Sunday, September 21, 2008

Album Review: "Middle of Nowhere" by Hanson

Why the hell do they look so serious?

Let's get this straight: I love pop music. Absolutely love it. I guess that's kind of a broad statement, since everybody has their own definition of what makes "good" pop music. And for the past 20-plus years or so, pop music has been sliced 'n diced into so many little pieces that it's almost impossible nowadays to call ANY kind of music "pop." You've got your crunk-pop, your RnB-pop, your power pop, your neo-grunge-pop, your punk-pop, your indie-pop, your emo-pop... the list goes on and on. So me coming out and saying "I love pop music" doesn't really mean anything, does it? For all anybody knows I could be talking about the Killers! And I do hate those Killers!*

I guess what I COULD say is that, because I love pop music, I love Hanson. To me, Hanson are pop in its purest form, at least in the context of the mid-to-late-90's. Their (best) songs are bright, bubbly, and completely over-the-top pieces of pop confection (like a cake or something) that will infect the brain of any listener that dares to hear them. I like to think that Hanson were to the 90's what ABBA were to 70's, or what Wham! were to the 80's - upliftingly fun pop music, produced specifically to cater to the masses by utilizing the popular sounds of the period. So while ABBA embraced disco and Wham! used synth, Hanson use hip-hop beats and DJ disc-scratching - all, of course, married to wonderful pop melodies. Honestly, I can't resist it.

Hanson are a little tougher to like, though. For one thing, they're still considered something of a one-hit wonder, since they never scored a hit quite as massive as "MMMBop," a song people still vehemently hate to this very day (I'll get to that later). Secondly, they're also credited with kicking off the boy band era of the late 90's, despite not really being a boy band themselves - beside the fact that they wrote almost all of their own songs, they weren't much for choreographed dance moves. Third, they were a bunch of freaking kids with long blonde hair that looked like GIRLS! I mean, c'mon - they're almost begging for ridicule.

But Hanson were NOT the Spice Girls, or N*Sync, or the Backstreet Boys, or any other members of that lousy manufactured teen-pop fad they tend to be lumped in with. While Middle of Nowhere is definitely a product of the late-90's teen pop boom, with its excessively slick production and occasional cheesy piano ballad, Hanson - at least to me - are a lot funnier, cuter, and more entertaining than any of their so-called contemporaries. Maybe it's the fact that they were all kids when this album came out (Zac at 11, Taylor at 14, and Issac at 17) that gave the music its innocent prepubescent charm; I can't imagine anybody older than 16 singing "MMMBop" without sounding like an ironic fool. Vocally, the younger two have kiddish voices while Issac has a more adult voice, which leads to a lot of cutesy vocal interplay not unlike the Jackson 5 circa "I Want You Back." And man, they all sound so gosh-darned excited to be singing and playing, I can forgive the completely calculated production techniques utilized to bring in the teenybopper crowd. Back in '97, Hanson were one big intoxicating rush of silly, innocent youth, something a mass audience wasn't used to in the age of techno and grunge.

Now, I'll be honest, Middle of Nowhere is a mixed bag as an album - which I guess is appropriate for a teen-marketed pop album. Here's the rundown: you've got 7 mostly-killer pop songs, 4 cheesy ballads, and a couple kinda-sorta funky things. The ballads are, for the most part, pretty lame; the only one I like is "With You In Your Dreams," but the others - "Yearbook," "Weird," and "I Will Come To You" - are kinda generic and boring, mainly due to the influence of outside songwriters. The aforementioned "kinda-sorta funky things," "Speechless" and "Look At You," aren't bad but suffer the same problem as the ballads: they don't sound like songs that three long-haired suburban white kids should be singing. But the pop songs? WHOOO-EE, I love the pop songs on here! Seven spunky, vibrant pieces of supremely catchy pop music. If this album were pared down to just these seven songs, I daresay we'd have a perfect pop record on our hands. You've got "Thinking Of You" with that cool piano breakdown, the epic "Where's The Love," the hilariously cheesy "Lucy" (sung charmingly by 11-year-old Zac), the Issac-sang "A Minute Without You" that's probably the most over-the-top (and hence greatest) song on the album, the sunny pop of "Madeline," and of course "Man From Milwaukee," a song about a crazy man communicating with Mars. (Sample lyrics: "He's been talking to long on his yellow walkie-talkie / he's talking to Mars, but I think he's whacky." Hanson wrote this song all by themselves!)

Oh yeah, and then there's "MMMBop." People, let's talk about "MMMBop." I know a lot of you don't like this song - you hated it when it came out, and you hate it now, a full decade-plus later. Why do you? Well, it's corny! And it's sung by little kids! And what an ANNOYING chorus! It certainly has none of the sheer depth of Nine Inch Nails or Radiohead or Cake. So why waste your time with it?

Well I am here to tell you that you are wrong. DEAD WRONG. "MMMBop" is, in my estimation, the best pop song of the 90's. Again, we could argue about the definition of "pop" music all you like, but I'm talkin' bubblegum here - sheer, concentrated optimisim, chunneled through a catchy-as-sin chorus. That is "MMMBop." Just listen to the song again, I dare you. The lyrics? They're about growing older and holding on to the ones who really care! That's somethin', huh? And catch those verses - they're different, every single verse! They keep CHANGING! And the Dust Brothers' production - PERFECTLY 90's. Those disc-scratches and those sampled drums - I mean, if anybody knew how to produce a perfect 90's pop song, it had to be the guys who did Odelay and Paul's Boutique. But let's not forget Hanson! They deliver that chorus with GUSTO! It's just a wonderful, dizzying piece of pop beauty that is never ever boring. You cannot tell me that the most perfectly produced 90's pop song is a flash-in-the-pan - I will not believe you.

Yeah, it was everywhere in 1997. BUT THERE'S A REASON FOR THAT. IT WAS GREAT.

Think about it historically - back in '97, nobody was recording songs like "MMMBop." Middle of Nowhere came out the same year as OK Computer, and Dig Your Own Hole, when ska-punk was hitting its peak and Matchbox 20 and Silverchair were still churning out boring post-grunge hits. "MMMBop" was an unironic, unpretentious, purely happy pop song - of course everybody's gonna hate it! And nowadays, in an age of boring indie rock and crunk, people have even more of a reason to hate it! But obviously somebody got the message, 'cuz the song was a #1 hit.

When I was ten years old, I hated "MMMBop." Hated it to death. Now that I'm older and smarter, I love it - ironic, since the song was marketed to kids my age. I could listen to it everyday. And I do.

So you've got "MMMBop" and six other songs that are practically as good. Give them a chance, people. Believe it or not, Hanson are still around, and while they're still writing some decent songs (look up "If Only" or "Crazy Beautiful" sometime - they're great), they will never recapture the sheer rush of their Middle of Nowhere days. Why? Well, they all sound older now, and as such they don't have that funny innocent spunk anymore. Now they just sound like a bunch of dudes with good voices. Where's the fun in that?

Also they're all married. Taylor Hanson has three kids. Seriously. Look it up.

*I am required to diss on the Killers every 3-4 posts. I'm sorry. It's just a habit.

3 comments:

B Steel said...

good review lol

Laurie Eno / The Daily Corgi said...

Love this. For all the same reasons. Mmmbop was a piece of pop perfection. I have to routinely defend my un-ironic affection for this band because it's cool to be jaded and into, uhmmm, Radiohead. I will take my lumps for these guys, even at 49, because Mmmbop never gets old.

Laurie Eno / The Daily Corgi said...

Love this. For all the same reasons. Mmmbop was a piece of pop perfection. I have to routinely defend my un-ironic affection for this band because it's cool to be jaded and into, uhmmm, Radiohead. I will take my lumps for these guys, even at 49, because Mmmbop never gets old.