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.