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Mar 14

HANSON – “MMMBop”

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#769, 7th June 1997

mmmbop The word “manufactured” is the most enduring and potent slam on pop music, suggesting music as sheer product – assembled by formula, made by people interested only in money. But what the opposite – more desirable – quality would be is rather less clear. Artisanal pop – hand-crafted for love or art’s sake – is generally what’s meant. There’s a second opposite shadowing that one, though – implicit in the m-word even if it lurks there unintended: not artisanal but natural. An idea of pop as something simple, something that comes easily – think of Paul McCartney supposedly waking up with the melody to “Yesterday” in his head, convinced he couldn’t have thought of it, it seemed so primal a tune. Most people know enough about music to realise such instances are absurdly rare, if they happen at all, but the idea still appeals.

There is a slight tension between these two un-manufactured ideals – the hand-made and the stumbled-upon. It’s a tension a particular kind of pop is happy to exploit. Bubblegum is often made by the wiliest old hands in the biz, and always to make money. But at its best it feels effortless and simple – like its writers were prospectors for gold who struck a seam, not professionals cranking out yet another tune. At the same time, it’s a knowing simplicity – everybody is aware that the Archies are cartoons, that the big pop candy mountain is a myth, that bubblegum is all chemicals and air.

What if it wasn’t, though? It’s one of the secret grails of pop – authentic bubblegum; pop that’s as blissful and breezy as anything the hit factories could dream up, but with a feelgood backstory too. Which brings us to “MMMBop”. The Hanson brothers have the perfect origin tale – music-lovin’ Midwest boys, untainted by the industry, with a song like a musical growth spurt, verses tripping over themselves and the chorus coming up grinning anyway. Factor in that what these kids are trying to get across is wise words on not taking friendships for granted (OK, that and the sound of a mayo jar popping open) and critical acclaim for “MMMBop” was absolutely inevitable once it hit big.

It sounds so effortless, and was packaged so well, and was so successful so fast that Hanson came almost pre-sold as a one-hit-wonder, and felt like one even when they were racking up slipstream hits. The band were sold as a cheery news story – prodigious kids do remarkable thing, a pop equivalent of a “teenager’s app downloaded by millions” piece – rather than as the arrival of any sort of new talent.

Since the group have kept writing and recording since “MMMBop” with steady though less spectacular success, this seems unfair. But a listen to the first of those follow-ups – “Where’s The Love?” – hints at why. It’s reasonably skilful pop rock, certainly better than almost any other young teens could write but with none of the exuberance of “MMMBop”. And it’s a useful reminder of just how much the Dust Brothers did with that track, and how canny their decisions were. Because like most excellent pop songs, the “MMMBop” sausage is made out of good ideas, and good decisions around those ideas.

The original “MMMBop” – from 1996 – is considerably longer and slower than its hit version. It’s a thoughtful semi-ballad about life’s changes written by boys who’ve just started to notice them, and is still a startlingly good track for kids to have written, with a mass of hooks in the verses as well as that very strong chorus. The major label “MMMBop” makes two main changes. It adds endearingly gratuitous scratching all through – which sounds naff but gives the track places to take a breath without letting go of its bounce. More importantly, it speeds the whole thing up.

Making “MMMBop” faster helps it enormously by actually accentuating Hanson’s callowness. The higher pace forces them to garble lyrics which are largely intelligible on the slower version, making them seem like junior James Dean Bradfields, cramming syllable into syllable in desperation to get the ideas out. That in turn puts the stress on the end-of-verse lines, which tend to be the song’s better ones – pleading questions like “can you tell me who will still care?”, passionate one-liners like “it’s a secret no one knows” – so the track sounds not just more spontaneous but more profound. And by leaving those verse-end questions and ideas so open and searching, the jump into the indelible chorus feels even happier. Finally, making the verses less comprehensible means they’re a better fit for that chorus, since it rests on a gush of joyful nonsense. (In some ways “MMMBop” is the first real post-Spice hit: a successful response to the tweenage market “Wannabe” opened up, and the title is its “zig-a-zig-aaah”.)

The central flaw of the endless manufactured-or-not debate about any pop is that it assumes from the start that how music gets made is its most important aspect, not what happens to it next. “MMMBop” lived the life of a great bubblegum track. People played it until they hated it, gave it a rest for a while, then played it all over again. Turning a decent standout track by a precocious band into the year’s sparkiest pop song made Hanson famous but also made inevitable the inability to sustain that fame. They weren’t “manufactured”, but they also simply weren’t as spontaneously, guilelessly delighted by life as “MMMBop” and the Dust Brothers made them sound. But that “MMMBop” is too joyful to follow is a problem for Hanson, and quite the opposite for us.

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  1. 51
    Doctor Casino on 11 Mar 2014 #

    A great song; what can I say? I don’t think I really heard it much at the time, but I knew I was supposed to resent it as preadolescent “pop garbage” or whatever. Can’t recall the first time I heard it and appreciated it. The only thing that niggles is the period detail, particularly the “sampled” filter running over the samples – an interesting texture at the time, now kind of distracting. Without just calling it “dated’ or “phony,” I would say it bypasses the productive intersection of “effortless creation” and “studio craft” (which I think Tom is right to play up) by just seeming way too much of the latter. Happy to have the samples but the fake record crackle is just a shade too much. Otherwise all the 97-isms of the production – its brightness, its punch – ring fine to me, as their children do on many similarly peppy, ‘youthful’ tracks for years to follow: Sugar Ray’s hits, “Brighter Than The Sun,” “Unwritten” etc. etc.

    But yes, the key is those yearning, searching verse-enders and the dramatic, triumphant way they lead to the chorus – without that I doubt anybody would rate this much at all.

  2. 52
    Auntie Beryl on 11 Mar 2014 #

    Imagine an incredibly unimaginative, juvenile, irritating distillation of the worst bits of Jellyfish records from a few years earlier. That’s Mmmbop. Clue’s in the title.

  3. 53
    taDOW on 12 Mar 2014 #

    ‘mmmbop’ was probably a little overrated as a ‘perfect pop record’ at the time (though it’s immediate crit love and predictable p&j win did feel like an arrival of a kind of popism, w/ spin very briefly somewhat reembracing it’s 80s mentality and and rob sheffield holding court at rolling stone), and it’s probably a little bit underrated now w/ any critical focus of that late 90s pop rush generally going to the second wave (bunnied surely so i’ll just say mickey mouse club and cover alot of bases). hanson had other hits – ‘where’s the love’ was arguably as big a hit and the teenaged ‘deep’ wisdom of ‘weird’ owned mtv briefly – but this defined them then and defines them even more now. a shame that the third leg of that 97 pop revolution in america (w/ this and the spice girls) will only bother us here w/ his dreariest (albeit biggest) hit but so be it. 8 seems otm.

  4. 54
    DanH on 12 Mar 2014 #

    I remember, before ever hearing the song, reading a headline in the newspaper…
    “Let’s Hear it for the Bea….er….Hanson.” The implication was the Hanson bros were comparable to the Beatles. 13-year-old me, in the aforementioned Beatles bubble at the time, was not having this. He vowed to hate the band and “MMMBop” forever, without even hearing it. I finally heard it and hated it as much as I thought I would. And was even more aghast that the Dust Brothers had a part in this, having played Beck’s Odelay all the previous summer.

    Much like with “Wannabe,” I haven’t lightened up with the song too much. I appreciate the unabashed pull-out-the-stops pop song as much as anyone, but I prefer “Sugar Baby Love” or one of Wizzard’s kitchen sink singles to this by far.

    …although the ‘vocal percussion’ comments are interesting…I never did tell what they were saying in the verses. Makes me think of “Gardening at Night,” where I much prefer (and have been brought to tears by) the regular version where Stipe sounds more like a guitar, than the “Hib Tone” remix. But I digress…

  5. 55
    Weej on 12 Mar 2014 #

    The scratching effects and shiny pop production on this reminded me of Len’s Steal My Sunshine from a couple of years later (which I loved but everyone else I knew hated and I never could work out why), so I checked it out on youtube and yes, still prefer it to Mmmbop, though can’t for the life of me work out why. Mmmbop isn’t bad, I appreciate it in theory, but it just doesn’t do it for me in practice. A comment on SMS on youtube says “This is what America sounded like before 9/11″

    A friend has a story of being stuck in a car while the road ahead was blocked by JCBs lifted cows onto a burning pyre (this would be due to the foot & mouth scare) and only having the Hanson Christmas album to listen to for the hour or so they were there. There’s no point to this story, but it’s quite the enduring image.

  6. 56
    Tom on 12 Mar 2014 #

    #54 interesting you mention REM as another record this reminds me a bit of (ebullience wise) is “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight”. Theme-wise (once you decipher it) “MMMBop” fits with the folksy wisdom of Automatic For The People quite nicely, if (obviously) coming from a more naive place.

    And of course the DBs produced Odelay! I wildly prefer this record to anything I’ve ever heard from Beck, though.

  7. 57
    DanH on 12 Mar 2014 #

    *talking to self* Down, Beck fanboy!!! Be nice to Tom! :-)

    Yeah, Beck was my ‘first love’ musically, even before the Beatles. I’m not able to be that objective about him, although yes, Odelay isn’t QUITE the best thing ever I thought it was back then, and he probably was too hyped up at the time, etc.

    Interesting, you compared it to “Sidewinder” instead of “Shiny Happy People” (Sidewinder is easily superior). Not sure if Hanson had an “Ignoreland” in them tho ;-)

  8. 58
    flahr on 12 Mar 2014 #

    #55 “Steal My Sunshine” is incredibly wonderful (I can’t believe I didn’t notice that it was based on “Don’t You Want Me” until I read it).

  9. 59
    Paulito on 13 Mar 2014 #

    @55 I suspect the reason everyone hated ‘Steal My Sunshine’ was because it’s monotonous, grating novelty trash – comprising as it does some ‘cool stoner dudes’ whining twaddle over a single looped sample (taken, of course, from Andrea True’s ‘More, More, More’ – which, by extreme contrast, spills over with a multitude of hooks and ideas).

    How exactly is it based on ‘Don’t You Want Me’, other than the boy/girl/boy vocal sequence?

  10. 60
    tm on 13 Mar 2014 #

    Tom @ #49 Moreover and I think this is the point you’re making in the original post, JDB’s syllable mangling highlights the urgency of his struggle as an earthy rock everybloke to deploy his bandmates’ student politics against the alienation of late consumer capitalism c.f. The urgency of Hanson’s struggle to use the life-affirming power of pop music in learning life lessons about growing up, friendship and all that Wonder Years stuff.

    It’s easy as an unhappy teen to assume that everyone else is contented and that their smug complacency is a major contributor to your own discontent. With a little perspective you realise that apart from a few hyper confident bellends, everyone was going through much of the same stuff, they perhaps just coped with it a bit better and there might have been more mileage in engaging with them rather than just getting your head down and fantasising about the Valhalla of university…

  11. 61
    Weej on 13 Mar 2014 #

    Paulito @59 – thanks for the opportunity to defend it!

    “monotonous” – not particulary, verse and chorus are quite different, interplay of different vocalists throughout
    “novelty” – sure, but this doesn’t have to be a bad thing, in fact I’d say it usually isn’t
    “stoner dudes” – this is only evident from the video, the song itself couldn’t sound less stoner dude-y
    “whining twaddle” – the girl’s voice is lovely, no?
    “single looped sample” – again, many of the best songs… Also the sample is not the hook from the original song, and it’s used in a very diffent way.
    “grating… …trash” – I suspect this is the nub of it, but “everyone has different taste” is such a boring conclusion to get to.

  12. 62
    Tom on 13 Mar 2014 #

    I wouldn’t listen to “Steal My Sunshine” on an everyday basis but I like it and I’m very glad that a song which so perfectly encapsulates the slacker in his commodified phase exists. There are probably entire box sets of late-90s TV shows made redundant by this one track.

  13. 63
    James BC on 13 Mar 2014 #

    “Steal My Sunshine” is one of my favourites and I would gladly listen to it every day for the rest of my life. The strange thing is that for about ten years I somehow thought it was a rap song. Then I realised that there is no rapping on it at all.

  14. 64
    Ed on 13 Mar 2014 #

    Listening to the early version on Tom’s Tumblr was a revelation on this one: it’s not exactly grunge, but you could certainly imagine it being sung by Eddie Vedder. It’s like they did their own “indie band covers a pop hit and makes it serious”, and did it first.

    It shows that in spite of the obvious similarities to the Jackson 5, they came from a very different place. Everything that rises in tempo must converge, I guess.

    Also, it sums up the whole history of US popular alt-rock in the 90s, from Nirvana, via (megastar period), REM to Smash Mouth. I can’t now remember any of their names, but there seemed to be dozens of bands that used scratching and had that stoner / slacker vibe. I haven’t really thought about it before, but I realise now that Beck was a massive influence, particularly trhough the Dust Brothers. And Hanson were part of that.

    (Len were one of those bands, weren’t they. Oh, and Bran Van 3000. They were another. But I am sure there were more.)

    “What America sounded like before 9/11.” That’s a brilliant way to describe it.

  15. 65
    Mark M on 14 Mar 2014 #

    Re64: Sugar Ray?

  16. 66
    Cumbrian on 14 Mar 2014 #

    I hated this at the time, too twee, overplayed, the drummer was an irritating brat when they were on TV. Time and distance are great healers though, as I love it now though. It feels right that the lyrics are buried a bit and the whole thing is a joyous sound more than anything else. The Dust Brothers did a fine job setting this up and the Hanson Brothers knock the ball into the net with aplomb.

  17. 67
    Another Pete on 15 Mar 2014 #

    #64 just check the soundtracks for American Pie and other teen comedies from around this time.

    Am I right in thinking this was actually used in an advert (chewing gum possibly) around the time of its release. I agree the drummer was annoying but then again what 11 year old kid brother isn’t.

  18. 68
    Rory on 18 Mar 2014 #

    I’m coming back to this one because one aspect of the whole Hanson phenomenon nags at me. We’ve seen several comments here about the preadolescent vibe of the song, and how it bugged people at the time, and I can relate to that, because I remember thinking much the same back then as well. But now that I live with two preadolescents, I’m bothered by my own past reaction. Why should kids on pop songs be a turn-off? I don’t mean nursery songs of the kind that parents of pre-schoolers know all too well, but older kids playing proper pop. There shouldn’t be anything shameful in having a hint of training wheels about your music – everyone has to learn sometime – and there certainly shouldn’t be any shame in singing before your voice has broken.

    I wouldn’t even have said that Hanson had a hint of training wheels: they were clearly accomplished musicians by the time they recorded this, and if any early drafts of “MMMBop” lacked sophistication the traces were erased by their adult co-writer. Lyrically and musically this is strong enough to convince many listeners who haven’t seen the video that the band were adults, as some comments here attest. If singing “mmmbop, ba duba dop ba doooo bop” makes you a child, then the ghost of Sinatra had better watch out.

    James BC’s comment @31 particularly struck me, about the “dark insinuations that Zac hadn’t played drums on the record … talking about wrist strength and how it was physically impossible for an 11-year-old to do it”. I can well believe that was the gossip, but it’s nonsense, and I say that from personal experience. Take any six-year-old, and give them a trial drum lesson when they express an interest, then more lessons when they enjoy it, then buy them an electronic drum kit and amp (because you can’t turn down the volume on acoustic drums when you live in an Edinburgh tenement flat), then watch them practice and practice for months, and you too will have an awesome drummer by the age of seven (next week), who if he keeps it up will be Buddy Rich by 11. (Honestly, it’s been amazing to watch, and makes me wonder what the hell I’ve learnt in the past nine months.)

    I wonder if there’s something particularly galling for more cynical observers in the sort of success that Hanson represented: that sense of being trumped by a bunch of kids who’ve hit it bigger than you ever will. Look at them, they’re not even all teenagers, and already they’re number one! I could have done that! If my childhood had followed an entirely different path. I will get around to it someday. It’s on my to do list. (Even more galling when the band don’t turn out to be one-hit wonders, and actually display some staying power.)

    There’s also the hint in any song of this kind of that dread pop and rock phenomenon, the kiddie choir. I can only name a couple of songs off the top of my head that worked well with one – Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall”, which everybody knows, and Mike Oldfield’s “On Horseback”, which everybody doesn’t – and can think of a couple of promising acts who were scuppered by them (Ride on Carnival of Light and Badly Drawn Boy on One Plus One is One, for starters). But there’s something different between a choir singing to an adult band’s ends and a band of kids making music of their own, even if it’s with adult assistance.

    I still don’t think I could face watching the nervous under-age performers on Britain’s Got Talent, but that might have more to do with not enjoying any nervous performance, or anything much to do with Simon Cowell. A confident performance, a performance polished in the studio by decent producers, is a different matter. I’m open to it today in a way that I wasn’t when “MMMBop” was number one.

    Kids can take pop seriously, both the listening to it and the making of it. And they can take it joyfully, as Hanson did here.

  19. 69
    wwolfe on 2 Apr 2014 #

    This is a definite 10 for me, and my favorite single of the 1990s. It is a genuinely joyous recording, which is a very rare accomplishment.

  20. 70
    Philip Arlington on 24 Aug 2014 #

    The counter-reaction at the time was understandable but it is absurd that some people are still refusing or pretending not to see the merits of this song.

    The lyrics are simple but also deserving of mention. Firstly, they aren’t about girls, sex, or partying. Secondly, they represent the responsible and thoughtful attitude to life inculcated in the boys by their socially conservative parents, which probably has a lot to do with them having stable adult lives. (I am aware that pointing this out isn’t going to endear them to those who find rebellion for rebellion’s sake, inadequacy, breakdowns, and personal tragedy more authentic or cool.)

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