20 years later, Hanson's "Middle of Nowhere" stands the test of time

Bubblegum-pop, classic rock and power-pop influences make the preternaturally mature trio's major label bow endure

Published May 5, 2017 10:59PM (EDT)

Hanson   (Getty/Brenda Chase)
Hanson (Getty/Brenda Chase)
Music was in a transitional period in 1997. Grunge and Britpop had petered out, leaving alternative music to embrace an eclectic grab bag of sounds and styles. The Spice Girls were leading a new pop revolution that eventually bloomed into a boy-band and teen-pop movement. Nu-metal was lurking in the background, poised to take over the rock scene. And sentimental tributes — led by Elton John's Princess Diana-honoring "Candle in the Wind 1997" and Puff Daddy and Faith Evans' homage to the Notorious B.I.G., "I'll Be Missing You" — dominated the charts.

In other words, 1997 had plenty of openings for sounds that were (comparatively) a little more unorthodox. Enter Hanson, a trio of fresh-faced Oklahoma brothers who stormed the charts with “Mmmbop." The affable, bubblegum-pop tune spent three weeks at No. 1 in the U.S. and was nominated for two Grammy Awards. Its nonsensical but irresistible chorus — lots of "doo wop," "duba dop" and "ba doo" sounds — also confounded linguists. The band's record company saw opportunity in the gibberish, however: In a 1997 People interview, Mercury Records' Steve Greenberg pointed out that the chorus "means the same thing in every language," which aided its global success.

"Mmmbop" was only one part of Hanson's world domination, however. On May 6, 1997, the band released its major label debut record, "Middle of Nowhere," which peaked at No. 2 on the U.S. album charts, spawned five worldwide hits and eventually went quadruple platinum.

On some level, the record represented a can't-fail proposition. Songwriting contributions come from Mark Hudson (who had collaborated closely with Aerosmith and Ringo Starr, among others), '80s hitmaker Desmond Child and the husband-wife musical powerhouse Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. The record was also co-produced by the Dust Brothers, who were known for their work on Beastie Boys' "Paul's Boutique" and Beck's "Odelay."

Thanks to this combination of players, "Middle of Nowhere" smartly toes the line between modern flourishes and timeless influences. "Speechless," for example, adds tasteful, DJ-like scribbles to soulful funk grooves and horns, while "Mmmbop" has whimsical-sounding programming underneath its gleeful pop surface. The album sounds contemporary without resorting to trend hopping, which is a tough thing to do.

Yet its embrace of timeless influences also helps "Middle of Nowhere" stand the test of time.For example, the joyful funk-rock songs "Where's the Love" and "Madeline" are comparable to the oeuvre of The Jackson 5. The record also touches on gauzy '70s soft rock ("Lucy") and pop-leaning '70s classic rock ("Thinking of You"), however, while power-pop signifiers saturate the sugar rush of "Man from Milwaukee" and the XTC-like "A Minute Without You." And "I Will Come to You" is the kind of epic, warm-and-fuzzy ballad that exudes sincerity without reservations.

In hindsight, "Middle of Nowhere" feels like a modern reproduction of a retro T-shirt — one with the iconography and intent of the original, only made with sturdier material. That's not a knock: At the time of its release, the  record's vintage vibe felt like a refreshing breath of fresh air, and today it sounds both un-self-conscious and self-assured — a combination that's not that easy to sustain.

"Middle of Nowhere" isn't perfect, of course. Taylor Hanson's vocals haven't always matched the adult tone of the music. For example, on "Yearbook," his voice strains to match the somber grandeur of the strings. And the treacly tone of the record's ballads haven't aged well. But the brothers' harmonies are earnest and on point, and it never feels like the band is trying to be anything but itself.

It helps that the members of Hanson had a preternaturally mature outlook. "We used to always tease that we write happy sad songs," Isaac Hanson told Vulture last year. "Maybe some of that came from listening to a lot of old R&B and rock and roll." In the same interview, Taylor Hanson remarked that "Mmmbop" is "not exactly sunshine and rainbows, but it’s packaged in a way that it’s looking for the moral to the story" and is "optimism that’s framed with realism."

Twenty years ago, the adult "Middle of the Road" collaborators in the band's orbit also respected the band's insights and didn't want the musicians to pander to the lowest common denominator. If anything, the young musicians helped older collaborators tap into different wells of emotion. Desmond Child, who co-wrote "Weird" with the band, once told Rolling Stone that the song is meaningful to him "because it's about being different — and I grew up poor, I grew up being Latin, I grew up being gay, and now I'm fat!"

Fans of course responded to the album and band. And critics saluted the record's complexities: A 1997 Entertainment Weekly review graded the album an A- and praised the band's "lack of guile," while a vintage Addicted to Noise review started off with the reviewer proclaiming that the record is "so far, my pick for 1997 Album Of The Year."

The recognition of Hanson's talent is remarkable. Bands with extraordinarily young musicians are often praised simply because the performers are young — a condescending move if there ever was one, as it undermines the caliber of their talent. Debbie Gibson, for example, wrote, performed and produced a No. 1 hit, "Foolish Beat," before the age of 18. Youth is often associated with novelty acts: Witness the 4-year-old French phenom Jordy, whose "Dur dur d'être bébé!" was a curio of the early '90s. Hanson could have easily been dismissed as a fluke — and "Middle of Nowhere" could have become a dated relic gathering dust in the dollar bin, like so many other popular '90s records.

But 2017 marks Hanson's 25th year as a band. The group is celebrating this milestone with a new Christmas album, a new studio record and tour dates, as well as participating in the fourth-annual Hop Jam Beer and Music Festival in Tulsa, Oklahoma. (Hanson has its own beer, an American pale ale called — wait for it — "Mmmhops" that Beer Advocate has given a score of 76.) This flurry of activity isn't even out of the ordinary: The members of Hanson keep a busy road and recording schedule and do an abundance of charity work. Although hard work, as well as loyal fans, has buoyed Hanson over the years, it's undeniable that "Middle of Nowhere" is ground zero for the band's fruitful career.

By Annie Zaleski

Annie Zaleski is a Cleveland-based journalist who writes regularly for The A.V. Club, and has also been published by Rolling Stone, Vulture, RBMA, Thrillist and Spin.

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