The latest icon of the ’90s to celebrate a milestone is Hanson’s ‘MMMBop’, which is currently enjoying its 20th anniversary as a cultural flashpoint, and though you may not know it, the bridge between grunge and a return to pop.
See, the brotherly trio from Tulsa, Oklahoma weren’t just the makers of a sugary sweet ’90s pop tune that captured the hearts and minds of teen girls everywhere. They essentially undid all the hard work achieved by grunge in the early ’90s.
Many are now aware that the song, despite its upbeat melody and nonsensical chorus, is actually a melancholic ode to losing friends as one grows older, but that’s not where the secrets of one of the biggest hits of the ’90s end.
Steve Greenberg, the executive producer on Hanson’s album Middle of Nowhere, was convinced that if the band were to fulfil the potential that Christopher Sabec, the band’s manager, first saw in them at SXSW, they’d need to have alt-cred.
“We were coming out of this alternative rock moment, and everything was about alternative cred. People were very skeptical that we could do a pop record,” Greenberg recently told Broadly, who’ve published an oral history on ‘MMMBop’.
Greenberg decided to assemble an alternative Justice League to spruce up the band’s indie credentials. Having recently heard an advance of Beck’s Odelay, Greenberg tapped the Dust Brothers to produce Middle of Nowhere.
“It was the Dust Brothers’ involvement that helped us achieve alternative cred,” said Greenberg. David Campbell, a composer who’d worked with Green Day and Hole, did arrangements for the album, and Tamra Davis (Sonic Youth, Veruca Salt) directed the ‘MMMBop’ video.
“Steve and I wanted to create a patina of hipness around a pop record. I think we picked exactly the right people,” said Mercury Records’ Danny Goldberg. “They didn’t try to make it like Nine Inch Nails or too hip. But they did add a hipness factor that smoothed the pathway to quick exposure in all aspects of the business.”
With the track nailed, a hip music video was the next essential step in building Hanson and ‘MMMBop’. MTV was still at the height of its influence and an eye-catching music video paired with a memorable song was enough to secure a career for an artist.
“Tamra Davis was connected to that whole LA indie scene. We had a very specific idea of what we wanted the video to be, but we sat down with Tamra, and her vision was more organic,” Taylor Hanson told Broadly. “So it was this fusion of our ideas and hers.”
The result? A routine promotional appearance in a record store with an anticipated turnout of a few hundred ended with the mall that housed the store being shut down because 10,000 screaming girls showed up demanding to see Hanson.
“There are thousands of girls screaming in this mall,” Greenberg recounted. “Danny had managed Nirvana at their peak—and he said, ‘I’ve managed a lot of really big artists, and I’ve never heard that sound.’ At that point we just knew.”
Love them or hate them, Hanson certainly have talent and know how to craft a good pop tune. But without the combined machinations of a gang of industry stakeholders, we probably wouldn’t be as familiar with the three flaxen haired brothers from Oklahoma as we are today.