May 24, 1997
The Number Ones: Hanson’s “MMMBop”
STAYED AT #1:
In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
Was it stupid or brilliant? Was it annoying or transcendent? These were the ridiculous questions that flummoxed way too many of us when “MMMBop” came out of nowhere and dominated the radio in the spring of 1997. As a ’90s kid, I’d been schooled in cynicism early. If something was smart, it showed itself to be above and apart from everything else. If something was cool, it was wry and detached and ironic. The stars that I respected were the ones who did not respect stardom. The movies I liked were the ones that commented on movie tropes. The best TV shows were the ones that seemed too self-aware for their own good. A climate like that makes it hard to process the spectacle of three angelic blonde Oklahoma children wailing out deliriously catchy gibberish and shooting straight to the top of the Hot 100. It made it so that you might not trust your own instinctive response.
At this point, all three Hanson brothers are normal-ass dads who are still making music for their normal-ass cult fanbase. People only regard Hanson with suspicion when, for instance, they find out that baby brother Zac’s Pinterest is full of gun-nut propaganda. In 1997, though, Hanson seemed like maybe they were trying to sell us something, though it wasn’t clear whether that something was, like, soda or whether it was an entire outmoded value system. That suspicion didn’t last long, though. You can only hear a song like “MMMBop” so many times before you give in and realize that you’re witnessing a miracle.
It wasn’t just me. A whole lot of people thought Hanson was some strange manufactured phenomenon. Even the people who professionally attempted to manufacture phenomena didn’t take Hanson seriously at first. Hanson simply seemed too good to be true. In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, Steve Greenberg, the Mercury A&R exec who signed Hanson, says that he loved the original version of “MMMBop” but that he didn’t trust it: “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.”
Adults were not manipulating it. The three Hanson brothers had created this alchemical little ditty all on their own, though it did take the help of a few adults to turn “MMMBop” into what it would become. The band’s backstory was too much of a wholesome feelgood tale to be made up. The three Hanson brothers, the sons of an accountant father and a homemaker mother, grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma. (All three brothers were born in the ’80s, which means this is the first time that this column has covered an artist who’s younger than me. Many more will follow. When lead singer and middle brother Taylor Hanson was born, the #1 song in America was Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.”) The brothers were homeschooled by their mother, and they loved their dad’s old records — doo-wop, the Beach Boys, the Jackson 5.
When they started making music on their own, the Hanson brothers were young. Isaac, the oldest brother, was 11. Zac was six. They’d all started out playing piano, but Isaac took up guitar, and Zac moved to drums. They played their first show at a local arts festival in Tulsa, and they kept playing events like that around the middle of the country for a few years, self-releasing two different albums in the process. In 1996, the band went to Austin to play SXSW, when that whole festival hadn’t yet become the feeding frenzy that it is now. Christopher Sabec, the lawyer for the ascendant Dave Matthews Band, caught their live show, and he signed on as their manager. Sabec started shopping the trio around to labels, which shouldn’t have been that difficult, since Hanson already had “MMMBop.”
The world-annihilating “MMMBop” chorus came to one of the Hanson kids when they were working on their self-released 1994 debut Boomerang. Someone scatted a bunch of nonsense words in the background of a different song, and the brothers agreed that the scatted part was so catchy that it shouldn’t stay in the background. It deserved its own song. Isaac would keep mentioning that part to his brothers, reminding him that they needed to use it in a song. Years later, he told The Guardian, “As we were getting ready for bed, we all sang it together in the bathroom.” See, they really were that cute. It wasn’t an act.
Hanson recorded the original version of “MMMBop” in 1996 in their parents’ garage, and they made it the title track for their second self-released album. That original version is way slower and more cluttered than the one we know today, but it’s already hellaciously catchy. Christopher Sabec used the MMMBop album as a demo when he was trying to sell different labels on Hanson, Fourteen different labels turned the trio down, but “MMMBop” stuck with Mercury’s Steve Greenberg. In the Bronson book, Greenberg says, “I went to see them perform live just so I could sleep at night after I passed on them.” Greenberg flew out to a Hanson gig at a county fair in Kansas, and he almost couldn’t believe that the three kids sounded as good in person as they did on record. Greenberg signed Hanson, and he also had the extremely smart idea to pair them up with the Dust Brothers.
The Dust Brothers, the duo of Michael “EZ Mike” Simpson and John “King Gizmo” King, started out hosting a rap radio show on their college radio station in Pomona in 1985. Two years later, they became in-house producers at the LA-based indie label Delicious Vinyl. They did some production on the debut albums from late-’80s pop-rap sensations Tone Lōc and Young MC, though they didn’t produce either of those guys’ big hits. In 1989, the Dust Brothers also co-produced the Beastie Boys’ entire sophomore album Paul’s Boutique, a notorious commercial flop that’s now remembered as one of the most creatively bugged-out records in rap history. A big part of the brilliance of Paul’s Boutique is in the way the Dust Brothers, working with the Beasties, piled dizzying layers of samples all over each other, back in the final moments before that practice would become prohibitively expensive. (“Hey Ladies,” the only charting single from Paul’s Boutique, peaked at #36.)
After Paul’s Boutique, the Dust Brothers had some lean years. They did a bunch of remixes, and they got a few random-ass gigs, like producing 1995’s Carved In Stone, the second solo album that Vince Neil made after getting kicked out of Mötley Crüe. In 1996, though, the Dust Brothers helped make another masterpiece. They got together with Beck to make Odelay, a critical smash that spun off a bunch of alt-rock radio hits and went double platinum. (“Where It’s At,” the highest-charting Odelay single, peaked at #64.)
Odelay was the reason that the Dust Brothers got the Hanson gig. Steve Greenberg heard an advance copy of the album and figured it would be smart to pair these guys up with Hanson. Once Odelay came out, though, the Dust Brothers were suddenly in high demand again. Greenberg says that the producers “lost interest in the [Hanson] project after two days in the studio,” but those two days were enough for the Dust Brothers to speed up “MMMBop” and to make it a whole lot funkier. They added in the drum break from “Synthetic Substitution,” a frequently-sampled 1973 single from the R&B singer Melvin Bliss, and DJ scratches from “Buffalo Gals,” the 1982 hip-hop experiment from onetime Sex Pistols svengali Malcolm McLaren. It’s weird that the Dust Brothers didn’t just do the scratching themselves, but that’s not what they did.
Mercury brought in Steve Lironi to finish producing “MMMBop” and the rest of Hanson’s major-label debut Middle Of Nowhere. Lironi, former guitarist for Scottish new wavers Altered Images, had started producing for acts like the Fun Lovin’ Criminals and the Happy Mondays offshoot Black Grape, and he was tasked with finishing up everything that the Dust Brothers hadn’t done. A third producer, Mark Hudson, had to edit together all the best vocal takes on “MMMBop.” Taylor Hanson’s voice was changing just as the band was recording the cleaned-up version of the song. When Hanson played “MMMBop” live later on, they had to move the song into a different key.
Given that long backstory, maybe “MMMBop” should sound like a stapled-together mess. Instead, it’s probably the single most glorious relic of that post-Beck moment when every slackjawed alt-rocker started messing around with breakbeat loops. (Folk Implosion’s 1995 banger “Natural One,” my other favorite post-Beck hit, peaked at #29.) Hanson were not slackjawed alt-rockers; they were fresh-faced Oklahoma kids who loved oldies. Maybe that’s why their entry in that post-Beck canon is so much sunnier and more joyous than all the competition. It’s an accidental quirk of history that these kids came along at the moment when their label boss would pair them up with Beck’s sample guys, but the combination worked out beautifully for everyone.
The part of “MMMBop” is that everyone remembers is that sticky, ecstatic nonsense chorus — perhaps the finest example of bubblegum gibberish to come along during my lifetime. I never really considered the rest of the “MMMBop” lyrics before sitting down to write this; the verses were just the yearning sounds that Taylor Hanson made in between those happy explosions of nonsense. But it turns out that “MMMBop” is all weirdly wise life advice: “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.” I don’t know how the fuck a 13-year-old could possibly know that, but it’s true.
Maybe some of that bittersweet sadness creeps into Taylor’s lead vocal, but the fizzy joy of the song turns that sadness into a deep undercurrent. In its sped-up form, “MMMBop” becomes a bulletproof monster-jam. Maybe I didn’t notice those lyrics until now because the jacked-up tempo forces Taylor to sing so fast that the lyrics become almost incomprehensible. The breakbeats, the DJ scratches, the slightly-fuzzy guitar line, the yearning harmonies — it all adds up to something almost ineffable. “MMMBop” doesn’t really sound much like anything else, except maybe the Jackson 5. In the category of white Middle American family acts jacking the Jacksons, “MMMBop” sounds a whole lot better than anything that the Osmonds ever did. But even the Jackson 5 comparison doesn’t really hold up. “MMMBop” sounds more like cotton candy, or like the feeling of jumping into the pool on a hot day. It sounds like summer.
The Hanson brothers wrote “MMMBop” together. (When the Grammy nominations came out the next year, 12-year-old Zac became the youngest songwriter ever to be nominated.) They played the song on-record, too, with Zac playing his drum fills over the Dust Brothers’ sampled drum loop. The brothers sing in harmonies that just slay me. According to Isaac, though, Taylor is the one who came up with the basic idea for those lyrics: “We can make this song about life, and all the rejection we’re feeling.” The world remembers “MMMBop,” not incorrectly, as the work of little-kid energy cranked up to dangerous levels, but on paper, it’s a song about realizing that you can’t plan out your life and that you have to hold onto the friendships that matter. The most immature-sounding hit of 1997 might also be the most mature.
“MMMBop” blew up right away, and the Hanson brothers’ backstory was a factor. So was the video, which came from CB4/Billy Madison director Tamra Davis, who happened to be married to former Dust Brothers collaborator Mike D. The clip is all sunburst late-’90s cuteness cranked up to the maximum. The Hanson brothers boogie-board, Rollerblade, and horse around with greenscreens. At the time, there were a lot of jokes about Taylor Hanson looking like a girl. These days, the Hansons mostly look like longer-haired versions of the Home Improvement kids. I’m sure that didn’t hurt, either.
“MMMBop” had the good fortune to come along right after the Spice Girls’ “Wannabe,” another great example of bubblegum gibberish at work. Both of those songs fed a growing demand for bright, clean, euphorically energetic down-the-middle pop music. Kids who were the same age as the Hanson brothers, or even younger, were not that interested in brooding alt-rock, and the cultural tides were starting to shift. Soon enough, enterprising record labels and executives would come up with a streamlined, hypercharged assembly line to feed that demand, and they would find flashier, more heavily choreographed ways to present it to the world. This was already starting to happen when “MMMBop” hit, and that zeitgeist would soon leave Hanson behind. Hanson might’ve been an actual band of actual boys, but they didn’t fit what was quickly becoming the industry definition of “boy band.”
When chumps like me were worrying about whether “MMMBop” was stupid or brilliant, we were forgetting a few key principles of pop music. For instance: The most brilliant things are usually pretty stupid, too. The most annoying things are often pretty transcendent. The Hanson kids were good sports about all the people who hated “MMMBop.” When the group got booked as musical guests on Saturday Night Live, they also took part in a sketch about the idea that “MMMBop” amounted to musical torture for everyone else. Will Ferrell and Helen Hunt take the Hanson kids hostage at gunpoint, forcing them to listen to “MMMBop” on repeat “so you will feel the pain that we felt this past summer.” Within a few hours, Isaac and Zac are both broken, but Taylor continues to insist that it’s just a fun song.
Hanson did not have another “MMMBop” in them. The rest of their Middle Of Nowhere is perfectly solid, well-crafted pop music, but none of it has that lightning-in-a-bottle chemistry. Hanson returned to the top 10 once more, when the Middle Of Nowhere ballad “I Will Come To You” peaked at #9. (It’s a 6.) Middle Of Nowhere went quadruple platinum. Six months after its release, Hanson quickly followed Middle Of Nowhere with their Christmas LP Snowed In, and that went platinum.
In the time that it took for Hanson to record their next proper album, 2000’s This Time Around, Mercury was swallowed up by Island/Def Jam, and Hanson’s new label kept turning their songs down. When This Time Around finally came out, the album’s title track peaked at #20, and the LP stalled out at gold. Hanson haven’t been back on the Hot 100 since. Maybe the label situation destroyed Hanson’s chances, or maybe the moment was just over.
Hanson bounced back just fine. The band left Def Jam and started their own indie, and they’ve been cranking out records ever since. Hanson has a pretty huge cult fanbase, and they’ve got all sorts of tertiary businesses — a music festival, a beer company that sells an IPA called MMMHops. For a while, Taylor Hanson also fronted the side-project power-pop supergroup Tinted Windows with Fountains Of Wayne’s Adam Schlesinger, the Smashing Pumpkins’ James Iha, and Cheap Trick’s Bun E. Carlos. After Schlesinger died of COVID-19 in 2020, the surviving Tinted Windows reunited remotely for a livestreamed tribute.
Since Hanson went indie, they’ve released seven albums on their own. The brothers all got married and had a ton of kids — 15 offspring between the three of them, if Wikipedia is up-to-date. They seem to be doing just fine. It’s rare for child stars to reach transcendent fame-levels and then to have healthy, creative ongoing careers. That’s a secret no one knows, but I guess Hanson figured it out.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the bit from a 2007 House episode where we learn that Dr. House has the “MMMBop” ringtone:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the late Philadelphia rapper E-Dubble sampling “MMMBop” and using it to rap about childhood nostalgia on his 2010 track “Class Clown”:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the bit from a 2016 Unbreakable Kimmie Schmidt episode where I guess Ellie Kemper makes up her own “MMMBop” lyrics:
THE NUMBER TWOS: Mark Morrison’s streamlined R&B anthem “Return Of The Mack” peaked at #2 behind “MMMBop,” and I wrote a whole bonus column on that song a year and a half ago. It’s a 9.
THE ASTERISK: The Wallflowers’ smoky, Springsteenian “One Headlight” never officially came out as a single, so it never got a chance to chart on the Hot 100, but it peaked at #2 on the Billboard Radio Songs chart during the reign of “MMMBop.” If “One Headlight” had been able to complete, then who knows, maybe Jakob Dylan could’ve landed a #1 hit — a feat that his father never accomplished. “One Headlight” is an 8.