Three kids from Tulsa wrote about how fleeting life is — and then turned it into a breezy pop smash whose deeper meanings the world has long ignored
2022 marks the 25th anniversary of the year that everything happened — 1997. It was an ear-biting, Pierce Brosnan-loving, comet-obsessed world, and we’re here to relive every minute of it. Twice a week over the next 12 months, we will take you back to the winter of sheep cloning and the summer of Con Air. Come for the Chumbawamba, and stay for the return of the Mack. See all of the stories here.
Life goes by so fast. That’s a cliché, of course, but how old were you when you realized the truth in that bromide? Maybe when you graduated from high school? College? Maybe it was when your friends started getting married? Or having kids? Whenever it first happened, it’s a good bet it was at some point in adulthood, the shock of recognition that you weren’t a kid anymore suddenly rushing at you: Oh man, I’ve been alive for so many years — where did the time go?
One of 1997’s biggest hits was, on its surface, a breezy pop number with a silly title. But “MMMBop” was actually about something a little deeper — the passage of time, the regrets we don’t know we’re going to have once we’re older. That a 12-year-old conceived it is startling. Imagine being that young and yet somehow grasping the slow, sad realization that nothing lasts. God, that’s depressing — even more because it was embedded in a piece of musical bubblegum.
Technically, Isaac, Taylor and Zac Hanson weren’t one-hit wonders. Recording under their family name, they rose to prominence thanks to “MMMBop,” which was No. 1 for three weeks in May 1997, taking the top spot from the late Notorious B.I.G.’s “Hypnotize” before being bested by “I’ll Be Missing You,” Puff Daddy’s paean to his slain friend. Hanson would go on to have two other Top 20 smashes, but you’d be forgiven if they’ve completely escaped your memory. “MMMBop” defined Hanson, enshrining them as eternal youngers, the cute blond brothers who loved doo-wop and the Jackson 5. They seemingly came out of nowhere, and they disappeared just as quickly. (That last part isn’t true, actually — they’ve steadily released albums ever since, even if the wider world barely bothered to notice.) But they gave the 1990s its “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da,” its “Tutti Frutti,” its “I don’t quite know the chorus, but I can kinda sing along with it anyway.” And once someone tells you what the song is really about, it’s hard to ever hear it in the same way.
The Hanson brothers grew up in Tulsa, part of a family of seven siblings. Homeschooled in a religious household, Isaac (born in 1980), Taylor (born in 1983) and Zac (born in 1985) got to see a little bit of the world as boys. “We lived in South America for a year,” Taylor recalled. “Our dad had taken this job working for an oil company — it sounds really glamorous, but he was an accountant. We didn’t have that many things to listen to, just a little bit of music that was a sampling from early rock ‘n’ roll.” They dug “Johnny B. Goode” and “Good Golly, Miss Molly,” pondering the possibility of becoming musicians themselves. “The idea of singing and harmonizing was very much around us,” Taylor said.
In the early 1990s, the brothers traveled to South by Southwest, hoping to get people interested in songs they’d been working on. “We busked in the streets, nobody wanted to listen to us,” Zac told Spin in 2017, “but eventually we found a guy who came up and was like, ‘Let me hear your music,’ and that guy became our manager, helped us get signed and was with us for years.”
Their first record, 1995’s independently released Boomerang, was filled with pop songs that recalled classic R&B, complemented by covers of the Coasters and the Jackson 5. Although they were kids, they didn’t sound like a boy band. There was none of the sleek style of New Kids on the Block, although you can hear a little of the influence of New Jack Swing and gospel on the nascent group. Boomerang is largely forgotten now, but during those sessions, Hanson stumbled upon what would end up being part of “MMMBop.” “We were trying to write a part for another song and came up with this catchy hook, but it didn’t really fit,” Isaac said in a 2018 Guardian interview. “Much, much later, I said to the guys, ‘Remember that hook? It really sticks in your head. We need to find a way to use it.’ Then, as we were getting ready for bed, we all sang it together in the bathroom.”
Now they just needed some lyrics. That’s where Isaac’s younger brother came in. “I remember really clearly Taylor sitting down in our living room at the keyboard as I was walking,” Isaac recalled. “It was late afternoon and the sun was still up. Taylor was sitting at the piano and he basically played what was mostly the first verse for ‘MMMBop,’ and it was like, ‘Okay, that works, that makes sense.’ But he was like, ‘You know, we’ve got to start it out slow because it’s a bittersweet idea, more melancholy, and then we work our way to the chorus.’ In its original form, it was a little bit more campfire and a little bit more bittersweet.”
This is how “MMMBop” starts:
You have so many relationships in this life
Only one or two will last
You’re going through all the pain and strife
Then you turn your back and they’re gone so fast
According to Isaac, Taylor told him, “We can make this song about life — and all the rejection we’re feeling.” Taylor was 12 at the time — for what it’s worth, Paul McCartney was about 14 when he came up with “When I’m Sixty-Four,” another song about wondering what old age would look like and hoping to feel connected to a special someone in one’s golden years. “MMMBop” hit upon a similar sentiment.
So hold on 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
Can you tell me who will still care?
When the band first recorded “MMMBop,” in 1996, it sounded a little rawer, the flowing harmonies offset by grittier guitars. This early version feels more like lo-fi indie-rock, a sunny garage anthem. By that point, the brothers were traveling around the Midwest, gigging at local fairs, so they were able to road-test the song to see what the reaction was. “‘MMMBop’ became a mainstay that we would play in our little sets around Oklahoma and Arkansas and Kansas and wherever people would listen to us,” Taylor recalled. “It was definitely one of the songs that was a [crowd] favorite, but it wasn’t the favorite.” Their manager tried to get the band’s demo, which included the rough version of “MMMBop,” to label heads, but it wasn’t until Steve Greenberg, who worked for Mercury, that the band caught a break.
“I thought it was amazing,” Greenberg later said of the song. “The lead singer’s voice was tremendous and the song was so catchy. But I was totally skeptical. I thought some adult was manipulating it. There must be adults playing the instruments or adults must have written the song and I bet that in real life the kids couldn’t sing that well. I wasn’t going to pursue it but the song stayed in my head.”
You could understand Greenberg’s hesitation. In the mid-1990s, the music industry was only a few years removed from the Milli Vanilli scandal, in which the photogenic duo of Rob Pilatus and Fab Morvan admitted that they never sang a word on their Grammy-winning, multi-platinum debut Girl You Know It’s True. Obviously, that lip-sync controversy was especially egregious, but in an age of manufactured pop stars, the idea that these three Tulsa kids wrote and performed all their own music would understandably make label executives suspicious. But after seeing Hanson live, Greenberg was convinced, signing the band.
Even so, Hanson resisted being packaged as a lightweight pop act, even though it made sense when novelty hits like “Macarena” were huge and Spice Girls were starting to blow up — not to mention that a new wave of boy bands such as NSYNC and Backstreet Boys were just over the horizon. “When we first came out, being so young, the attempt to group us into the teen-pop thing was strong,” Taylor said. “But we were like: We’re just a band. We just happen to be really young. You’d be amazed at how many situations were like, ‘Put on a suit, it’s very nice, very flashy.’ You’re like, that’s not happening.”
While Hanson played their own instruments and wrote their own songs, they certainly got help when putting together their official debut, Middle of Nowhere. Desmond Child, a hired-gun songwriter who’d fashioned hits for Aerosmith and Bon Jovi, came on board, as did Ellen Shipley (who co-wrote Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven Is a Place on Earth”) and the married duo Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil (responsible for “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” and the Oscar-nominated American Tail ballad “Somewhere Out There”).
But perhaps most integral were Mike Simpson and John King, a songwriting-production combo known as the Dust Brothers. They were part of the late-1980s heyday of Los Angeles hip-hop, working on smash records like Tone Lōc’s Lōc-ed After Dark and Young MC’s Stone Cold Rhymin’. Their greatest achievement, however, was 1989’s Paul’s Boutique, a symphony of interwoven samples that proved the Beastie Boys weren’t just the frat-boy jokers of their ultra-successful debut, Licensed to Ill. The Dust Brothers had a knack for turning old-school styles into fresh sounds — and they were about to enjoy their greatest acclaim as Beck’s Odelay earned album-of-the-year kudos in 1996.
“When I first heard the demo tape of Hanson, it took me back to my childhood,” Simpson said in 2013. “I would come home and lip-sync Jackson 5 songs every day after school as a little kid. I heard Hanson and thought, ‘Oh my God, this sounds like really cool music.’” Greenberg has claimed it was his idea to get Simpson and King involved in Middle of Nowhere. “I had an advance copy of Beck’s album Odelay. The production, by the Dust Brothers, was amazing,” he said. “I wanted them to produce a new version of ‘MMMBop,’ but then Odelay came out and the Dust Brothers were suddenly hot. They lost interest in the project after two days in the studio, but it was enough time to get the drums and bass down and maybe some guitars.”
Because of the Dust Brothers’ prestige, it’s generally believed that they made “MMMBop” what it was. But in a 2017 oral history of the song at Mental Floss, Doug Trantow, who served as second engineer on the album, pushed back on that assumption. “The Dust Brothers came over [to Scream Studios] and we transferred the work they had done onto our tape machines … and then we never saw them again,” he said. “I’ve heard people say ‘MMMBop’ was recorded in the Dust Brothers’ living room, and though they did start the song there, I absolutely guarantee every single part of their work was replaced by Stephen [Lironi] at Scream, with the exception of one record scratch on ‘MMMBop.’”
Lironi, a songwriter and producer who had worked with Bon Jovi, entered the picture once the Dust Brothers exited, similarly impressed by Hanson’s demos. “I loved the songs and the vocals were just unbelievable,” Lironi said in 1997. “[Taylor had] really great phrasing, really soulful, and sounded like a really young Michael Jackson back in the days when he was singing things such as ‘ABC.’ Remarkable.”
Ultimately, who deserves “credit” for the final version of “MMMBop” isn’t all that interesting, but what’s undeniable was that this polished new take had a sleekness that the original lacked. The record scratches made the song feel contemporary, but there was no mistaking what was still deeply Jackson 5-ish about the track. (It wasn’t just that both groups consisted of brothers — it was that they shared a joy of delivering glorious vocals, all piled on top of one another, singing in familial union.) The chorus, which had existed since the Boomerang sessions, now really shone — it was seeming gibberish that was fun to sing:
Mmm bop, ba duba dop
Ba du bop, ba duba dop
Ba du bop, ba duba dop
Ba du, yeah, yeah
Mmm bop, ba duba dop
Ba du bop, ba du dop
Ba du bop, ba du dop
Ba du, yeah, yeah
Hanson didn’t consider it gibberish, though. “Too many people put a ‘wop’ in there,” Zac said during a 2017 radio interview. “What happens is people go to sing that song and they start making it up as if it’s nonsense. But it’s actually a repetitive part, it came from doo-wop songs. So it’s a background part.”
Like “A-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-wop-bam-boom” or “De do do do, de da da da,” the chorus of “MMMBop” expressed a primal emotional state through rudimentary syllables. Of course, Hanson hadn’t conceived the song as a lighthearted ditty: In truth, the chorus was actually more of a taunt, a way of illustrating just how fleeting life is. Near the end of the song, they sing, “In an mmm bop they’re gone / In an mmm bop they’re not there.” In essence, that catchy “Mmm bop” was actually a measurement of time, a way of noting how quickly everything can change. The happier the chorus got, the sadder the song became. In 1997, everybody was blissfully singing along to the cruel passage of time.
“I loved the juxtaposition between the extremely joyous music and the dark lyrics,” Greenberg said in the Mental Floss oral history. “The entire album has dark lyrics, actually. People just didn’t notice because the music was so upbeat. But from the start, I realized this was a band that was addressing serious subjects.”