HOW ‘MMMBOP’ BECAME 1997’S SADDEST FEEL-GOOD HIT

By | March 13, 2022

Mel Magazine

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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.”

Serious subjects, perhaps, but the video didn’t let on, playing up the song’s good-time groove. A 1990s spin on the madcap glee of the Beatles during their A Hard Day’s Night period, the clip saw the Hanson brothers skating, playing on the beach and generally goofing around. The video was the epitome of wholesomeness, showing off their squeaky-clean vibe and Taylor’s braces. Much like the Monkees, Hanson evoked a youthful, dorky innocence unbesmirched by messy realities such as hormones and sexual desire. And at a time when pop music was becoming racier, and hip-hop was beginning to assert its cultural dominance, “MMMBop” felt uncomplicated and harmless — it was a “nice” song. In the public eye, the trio did what they could to reinforce that impression. “It’s not that we don’t drink beer, or that we weren’t smoking cigars at 15,” Zac said a few years ago. “We just never did that on camera.”

The fact that the video made a point of showing the brothers playing their instruments was also indicative of its era. As rap haters grumbled about an artform that “wasn’t real music,” Hanson presented the reassuring image of all-American white kids banging away on guitar, keyboards and drums — the way music “used” to be. Even the group’s flyover-country unpretentiousness helped — they just seemed like sweet kids performing a song they wrote themselves. There had been other sibling acts earlier in the decade — Wilson Phillips, Nelson — but they were the descendants of famous musicians. Long before American Idol, Hanson represented the dream of the wide-eyed talent from some murky backwater who, thanks to his talent and perseverance, becomes a star. Who could resist such a comforting narrative?

“MMMBop” hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts, while Middle of Nowhere peaked at No. 2, going quadruple-platinum. (Another single, the Mann/Weil-assisted ballad “I Will Come to You,” went Top 10.) The song also topped that year’s Village Voice Pazz & Jop Critics Poll. But Hanson’s popularity inevitably triggered a backlash, perhaps best embodied in a video that went viral recently, which came from Game 1 of the 1997 World Series, where the band sang an a cappella rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” right after the crowd had passionately booed them.

When the clip made the rounds last week, it was presented as a feel-good story — Look how these good boys weathered such abuse and emerged triumphant! — but the moment underscored an inescapable reality of the time: Maybe Hanson was wholesome, but they were also kinda lame. For as much as the group insisted on separating itself from the teen-pop stratosphere, Middle of Nowhere was widely perceived to be a record that had been significantly assisted by the adults overseeing the project.

Indeed, Greenberg told The Guardian that Taylor’s changing voice proved a huge problem when recording “MMMBop”: “We got a vocal coach in and would try to catch Taylor on a good day, recording a single line, then trying another on a different day. There was one really high note in the second verse that he was obviously never going to reach again. So for that one note we cheated, slowing the tape down so he could sing it and then speeding it back up. The band never sang it live in that original key again.” Even Lironi around the release of Middle of Nowhere noted, “It really was a privilege to work with kids who are that talented. We did, of course, have to use other people to augment Zachary’s drum parts. He played some parts, but when you’re 11 you don’t have the stamina to hit really precisely. I mean, I was playing at that age and he’s a lot better than I was, but while maybe 50 percent of your snare hits are going to be great you’re probably going to miss the rest of them.”

I bring this up not to try to expose Hanson as shams — for god’s sake, they were kids — but, rather, to suggest that “MMMBop” was such an out-of-left-field smash that most assumed they’d ever replicate it. The naysayers were right: By the time of Hanson’s 2000 studio follow-up This Time Around — not counting their quickie 1997 Christmas release Snowed In — the brothers seemed in a different reality, one they weren’t prepared for.

“Things are dramatically different; [it’s] changed a lot in the past three years,” Isaac said around This Time Around’s release. “We don’t know what to expect. It’s also very true that it’s hard to have a career these days. It’s a very fickle market. You don’t see bands that have albums one after the other be successful.” They got haircuts, tried to look and sound a little tougher, even collaborated with blues artists. The title track, which felt like soulful adult-contemporary, was a minor success, but Hanson no longer had that innocent glow. They had grown up, and without a “MMMBop” to bolster them, they just seemed like unremarkable teenagers. The boy bands took over the charts, and Hanson faded away.

The group continued to put out albums, but the brothers also settled down, got married and had kids. And in the interim, “MMMBop” became a signpost for pre-9/11 pop music, a song from an earlier era before the darkness of the War on Terror. It was filed away as a novelty, like “Macarena” or “The Rockafeller Skank,” one of those you-had-to-be-there hits. There were jokey metal and bluegrass covers. And in 2005, a Pennsylvania school organized a fundraiser for Hurricane Katrina victims by playing “MMMBop” constantly over the loudspeakers — only after the students raised $3,000 would the Hanson onslaught stop. “Kids have said, ‘If I give you a blank check, will you stop this music?’” Student Council President Meredith Cox said at the time. “People are just, like, some people give twenties. You say, ‘Thank you very much.’ They say, ‘No, we just want it to end. Even though it’s for a good cause, we just want it to end.’ It’s rather funny.”

Both an era-defining smash and a punchline, “MMMBop” has been a difficult blessing/burden for Hanson ever since. The song helped give them their career, but with each new album, the trio has had to navigate how much they want to separate themselves from their golden oldie. “I guess you decide at some point in your career whether you’re going to run from it or embrace it, and we’ve embraced it,” Zac said in 2010 while promoting the band’s then-latest release Shout It Out. “So many people who know nothing about this band still know ‘MMMBop,’ so it’s like this incredible tool to open the door to so many people. That song was No. 1 in 27 countries at the same time. That doesn’t happen almost ever.” And in 2017, on the occasion of the song’s 20th anniversary, the band did an interview with Entertainment Weekly in which they looked back at its legacy. “Usually we close that door, like we want to talk about the new album or whatever,” Taylor said about “MMMBop.” “But this year we’re opening up the floodgates to talk about history more.”

Hanson is still out there doing their thing. In May, they’ll release Red Green Blue, which is being advertised as three separate solo albums: “Going into our 30th year as a band,” Isaac said earlier this year, “we felt like it was imperative we continue to tell our story like only we can, and telling stories in ways that will continue to challenge us to grow and give people new reasons to listen. Red Green Blue is about sharing what has made us a band that has been able to weather so many storms.”

All those years ago, when Taylor came up with the lyrical conceit behind “MMMBop,” you have to wonder if somebody so young could possibly grasp the magnitude of what he was singing. Talking to The Guardian in 2018, his brother Isaac observed, “I’m in my 30s now. I still relate to the song and I’m very proud of it. It’s given us a long career doing what we love doing. We get to stay kids for life.”

But “MMMBop” was always flecked with melancholy if you were paying attention — it was about the fact that kids don’t get to stay kids forever. In real life, Peter Pan has to grow up. The band now has its own line of beers, including a pale ale called “Mmmhops.” They showed up on The Masked Singer. They’re not the blond little moppets they used to be. Sure, they’ve drawn criticism from some longtime fans because of their perceived conservative views, but by all accounts they seem to have survived stardom relatively unscathed. “[W]e’re not known for being married to supermodels or being partying drug addicts or whatever,” Zac said contentedly in that 2017 Entertainment Weekly piece. “We’re not known for anything except for our music. So for people to recognize you, they have to know about your music.” Lots of young artists have encountered far more tragic fates.

In “MMMBop,” Taylor argued that the road ahead is always unpredictable: “Plant a seed, plant a flower, plant a rose / You can plant any one of those / Keep planting to find out which one grows / It’s a secret no one knows.” For one moment in time, these Tulsa kids hit upon something incredibly true about life — but the world thought it was just a silly, happy song. That made “MMMBop” somehow even truer. When we’re young, we don’t know what dark clouds are coming — we just want to sing along.

But the warnings are always there, whether you want to hear them or not.