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Mar 14

HANSON – “MMMBop”

Popular73 comments • 8,760 views

#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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Comments

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  1. 1
    TinMachine on 10 Mar 2014 #

    Amazing song. 10. C:

    I’ve been playing this song for about 10 years, and it’s only been eight months since I learnt they weren’t a girlband.

  2. 2
    JLucas on 10 Mar 2014 #

    Hmm. I enjoy this song, and I have a lot of respect for Hanson, who have managed to survive a breakout hit seemingly tailor-made to doom them to one-hit wonder status very admirably (They’ve had some crackers since this, though none with that obvious of-the moment magic).

    But is it really significantly better crafted than I Wanna Be The Only One, or 2 Become 1? Is it the equal of Say You’ll Be There? I know using the scores to create equivalences is a fools errand, but I can’t ignore it here. This is a fun bubblegum hit. It has nothing beneath the surface and exists exactly as it first appears. It almost feels like a happy accident. Which is fine, but the aforementioned recent popular entries by Eternal and Spice Girls are so much more accomplished to my ears, that to rank this higher just feels wrong. 6 for me.

  3. 3
    mapman132 on 10 Mar 2014 #

    I’ll admit I didn’t think much of “Mmmbop” the first time I heard it, or rather saw it since it was on one of the video channels. In fact I think my reaction was something along the lines of, who the heck are these kids and what are they doing on MTV/VH-1? I didn’t give it much chance to become a big hit, but then its worth noting that at this point boy bands had largely been on the outs in the US since the collapse of NKOTB with Take That only having one US hit and East 17 and others not even managing that. But it did eventually grow on me enough to give it 6/10.

    Notably it’s the first simultaneous transatlantic chart topper we’ve seen for a while. It’s easy to forget how popular Hanson were for a very brief period as they were quickly eclipsed by the triumvirate of Backstreet Boys, NSync, and 98 Degrees. Of course, they differed from these others in several important respects: 1) they were actually brothers and not brought together with the express purpose of creating a boy band, 2) they were significantly younger than most boy bands, and 3) they had a huge #1 hit right out of the box which has forever overshadowed everything they’ve done since. But as already noted they are not technically one hit wonders despite what most people think, and newer works of theirs occasionally show up on US radio to this day. So despite the fact they’ve never come close to another #1, it’s rather impressive they’ve managed to stick around and make a career of it which more than can be said of a lot of bands who hit it big as kids.

  4. 4
    Kinitawowi on 10 Mar 2014 #

    DAME TU MANO! Y VENGA CONMIGO! VAMONOS AL VIAJE PARA BUSCARLOS SONIDOS MAGICOS!
    DE ECUADOR!

    Now there’s a stormer of an intro into a song. No idea what it means and I don’t care. Immediate, arresting, brilliant. Sash!’s second number 2, behind… this.

    Didn’t like Zig-A-Zig-Ah, don’t like this. Bubblegum; chewed up, blown up beyond all proportion, exploded and spat out on the pavement until the next block appears out of the packet.

    Or, you know, spat into the bin. Keep Britain Tidy and all that. 3.

  5. 5
    flahr on 10 Mar 2014 #

    In my memory, this is surprisingly bland for something so obviously not-bland.

  6. 6
    swanstep on 10 Mar 2014 #

    Never have 3 chords felt so ponderous and limiting. The unintelligible blur of the lyrics may be a good move from some angles (i.e., if the lyrics can’t be sold if heard) but from the most important one it’s a disaster: given that the music and arrangement’s so rudimentary, the lyrics are the principal opportunity for the band to stamp some personality on the track, an opportunity lost. I think ‘Mmm bop”s got a shocking lack of hooks compared to the really great ‘high-squeaky’/’juvey’ pop songs of the past, esp. the Jackson 5’s ‘ABC’ (which is more complex musically but set that aside), and it’s not at all comparable to ‘Wannabe’ in my books. I am a bit flabbergasted to see high-ish scores for ‘Mmm bop’ here, and contrarily I give this incompetent mosquito whine (or is it perhaps a competent mosquito-repellent?) of a record:
    2

  7. 7
    Mark G on 10 Mar 2014 #

    It’s very 1973 US ‘one-hit in the UK then back home with us’ as per Alessi, Leif Garret and (does anyone remember) Andy and David Williams. Nowadays, communications can be kept up with videos and internet marketing, whereas back then acts tended to go where the money was.

  8. 8
    wichitalineman on 10 Mar 2014 #

    I was first told about MMMBop by a friend at Warner Brothers in California who said it was like a modern Jackson Five, so that’s how I’ve always heard it.

    The US had still seen much 70s pop culture as something to be ashamed of as recently as 1995 (the excellent Brady Bunch Movie) so this felt like acceptance – bubblegum lives!

    I never knew about the slower version, and I don’t really want to hear it. The verse lyrics are a blur which is as it should be – get to that chorus – and the scratching gives the song the impression of speeding the record up, which places MMMBop in a Popular pot with Cumberland Gap and Gamblin’ Man.

    I’m glad this one has popped up on a glorious sunny morning in London, it’s very fitting. 9.

  9. 9
    punctum on 10 Mar 2014 #

    #2: What do you mean by “better crafted” and “more accomplished”? Pop isn’t woodwork class.

    #6: Shame about Alvin Lee, isn’t it? Died a year ago and not even an obituary in The Guardian.

  10. 10
    hectorthebat on 10 Mar 2014 #

    Sample watch:

    The drums come from “Synthetic Substitution” by Melvin Bliss, and the scratching is from “Buffalo Girls” by Malcolm McLaren!

  11. 11
    AMZ1981 on 10 Mar 2014 #

    Aware that this was coming up I looked up Hanson on Wikipedia and it’s worth noting that not only are the band still making music but all three brothers are now married with kids with not a drug bust or nervous breakdown in sight. Given that they achieved fame at such a young age I thought this deserved a mention. I also discovered that Taylor Hanson (the middle brother who sang lead vocals and all the boys fancied thinking he was a girl) was in a supergroup with James Iha (ex Smashing Pumpkins) and members of Fountains Of Wayne and Cheap Trick – and their stuff is very listenable.

    It’s worth noting that Hanson’s further career did involve some lousy timing as Where’s The Love came out in a week when the mood of the country was ridiculously sombre. I’ve always had a soft spot for their third single I Will Come To You which got a bit lost at Christmas but may have done better in September.

  12. 12
    Steve Williams on 10 Mar 2014 #

    I first heard this when the late and much lamented Kevin Greening made it his record of the week when he was sitting in on the Radio 1 breakfast show, and loved it from the first time I heard it. But I was absolutely amazed when I first saw what they looked like (it might have been a picture in Smash Hits) because I’d assumed they were a New Edition or indeed Jackson Five-esque black group with some well-drilled dance routines, not some white kids with long hair and guitars.

  13. 13
    Alan not logged in on 10 Mar 2014 #

    Pants On “Plums Drop” http://www.scrawnandlard.co.uk/song/sgpantson.htm never committed to CD afaict

  14. 14
    lonepilgrim on 10 Mar 2014 #

    I’m surprised at the disdain shown towards this by some commentators – for me this is a gloriously light, unaffected joy. I’ve never listened to the lyrics as anything more than vocal percussion which makes the title so apt. The video reminds me of The Monkees in places – and this has a similar mood to ‘I’m a Believer’.

  15. 15
    Rory on 10 Mar 2014 #

    I’ll see your three weeks at number one, UK and US, and triple it: this spent nine weeks at the top in Australia, although it was only our fifth highest seller that year, after three upcoming bunnies and “Tubthumping”. Definitely a key part of the pop soundtrack of its year, and it isn’t hard to see why: as Tom says, it’s a joyful piece of work, full of youthful optimism, even if the lyrics are a little less sunny than the sound. I didn’t care for it at all at the time, but can’t deny its charms now, so I’ll give it the highest mark I can without wanting to own it: 7.

    Apparently this was co-written by the writer of the Friends theme, Allee Willis, which seems appropriate. But I’m bemused to think it was produced by the duo whose moniker the Chemical Brothers first borrowed. Trying to imagine a ChemBros remix of “MMMBop” now…

  16. 16
    anto on 10 Mar 2014 #

    Not so much bubblegum as honey nut loops and I’ve never liked the taste of those. I prefer the groove to the song itself which was what really gave it that 70s-into-90s feel. The Jackson 5 comparison seems about right.

  17. 17
    thefatgit on 10 Mar 2014 #

    I don’t seem to have an enormous problem with “Mmmbop”. It exists. I was never really bothered about who wrote it or how it was made. They were kids. They got lucky. Like “Pass The Dutchie” or “Candy Girl” before, “Mmmbop” was something of a novelty as far as I was concerned.

  18. 18
    Will on 10 Mar 2014 #

    Have to disagree about Where’s The Love, Tom. For me, everything about it from the opening Motown drum roll to the brilliant contrasting middle eight marks it out as the superior single.

    MMMbop is pleasant enough but does seem to run out of steam a bit. Just a 6 from me.

  19. 19
    Tom on 10 Mar 2014 #

    #18 Really? I should give it another go – it sounded kind of “my first Black Crowes” to me.

  20. 20
    Tom on 10 Mar 2014 #

    #2 Obviously every commenter brings their own standards to Popular, I don’t necessarily think being “well-crafted” in a 2 Become 1 sense is part of mine (I mean, obviously – Wannabe is a mess, or is crafted to sound like a mess, but probably IS also one, and I think it’s a lot better as a pop record than 2B1, very good though that is.) I tend to notice ‘craft’, which I might define as productive and unproductive meeting and breaking of expectations, when it applies to things I typically care more about – the mood of the song, the vocal performances, even the lyrics. Same goes for anyone I guess.

    #6 The hooks are almost all in the vocal lines (and er ‘flow’ – how they speed up/suddenly halt/etc.), so the chord structure doesn’t bother me so much (in fact I hadn’t even noticed how little the backing varies on that front, but it’s the kind of thing I hardly ever notice).

  21. 21
    ciaran on 10 Mar 2014 #

    One that was overplayed back in the day but it’s easy to see why. Riduculed for the dorky girly haircuts and the follow ups were not anywhere near as memorable as this but MMMbop still has its charms even without the video which I thought may count against it.Cant begrudge it of its moment in the sun. 7

    Have you played it to the kids yet Tom? Possibly the most kid-friendly number 1 in a while.

  22. 22
    Chelovek na lune on 10 Mar 2014 #

    Yes, moderately classic and likeable bubble-gum pop which expresses a sense of joy, euphoria, even, filled, overflowing with youthful energy. The question of the lyrics is an interesting one; on the one hand that the more substantive/complete lyrics (ie in the first verse, in particular) are, more or less, incomprehensible is more or less balanced by the fact that those lyrics that are clearly enunciated and mixed (ie in the choruses) are, more or less, nonsense, albeit, evidently, happy nonsense.

    Maybe that is one of the facets of the appeal of this track – vocal lines, essentially functioning as instrumentation: it’s all about overall atmosphere, there is no need to pin everything down. Perhaps this vagueness contributes, though, to the sense that it is all a bit sickly sweet though – great to hear once in a while, but rapidly becoming irritating when heard over and over again.
    6

  23. 23
    Tom on 10 Mar 2014 #

    #21 I haven’t actually! I’ve fallen behind a bit on my parental duties vis a vis Popular. Can’t imagine the next few will hold much joy for them, galaxy defenders aside. My four year old did buy his first record (OK got me to download his first track from iTunes) the other day though – “Everything Is Awesome” from the LEGO Movie.

  24. 24
    iconoclast on 10 Mar 2014 #

    “Manufactured” is a bit like “indie” in that nobody knows what it really means (perhaps the two are opposites? maybe not), but – as Tom implies – it’s often used as a shorthand for “there are things about this record which if I had my way would permanently destroy the credibilty of anyone who so much as hints that they don’t hate it with a passion”.

    Anyway, “MMMBop” sounds at first like it could be sparkling good fun for all ages, but doesn’t offer up much in the way of development and by the fourth chorus it’s clear they’ve run out of ideas. Points for trying, though, the first half-minute or so is really good. SEVEN.

  25. 25
    Jonathan on 10 Mar 2014 #

    “…critical acclaim for ‘MMMBop’ was absolutely inevitable once it hit big.”

    This was a bit of a double take moment for me; I was too young to notice much what critics thought of Hanson when they first came out, but not too young to notice that much of the general public perceived them much the way folks do Justin Bieber now. (Or Justin Bieber 18 months ago, to be most accurate.) It had never occurred to me critics might have disagreed — though, sure enough, this Pazzed #1 in ’97.

    Great song, obv.

  26. 26
    matthewjh on 10 Mar 2014 #

    I was playing this in the car yesterday, as it goes, and boring my wife with my sudden feeling that it’s one of the best produced tracks I’ve ever heard (as well as being delirious, hooky sunshine). So chunky, so robust.

    She was singing along to all the verses. I never knew she (or anyone) knew the words.

  27. 27
    Tom on 10 Mar 2014 #

    It annoyed a huge amount of people AND was simultaneously one of those anointed “The Year’s Great Pop Record” things, if not quite as purely so as “Call Me Maybe” (say). Which is interesting I guess – normally anointed “good pop” tends not to also attract novelty-hit hate. But yes, I was thinking of Pazz & Jop.

    (Though at this point P&J was still almost purely American, maybe here or in Australia “MMMBop” just got the novelty loathing.)

  28. 28
    thefatgit on 10 Mar 2014 #

    When I was a kid, my grandmother had a number of serialised magazines in hardback folders. I guess they were almanacs of some description or other. They were a window on the past with many monochrome photographs of Victorian and Edwardian Britain. One of these almanacs used to fascinate me a great deal. It told stories of great train crashes, like the Tay Bridge disaster or the one where the boiler of this steam locomotive exploded in a built-up area, killing and injuring many. I guess I was equally fascinated and horrified by the images of destruction and the rather matter-of-fact text that accompanied them didn’t really do much to put the suffering into any context or perspective.

    Fast forward to Close Encounters Of The Third Kind and Roy Neary is trying to explain a maths problem to his son who “can’t do fractions”, using the single freight car on the switch of their model railway. Roy sets an oncoming train to collide with the freight car while trying to encourage his son to work out how far the freight car should be moved from the switch to avoid the collision. I was about 11 when I first saw the film, and all I wanted was to see the collision (a massive anticlimax, but hey…). An older me would have shouted “20 feet! Move it 20 feet!” Before the other train hit. I guessed the kid was like the young me, and all he wanted to see was the collision and forget the maths problem.

    To value “craft” in pop, would suggest that one was the older kid who wanted to solve the maths problem before the train hit. And for a while, that was me. Now I’m more sympathetic to the kid who wants to see the train wreck, because that’s not calculated or designed to follow a pre-programmed algorithm. It’s visceral and chaotic and fascinating. Even if reality dictates that we rightly recoil in horror at the loss of life when these disasters strike. There’s still the little boy in me that’s wide-eyed going “Wow!”

    None of the above has anything to do with “Mmmbop”.

  29. 29
    leveret on 10 Mar 2014 #

    This was absolute anathema to the indie-loving, Melody Maker reading teenage boy I was at the time. Part of that was probably down to the younger Hanson brother (Zac), who came across a precocious, irritating little brat, like someboy’s younger brother tagging along who you just couldn’t shake off. I scoffed when one review at the time described it as ‘joyous toytown Motown’ but, actually, I was wrong – it is.

  30. 30
    Mark M on 10 Mar 2014 #

    Re27: No, I think there was enthusiasm for it in critical circles over here, too, if maybe not quite that much. (I certainly liked it from the start, for what it’s worth).

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