20 years later, Hanson’s “Middle of Nowhere” stands the test of time

By | May 6, 2017

SALON

20 years later, Hanson's "Middle of Nowhere" stands the test of timeEnlargeHanson (Credit: Getty/Brenda Chase)

Music was in a transitional period in 1997. Grunge and Britpop had petered out, leaving alternative music to embrace an eclectic grab bag of sounds and styles. The Spice Girls were leading a new pop revolution that eventually bloomed into a boy-band and teen-pop movement. Nu-metal was lurking in the background, poised to take over the rock scene. And sentimental tributes — led by Elton John’s Princess Diana-honoring “Candle in the Wind 1997″ and Puff Daddy and Faith Evans’ homage to the Notorious B.I.G., “I’ll Be Missing You” — dominated the charts.

In other words, 1997 had plenty of openings for sounds that were (comparatively) a little more unorthodox. Enter Hanson, a trio of fresh-faced Oklahoma brothers who stormed the charts with “Mmmbop.” The affable, bubblegum-pop tune spent three weeks at No. 1 in the U.S. and was nominated for two Grammy Awards. Its nonsensical but irresistible chorus — lots of “doo wop,” “duba dop” and “ba doo” sounds — also confounded linguists. The band’s record company saw opportunity in the gibberish, however: In a 1997 People interview, Mercury Records’ Steve Greenberg pointed out that the chorus “means the same thing in every language,” which aided its global success.

“Mmmbop” was only one part of Hanson’s world domination, however. On May 6, 1997, the band released its major label debut record, “Middle of Nowhere,” which peaked at No. 2 on the U.S. album charts, spawned five worldwide hits and eventually went quadruple platinum.

On some level, the record represented a can’t-fail proposition. Songwriting contributions come from Mark Hudson (who had collaborated closely with Aerosmith and Ringo Starr, among others), ’80s hitmaker Desmond Child and the husband-wife musical powerhouse Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. The record was also co-produced by the Dust Brothers, who were known for their work on Beastie Boys’ “Paul’s Boutique” and Beck’s “Odelay.”

Thanks to this combination of players, “Middle of Nowhere” smartly toes the line between modern flourishes and timeless influences. “Speechless,” for example, adds tasteful, DJ-like scribbles to soulful funk grooves and horns, while “Mmmbop” has whimsical-sounding programming underneath its gleeful pop surface. The album sounds contemporary without resorting to trend hopping, which is a tough thing to do.

Yet its embrace of timeless influences also helps “Middle of Nowhere” stand the test of time.For example, the joyful funk-rock songs “Where’s the Love” and “Madeline” are comparable to the oeuvre of The Jackson 5. The record also touches on gauzy ’70s soft rock (“Lucy”) and pop-leaning ’70s classic rock (“Thinking of You”), however, while power-pop signifiers saturate the sugar rush of “Man from Milwaukee” and the XTC-like “A Minute Without You.” And “I Will Come to You” is the kind of epic, warm-and-fuzzy ballad that exudes sincerity without reservations.

In hindsight, “Middle of Nowhere” feels like a modern reproduction of a retro T-shirt — one with the iconography and intent of the original, only made with sturdier material. That’s not a knock: At the time of its release, the  record’s vintage vibe felt like a refreshing breath of fresh air, and today it sounds both un-self-conscious and self-assured — a combination that’s not that easy to sustain.