sounds more like a song crafted on the spot by a fictional band in a movie than “That Thing You Do!” does. The trio of teenaged brothers were going through the same things as their audience, except maybe homeschooling, and they sharpened their musical chops doing à cappella on the street like fucking Christmas carolers. And while their Beatlemania moment was brief, they were the definitive harbingers of what would come to replace grunge.
Before “MMMBop,” the ’90s were no place for innocence. Between Wilson Phillips and boy bands, radio playlists were stuffed with “I don’t see nothin’ wrong with a little bump ‘n’ grind” and “I wanna fuck you like an animal” and “Load up on guns” and even a trifle like Blues Traveler’s “Hook” was designed from its “Canon In D” backing to its innocuous lyric to scorn pop listeners. Even the contemporaneous post-grunge softies on rock radio were bad boys: Matchbox 20’s unreliable abuse narrative “Push,” Third Eye Blind’s packed-and-holding meth anthem “Semi-Charmed Life,” Chumbawamba’s anarchists and Smash Mouth’s pre-Shrek plea to “put away the crack.” Even goddamn Sarah McLachlan spun a hit from a stalker’s letter with “Possession.”
So it’s important to remember that Hanson weren’t just kids, weren’t just “writing their own songs” at ages 11, 14, and 16, and weren’t just performing smiley-faced in front of a blooming flower in their hit video. Hanson’s success was a sharp rebuke to everything else about budding teenagers in the ’90s, who, as I did, exchanged Korn lyrics like “You’ll suck my dick and fucking like it” as shared secrets among adolescent male idiots. They were a dry run for a boy-band industry that had closed up shop when the New Kids tried to pass off the dawgshit that was “Dirty Dawg” (“Never, ever think of jerkin’ me” — yikes).
But the revival of mechanized pop was still far away, making these instrument-wielding Tulsa, Oklahoma teenagers a weird curio we now know to have grown up into dad-rock. The hopeful, slightly misty chords alone didn’t differentiate “MMMBop” much from, say, “Two Princes.” It was 14-year-old Taylor Hanson’s pleading vocal performance that beckoned loved ones to be here now more than anything on the infamous Oasis album. Listening to 1997’s quadruple-platinum Middle Of Nowhere 20 years on, it fits in more with the Wallflowers or Counting Crows than its chart-topping peers like the Spice Girls. As lightly funky, Van Morrison-loving roots-rock granted the occasional turntable scratch or drum machine. It was white middle America’s Jackson 5, or a non-banal Osmonds, and the 10-million-selling “MMMBop” was certainly its “ABC” or “I Want You Back.”
Before the Dust Brothers added their Beck-and-Beasties-certified DJ touches, “MMMBop” began as a slower tune but it was a little too messy in its original version (that fucking tambourine) to be a ballad even though Taylor’s convincingly earnest lead performance was aiming for ’60s soul all the way, pivoting to that unforgettable chorus bursting with flower-child-era bubblegum. John King and Mike Simpson forced it to pick a lane and made “MMMBop” the upbeat sno-cone wrapped in a chocolate-dipped burrito and served on a skateboard that we know today. It’s a good song, maybe even great, and also kinda simple, but it has one true element of genius: The faux-nonsense words actually mean something.
If you only remember (or only ever noticed) the hook, the dreary opening lines of “MMMBop” will come as a shock; “You have so many relationships in this life / Only one or two will last” could’ve hailed from like, Type O Negative circa Slow, Deep And Hard. Then what follows is virtually a summation of the new Mount Eerie album: “You go through all the pain and strife / Then you turn your back and they’re gone so fast.” Fun, right? Except yeah, then the darkness gives way to mmmbopdabadubopdubadabadubopyeeeeaaahyeaaah and we’re in Candyland, at least until the mania subsides and Taylor ad-libs a giveaway “in an mmmbop they’re gone,” revealing an mmmbop to be a measure of time, approximately the length of one Iggy Azalea.
In fact, the only chart-topping 1997 tune more consumed with death was Puff Daddy and the Bad Boy Family’s sweet, corny Sting-plucking Biggie tribute “I’ll Be Missing You.” It would be a stretch to call Middle Of Nowhere a mature album, but it certainly wasn’t pandering or stupid; Hanson were comfortable in their skin as a kid band who wanted to sound wise because the soul musicians they idolized did too. “Weird” was a pretty apt summation of feeling weird, “Yearbook” a wonderfully overwrought whodunit about the classmate who moved away (“It says picture unavailable right here!” shrieked Taylor like Steven Tyler in “Dream On”). And “MMMBop” cleverly turned a bunch of unformed pop syllables — that Hanson themselves admitted were originally planned as a backing vocal — into a bizarrely all-ages meditation on love and loss, and one of the most recognizable songs of the decade.
To their credit, Hanson maintained their modest uncool long after they split off from the majors. No EDM reinventions, no sex scandals, not even a sex lyric. They’re a DIY success story like few others; it’s almost a shame that they’re so normal. Though a Radiohead (circa Kid A!)cover and their own gold-medal-winning brand of pale ale called MMMHops (whose website Firefox currently considers a security breach) are pretty satisfying factoids. They all married, they started a side project with a Fountain Of Wayne, and they continue to put out music that sounds close enough to “MMMBop” to please their surprisingly enduring fanbase.
But seriously, “be thankful for what you’ve got while you’ve got it” was a pretty dad lesson from a bunch of teens who turned out to be born dads: Hanson have sired a dozen kids between them. Wonder how many will be musicians.