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Over the weekend, Hanson performed a slowed-down, acoustic version of “MMMBop” and reminded us why we fell in love with them in the first place.
Which, for the record, was 20 years ago. Let’s not forget that it was back in 1996 when the fraternal trio dropped the song that confused and bewitched us, and somehow cemented their relevance well into the 21st century.
That’s a pretty big deal. Considering Hanson emerged around the same time as the Backstreet Boys, NSYNC, 98 Degrees, and even The Moffatts (shout-out to the Canadian Hanson equivalent), it’s baffling that while courting their fans’ lust for nostalgia, they’ve somehow avoided becoming “remember when?!” parodies of themselves. They weren’t in Syfy’s recent boy-band zombie movie, their reality TV ventures were limited to an episode of Cribs, and despite “MMMBop” turning 20 (see: one year away from drinking age), they’ve repackaged it in a way that’s kept it fresh. Hanson avoided the boy band curse.
Really, it’s my fault for being surprised. At no point over Hanson’s two-decade career did they hint at being anything like their contemporaries. Aside from The Moffatts (who played their own instruments and who were also related — but were also Canadian, which made them more niche), Hanson were the only “boy band” who played their own instruments, avoided choreography, and gazed longingly into the camera à la Brian Littrell. In the instances in which they were drenched in water (as all ’90s music acts must be), they were either swimming clothed and underwater (“Weird”), or wearing wet suits. Take this:
Compared to this:
And not to shade Nick Carter and the Boys (because this video was very important and I’m not about to play it down anytime soon), but that type of differentiation between Hanson and The Rest was key. Mainly because, from their debut, we knew they were basically just teens who played instruments and ran around the city, laughing in cabs. And they were also in a proper band, unlike the rest, who were proper pop stars.
This divide was carried on by the type of songs they released as well. “MMMBop” is about the passage of time, “Weird” tackled the teenage experience (lost, misunderstood, contemplating the universe), and “Where’s the Love” may have been directed at a significant other, but still left room to comment on how love affects the world en masse. And this created the middle ground between rock and Top 40 super-pop: Hanson identified and sang about particular aspects of society (the way rock bands do), but left enough room to make their fan base believe they could be singing to or about us, too. (Hands up if you also considered changing your name to “Penny.”)
On top of this, while Hanson were never shy about their Christianity, they never made it an extension of their brand. They didn’t wear purity rings the way the Jonas Brothers did. And while, in 2007, Zac talked about having waited until marriage before having sex with his wife, he told The Advocate that same year that he embraced fan fiction and that wasn’t about to tell anybody else how to live their lives. Which is exactly the right sentiment to have, especially since the boys’ androgyny was largely the group’s fourth member — at least until all three emerged from puberty. They may have been singing about women, but their sexual ambiguity left room for gray areas, which established them as slightly less heteronormative than their chartmates, who sang explicitly about (and even at) women.
And don’t even get me started on that song/video — even though it leads to my most important point. Snowed In included (their Christmas album, duh), Hanson has managed to issue largely timeless-feeling singles that avoid seeming like an embarrassment or social misstep upon reexamining them years later. (Even now, One Direction’s “she belongs to me” in “Steal My Girl” is all sorts of cringeworthy.) And this is largely because they avoided mainstream pop trends. As the ’90s progressed, Hanson’s brand of music may have given way to acts like NSYNC and 98 Degrees, but by taking a step back, they also gave themselves room to mature, grow up, and adapt before reemerging with “Penny & Me” in 2004. So in short, they’ve just kept doing them, which helped maintain a level of authenticity we don’t tend to see until after a combustion (see: every scene in the Backstreet Boys documentary) — or after a “meh, might as well” type of reunion.
And it’s not just because they’re brothers (so were two of the Lacheys, the Jonai, and The Moffatts), or because they play instruments, either. (A moment of silence for every band breakup over the last 20 years.) Nope: Hanson merely used their unique single to position themselves as an act unto themselves. And then they slowly built on it before getting their second wind, brought in by our flair for nostalgia — only to gain even more traction once we realized “MMMBop” wasn’t part of a mid-’90s road trip soundtrack. It was — and they are — actually good.
Which I guess explains why so many artists still want to cover them —no matter how wrong they keep getting it.