Backtracking is our recurring look back at the pop music that shaped our lives. Our friends may come and go, but we’ll be spinning our favorite albums forever.
The last few years of the ’90s saw a transition in music from angsty grunge and gangsta rap toward high-gloss pop (see Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears). But before there could be a “…Baby One More Time”, and before boy bands could rule MTV, the pop world had to be cheered up. The band that did it — Hanson — wound up setting a course for pop’s future by evoking its past with a twist.
With yearning vocals that recalled the Jackson 5 and the sunnily innocent harmonies of The Cowsills, three blond brothers from Oklahoma swept across the landscape with their breakthrough album Middle Of Nowhere. While their hit songs had help from veteran songwriters and producers like Desmond Child, the music worked because it felt unaffected — Taylor, Zac and Isaac, with their long long golden locks and not-quite-cracked-puberty vocals, wrote their own songs, played their own instruments and didn’t rely on stylized costumes and synchronized pelvic thrusts to get their music to the masses. It was the return of honest bubblegum.
Released on May 6, 1997, Middle of Nowhere was welcomed by critics as a breath of fresh air and brought in five hits worldwide, including their only #1 single in the US “MMMBop.” The album peaked at #2 on the US album charts, eventually selling 10 million copies worldwide — and even for the pre-iTunes world, that was a lot of CDs.
The Hanson brothers may have only been in their teens (or tweens in Zac’s case) when they landed a major record deal with Mercury/Polygram Records, but they already had about five years of experience writing, recording and performing their own work. Prior to Middle of Nowhere, they independently recorded and released two other albums, Boomerang and MMMBop. But when it came time to polish Middle of Nowhere, the boys teamed with hit-making producers The Dust Brothers, who most notably transformed “MMMBop” from a ballad into an infectiously upbeat track with a grammatically nonsensical chorus and hip touches like turntable scratches. The track eventually nabbed two Grammy nominations, topped the singles charts in over 20 countries and today makes regular appearances on “Greatest Songs of the ’90s” lists.
Their second single, “Where’s The Love,” is reminiscent of the old rock-and-roll records the boys used to listen to when they were children. It’s a fast-paced pop track that highlights the band’s ability to harmonize. The song went to #6 on the Mainstream Top 40 in the US, went to #4 in the UK, and even earned its very own VH1 Pop-Up Video.
Hanson, “Where’s The Love”
Hanson fans — hordes of screaming, crying teenage girls, mostly — were a force to be reckoned with. The boys sold out arena and, it seemed, every type of branded merchandise possible. Hanson mania reached such a fever pitched that each of the members required his own bodyguard to keep from being smothered by the throngs of girls. And they cultivated this all with their squeaky clean image. Their two later singles “Thinking of You” and “I Will Come To You” proved to that you didn’t need sexualized dance moves to capture a teen girl’s heart: All you needed was a pair of crystal blue eyes, longish blond hair and romantic lyrics like, “I’m carrying this heavy load / Don’t know what to do / The only thing I know / Is I’m in love with you.”
Hanson showed off their musical heavyweight status by enlisting Good Will Hunting director Gus Van Sant to take the reigns on their music video for “Weird,” the fourth single off of Middle of Nowhere. Shot in New York City’s Times Square and underground subway system, the video takes a look at all the different people that walk around in our everyday lives. The brothers also recruited Tom Foden — who designed the spinning spaceship for Michael and Janet Jackson’s “Scream” video — to plan out the video’s revolving room scene.
Since 1997, the trio has released a number of albums, including the pop Christmas record Snowed In and 2010′s Shout It Out, the band’s fifth full-length, which they released on their own label 3CG Records. As they enter their 20th year as a band (impressive considering two-thirds of the band is still under 30), Isaac (31), Taylor (29) and Zac (26) have grown from garage band of brothers to independent music moguls with partnerships with TOMS Shoes, a beer-brewing business and even a documentary or two under their belts.
And though the brothers have grown to be successful entrepreneurs and family men (Isaac and Zac each have two children, and Taylor has four with another on the way), lightning hasn’t quite struck twice for Hanson. It’s safe to say that if not for the staggering success of Middle of Nowhere and “MMMBop,” Hanson may have just been another band of brothers trying to make it in the industry.