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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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Comments

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  1. 31
    James BC on 10 Mar 2014 #

    I remember dark insinuations that Zac hadn’t played drums on the record. People talking about wrist strength and how it was physically impossible for an 11-year-old to do it. Most likely it was just jealousy – Caroline Corr came in for the same sort of thing at about this time.

  2. 32
    JLucas on 10 Mar 2014 #

    #9 I guess ‘better-crafted’ was a bit pseudy (although we’re talking Hanson vs Eternal here so…)

    I suppose I just always found Mmmbop fairly nothingy. It’s hugely catchy, but I don’t think it’s actually an especially good song, whereas 2B1, Wannabe and I Wanna Be The Only One are *very* good songs (in my opinion). Wannabe is probably the best comparison of the three, but there’s a hell of a lot more going on in Wannabe than there is on this. It just feels…. basic. I’d compare it more to something like The Birdy Song or Mambo Number 5 than the numerous great pop songs it was sharing the charts with.

    I’m aware I may still be sounding like a snob. I think what it comes down to is that I’ve just never thought much of this record. It may not be something you can rationalise.

  3. 33
    punctum on 10 Mar 2014 #

    #28: Nor does it have anything to do with what I was saying, i.e. if #2’s argument were taken to its logical conclusion, we would be saying: “our postman’s a genius, he knows every street and every flat and always delivers letters and packages on time, I really admire his skills.” No, he’s not a genius, he’s just doing the job he’s qualified and being paid to do, and people should not confuse efficiency with inspiration.

  4. 34
    Richaod on 10 Mar 2014 #

    If you haven’t heard the way Hanson play MMMBop nowadays, it’s worth hearing – shorn of the 90s production and the precociousness of youth, the core of the song’s completely charming.

    http://youtu.be/m9h1pA15-74?t=2m

  5. 35
    MikeMCSG on 10 Mar 2014 #

    # 7 I do indeed remember those guys. Never out of my sister’s “Jackie” or “Jinty” magazines when I was first getting interested in pop and a source of mild frustration that they were never on the radio or TOTP so I could check them out. I’ve still to remedy that and have never heard their sole measly hit – is it worth three minutes of my time ?

  6. 36
    Kat but logged out innit on 10 Mar 2014 #

    I believe that all the Important Hanson Facts are covered in this post.

  7. 37
    Tommy Mack on 10 Mar 2014 #

    There’s nothing a moody teenager hates more than his (or her) clean-cut fun loving peers. As far as I was concerned, this confirmed all of my prejudices about America, about the music industry, about most of my peers and about the 90s pop mainstream (I think my musical tastes were re-expanding again by this point, as far as punk (inspired by the previous years’ Pistols re-union) and the rockier end of dance but it would be a couple of years before I would drop the teenage snobbishness over pop)

    I cannot over-emphasize the the intensity of the hatred I felt for this as a surly and pseudish teenager, one who was in a flegling band no less (a serious and proper one of course…) and it made me all the more determined to make my music a combination ofserious and proper social commentary and situationist provocation, which basically meant being a hamfisted teenage Mothers of Invention, writing smirking pastiches of other styles (which needless to say, we lacked the chops to play) and cringing teenage attempts to shock.

    Needless to say, I quite like MmmBop now…in your face, teenage me!

  8. 38
    Tommy Mack on 10 Mar 2014 #

    PS, great article, Tom. The James Dean Bradfield comparison finally sold me on it!

  9. 39
    Tommy Mack on 10 Mar 2014 #

    …not a comparison I’d have expected to see with Hanson but it makes total sense even with my distant memories of MmmBop!

  10. 40
    Tommy Mack on 10 Mar 2014 #

    #32 Mambo no.5 >>>>>>>>>>>>>mmmBop imho…

  11. 41
    Tom on 10 Mar 2014 #

    #39 Mentioning the Manics in the post or the comms box = 50 extra comments on prior form. By the time we actually reach them it’ll be such a let down.

  12. 42
    Tommy Mack on 10 Mar 2014 #

    It was more ‘I wish I’d thought of that, it seems so apt now’ rather than Peter Kay-‘he mentioned something from my childhood, hurrah!’

    …and, yes, if my memory serves me correctly, their first appearance here is a sad, sad death-knell for the band as a going concern.

  13. 43
    fivelongdays on 10 Mar 2014 #

    Fifteen-year-old me loathed this record. However, it has rehabilitated itself with me. I seem to remember that Pepper Keenan of Corrosion of Conformity gave mad props to the drummer for nailing the beat when they played this live at an award ceremony (which indicated it’s a touch tricky – can any drummers elucidate?). I reckon it falls into the ‘likeable category’, and fair play to them for keeping going.

    Still no idea what they’re singing, mind!

    Think I’ll give it a seven.

  14. 44
    cis logged out on 10 Mar 2014 #

    I remember buying this! Mostly because I remember buying this and Radiohead’s Paranoid Android, together, at the same shop, and feeling hugely proud of myself for indicating to the world (in the form of whoever was behind the counter at woolworth’s) the amazing breadth of my tastes. After what must have been a whole year of reading the NME I felt my indie cred was now so solid and unassailable that I could master the next move, of being so cool I could even publicly like pop music, provided it was pop music I could muster some kind of sophistic argument to support if need be.

    I’m not saying that I haven’t changed in any meaningful way since age 13, but, well. Some rhetorical strategies – some self-defensive reflexes – are hard to shake.

  15. 45
    cis logged out on 10 Mar 2014 #

    (also, i’m still a total nightmare)

  16. 46
    mapman132 on 11 Mar 2014 #

    #4 Thanks for the Sash! alert. Watched the “Ecuador” video twice today. Apparently the vocalist is one Adrian Rodriguez who despite his name is Germany-based according to Wikipedia. Pretty good record – I’m putting it ahead of “Encore Une Fois” in my Sash! review. Three to go.

  17. 47
    Jet Simian on 11 Mar 2014 #

    #38 Yes, a good point, but (to Tom) as I recall JDB was generally the poor chap tasked with wrestling with the lyrics at the mic end. Blame for Manics logorrhea could best be put at the feet of Richie James and (to a lesser extent) Nicky Wire.

  18. 48
    Jet Simian on 11 Mar 2014 #

    Ah – too late for editing my previous comment, but Tom’s point still stands!

  19. 49
    Tom on 11 Mar 2014 #

    Aha – but that’s the point (sort of) – JDB is forced into a position of syllable-mangling by the actions of others (his lyricists); Hanson are forced into a position of syllable-mangling by the actions of others (the Dust Brothers – THOUGH I have no actual evidence that it was the DBs who said “let’s do it faster so you have to cram all the words in”, it could have easily been the band, as Wichita says though the decision feels a part with chucking a load of scratching in to make things seem faster)

  20. 50
    MBI on 11 Mar 2014 #

    Hanson are still chugging to this day, with considerably less popularity but with a critical appreciation that has only strengthened over time. They’re the hipster band in reverse – I liked them AFTER they were popular.

    And that reputation is well-deserved; they’ve carved out a very strong case for just being a damn good pop act that flew under the radar for a long time. “Penny & Me,” “Thinkin’ ‘Bout Something,” “Strong Enough to Break,” really the entirety of the Underneath album are just wonderful.

    With this in mind, I went back to reevalute MMMBop and to my surprise it’s still just fucking awful. It’s obnoxious, not totally like Bieber but not totally dissimilar either; “MMMBop”‘s impossibly chipper nothing of a chorus may be the most grating thing in existence, like a cloying Shirley Temple song with an extra layer of frosting. Like, ooh, look at us we’re young and adorable we can get away with this I’m Nermal the world’s cutest kitty cat, ugh. I thought maybe I just bothered by their youth but their follow-up album and some of the songs off “Middle of Nowhere” sounded just fine to me. But “MMMBop,” I don’t know, I’m sorry, I just can’t fucking stand it. 2

  21. 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.

  22. 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.

  23. 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.

  24. 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…

  25. 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.

  26. 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.

  27. 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 ;-)

  28. 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).

  29. 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?

  30. 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…

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