Hanson – Middle Of Nowhere (1997)

Hanson were not a boy band. They were not a bunch of formless white hunks hand-picked by a shady record executive and lumped together into a studio to record assembly-line radio songs written by Swedish men. Nevertheless, they were The Pop Band to open the door wide open in America for these boys; along with the Spice Girls, they’re regularly cited as a major player in the opening salvo of late-90s Teenpopalooza.

Which is funny, ’cause despite being a group of nice looking young men adept at playing poppy joy music, Hanson did not have much in common with their sweet teen brethren. I feel guilty pointing out the fact that they (mostly) wrote their own songs and played their own instruments – because at the end of the day, does it make a shit of a difference? – but yeah, they wrote their own songs and played their own instruments. They also had a pretty pronounced classicist pop bent – shiny 90s production aside, Hanson were modeled as a sort of Jackson 5 of the 90s, throwing in some late-60s sunshine pop and soul for good measure. They came across as a bunch of talented kids raised on their parents’ record collections trying to make ’em proud rather than a motley crew of faceless hunk bores.

Bottom line, Hanson were likeable kids who made fun music – which, when exposed to the mainstream public in 1997, went from instantly adored to reviled within the span of, what, a week?

Man did people hate on Hanson in the late 90s. Man! I know from experience, because I was one of those people. Even as a ten year old I did not understand why anybody would like this goofy dumb corn music. MMMwhat! What does that mean? It doesn’t mean anything!! I don’t get it!! Dumb!! Dumb!!!!

I mean, we can blame overexposure all we want – “MMMBop” was an inescapable earworm in 1997, and a backlash was inevitable I guess – but criticism of Hanson around this time ranged from unfairly dismissive to downright creepy and mean. For the former, you had people ragging on their music for being too sugary cute; for the latter, you had people saying they looked like girls.

Why? Because they have LONG HAIR! LONG BLONDE HAIR! THEY’RE BOYS?? B-B-BUT THEY LOOK LIKE GIRLS!!!!!!!!

Hanson’s appearance turned a nation of pop listeners into disapproving 1960s mothers overnight. And fifteen years later, people still joke about it. People still think it’s funny.

Honestly, I don’t want to focus on Hanson’s public image too much because I don’t think it’s important at all, but this is commonly (read: depressingly) one of the first things people think about when they think about Hanson so I want to get it out of the way. If Hanson’s appearance bothers you (or, rather, bothered you in 1997), then you need to ask yourself why. Why? Why does this bother you. Why does it matter. Why. Look at yourself in the mirror and ask why? Why does this matter to you.

And then go away! Far, far away. You are weird and I don’t like you.

Anyway. As for that first criticism – namely, that Hanson were a slicked-up cuteball nothing band – I can’t help but disagree. Even in ’97, these guys had a lot going for them. Middle Of Nowhere is hardly perfect, but its best moments are some of the most enjoyable, guileless pop songs of the 1990s. Putting it bluntly, when Middle Of Nowhere is fun, it’s fun as a butt.

The key word here is sincerity. The Hansons had it in spades. Now, I don’t want to exaggerate this and make it sound like Hanson were a bunch of simple blue-collar young folks with the purest of origins. They had a rich dad who funded their early recordings (at least I am pretty sure this is true) and were marketed towards a preteen audience from the very beginning. Heck, in their early days they even took a stab at awkward boy band choreography:

But you can’t fault Hanson for their own questionable origins. They were kids, after all! Little kids. When Middle Of Nowhere stormed America in 1997, axeman Isaac was 17, soon-to-be-handsome frontman Taylor was 14, and drumbone Zac was a teeny-tiny 12. Just by being so gosh-darned young, Hanson couldn’t help but sound sincere. There is not a moment on Middle Of Nowhere that does not exude youthful enthusiasm; even in its most awkwardly over-produced moments, you can tell these kids are loving it, and that joy is infectious. It sinks into you and fills your poor pop-weary heart with God’s love. And in the middle of the post-grunge 90s, this stuff could not have hit at a better time.

Enough generalities. We know what we need to talk about here.

“MMMBOP”

Oh goodness, “MMMBop.” MMMBop. Where to start.

Well, everything I’ve said about Hanson’s negative public image could easily all just be about “MMMBop,” right? Right. Despite being a #1 international smash hit that shot them into the stratosphere (and, interestingly, topped the Pazz & Jop Singles Poll for 1997), “MMMBop” quickly became synonymous with “obnoxious 90s one-hit wonder” in the same vein as “I’m Too Sexy” and “Tubthumping.” Heck, the bitterness still hasn’t dissipated, fifteen years later: a recent Rolling Stone reader’s poll placed the song 6th on their list of “The Worst Songs of the 90’s.”

There is one problem with all of this, and it’s this: “MMMBop” is an un-fuckably great pop song. Oh goodness gracious, it’s wonderful!

What makes “MMMBop” great, you ask. I’m not sure why you need to ask this. Listen to the song again, dumbo! But just in case you are a lazy person, I stayed up a little late last night (with a couple of Blue Moons to keep me creative) and compiled a comprehensive list of “MMMBop”‘s attributes on a Subway napkin, numbered for your pleasure:

Well, there you have it. All the proof you need.

But really, the bottom line here is that “MMMBop” is genuinely everything I think pop music should be distilled into one song. It is a testament to youth and joy and happiness. It was an inescapable radio hit for a reason, and while Hanson have written lots of good songs over the years, this one song they wrote when they were pre-teens will probably always be their shining moment. And heck, that’s OK.

But!

THERE ARE ALSO OTHER SINGLES TOO, CHARTING SINGLES EVEN. NO REALLY

Middle Of Nowhere‘s follow-up singles are an interesting bunch. Faced with the staggering success of “MMMBop,” I don’t think anybody expected Hanson to churn out another single nearly as popular, record label executives included. And it’s not hard to see why “Where’s The Love” was chosen as its immediate follow-up single, being the most “MMMBop”py track on the album that isn’t “MMMBop.” Sadly, it couldn’t help but suffer by comparison – as far as I know it didn’t really chart and I’m sure most thought of it as a tired “MMMBop” copy.

Which is a shame, ’cause it’s still a pretty great pop song. Fun as heck! It’s just not “MMMBop.” What can you do.

But then there’s “I Will Come To You.” It’s a ballad. A nice ballad, but not the most remarkable ballad you will ever hear. There are two interesting things about it: first is that it was co-written by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, the 60s classic pop songwriting duo behind the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'” and that anti-drug Paul Revere & the Raiders single (likely a push for Hanson’s 60s pop cred). Second is that despite being almost entirely forgotten, it actually hit #9 on the Billboard Hot 100 upon release, eschewing the notion that Hanson were a one-hit wonder in their day.

The main problem I have with “I Will Come To You” – and “Weird,” the other ballad on here co-written by pop schmaltzman Desmond Child – is that neither of them sound like Hanson. There’s no exuberance, no loose musicianship, no giddy pop joy. No personality! Just faceless dependable radio music with good kid singers. This is probably heresay, but the fact that both of these songs were “co-written” by big-shot professional songwriters gives me the impression that the Hanson boys had zero creative input in their creation. Mercury probably just plopped ’em into their laps and made them sing.

Is it ironic that the two songs mostly written by professional songwriters are easily the two least interesting tracks on the album? Am I implying that Taylor, Isaac and Zachary Hanson in their teens are better songwriters than Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil in middle age?? Oh ho!!

(not really but maybe)

THE OTHER SONGS

Oh there’s a single I forgot about! Oops! That would be “Thinking Of You,” the last single from the record and Middle Of Nowhere‘s opening track. It’s a sweet fun little jam to start the record, but doesn’t carry much weight as a single.

Then we have some branching out. “Speechless” and “Look At You” are a couple of admirable stabs at funky Hanson jams, and while neither are very distinct they’re good enough. “Yearbook” is a strangely maudlin teenage drama about some friend of Taylor’s that died I would imagine. Youngest Hanson Zac’s lead vocal on “Lucy” is maybe a little too sickeningly cute for most tastes, but Isaac’s on “A Minute Without You” produces perhaps the most maddeningly enjoyable non-single on the disc.

But there’s one track that I would be remiss in not mentioning.

“MAN FROM MILWAUKEE”

“Man From Milwaukee” is a song written solely by the Hanson brothers about an alien. It is a bonus track and it is CD-only, so if you are one of the many proud owners of Middle Of Nowhere on vinyl or cassette tape, your version of the record ends with sappy ballad “With You In Your Dreams” and your life is a big nothing because “Man From Milwaukee” is the whack-balls teenage achievement of the decade.

The “plot” of the song goes like this: Taylor Hanson sits next to strange bald man at bus stop. Strange bald man at bus stop rants at Taylor Hanson about being abducted by aliens. “He’s talking to Mars / but I think he’s wacky,” Taylor opines. Strange bald man replies with some of the greatest verse lyrics to grace a pop song:

He says where he’s from is called Albertane
There they use more than 10% of the brain
But you couldn’t tell it from they way they behave
They run around in underwear and they never shave

In the end, Strange Bald Man is abducted by aliens, but not before worming the idea of alien invasion so deep into sweet Taylor’s young brain that he, himself, is driven insane. By the last chorus, Taylor has BECOME that Strange Bald Man, sitting alone at a bus stop ranting about aliens, ready to infect the mind of the next curious soul willing to lend and ear to his cock-eyed screed.

And who is that curious soul? YOU! YOU!! THE NAIVE LISTENER OF “MAN FROM MILWAUKEE”!!

I love “Man From Milwaukee” because while musically it’s pretty by-the-book for Hanson, it’s likely the only genuinely eccentric track they would ever produce, injecting their usual pop-rock with a healthy dose of macabre Nickelodeon kid humor. It’s a road they would never go down again, and it is a shame.

BOTTOM LINE:

Middle Of Nowhere, again, is not a perfect debut. The ballads are dull and the funk jams unmemorable. But when the Hanson brothers hit with goofy pop joy, they hit harder than likely any pop group produced in the late 90s. Pretty good work for a bunch of dumb teenagers!

My only regret is that this record would mark the end of Hanson’s giddy kid period. Taylor’s voice lowered pretty quickly after Middle Of Nowhere‘s release, sapping the group of a lot of their youthful charm. No more Jackson 5-esque highvoice lowvoice between Taylor and Isaac. No more cotton candy fun. It’s time to grow up, buckos.

Time to cut that damn hair, hippies!!

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2 thoughts on “Hanson – Middle Of Nowhere (1997)

  1. […] all remember how the Hanson story began, don’t we. Of course we do. Actually, it’s likely the only part of the Hanson story […]

  2. Anonymous says:

    I just read your blog about Hanson. I know you mentioned the humor involved in Man From Milwaukee and how they haven’t gone down that road again. While that is true on the kids level and released on an album, you should check out some unreleased songs such as “My Favorite Christmas Sweater,” “Devil’s Nachos,” and “Dream Girl” which is not so much silly as a child-like fantasy. They may not be number 1 on the charts, but they are still releasing great hits (“Thinking ‘Bout Somethin” / “Give A Little”) and still have a large fan base. If you have never been to a Hanson concert, you are truly missing out!

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