“Keep planting to find out which one grows.”

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A Review of Hanson’s “MMMBop” by Max Rubin

Though difficult to decipher through young Taylor Hanson’s reedy timbre, the lyrics that open “MMMBop,” the 1997 über-smash by Hanson, are a sobering quatrain: “You have so many relationships in this life/Only one or two will last/You go through all the pain and strife/Then you turn your back and they’re gone so fast.” That’s some cold truth for a twelve-year-old to thrown down. The song, which was released as the debut single off Hanson’s first full-length LP, Middle of Nowhere, and which rocketed the brothers to tweenage stardom, reads less like stratospherically successful bubblegum pop than it does a dirge.

In fact, “MMMBop” was intended in that latter vein. Before superstar production team The Dust Brothers came in and saturated the song with kitsch, “MMMBop” was initially recorded as a much slower, more somber track. Hanson self-released a demo in 1996 that features the original, lesser-known incarnation of the song. On that version, there are no cowbells, no spangling fun-in-the-sun organs, no vapid turntable scratches. Taylor’s vocals come in soft and slightly mournful. The hooks are still there, but the whole thing is just a bit sadder, more appropriately reflective of the lyrical tone.

Thus is the dichotomy at the heart of “MMMBop.” On the one hand, The Dust Brothers were imperative to the song’s success. They whipped it out of the register of rangy garage tune and into Billboard shape, roughly the way Hollywood might take on an aspiring character actor, sand off his edge, and tease him up into a rom-com leading man. The Dust Brothers built into the song an irresistible effervescence, dolling it with shimmer and making it pop. They also upped the tempo to a snappier pace. The lyrical phrasing of “MMMBop” is crowded to begin with, and with Taylor—whose voice on the record is still tightly coiled in pre-pubescence—now forced to keep up with the increased BPM, the vocals are rendered unintelligible, reduced to a stream of melodic froth. Thus “MMMBop” loses its pensive essence. This all makes for more palatable pop, to be sure, but it’s also the other hand of the “MMMBop” dichotomy: The Dust Brothers’ treatment obscures the soul of the song.

Hanson gets pigeonholed as a one-hit novelty act because they rose to fame as a boy-band-of-brothers with long blond hair and a song title that wasn’t even a real word. But, as a noun, MMMBop is not arbitrary tween gibberish. It’s actually onomatopoeia. And rather inspired onomatopoeia at that. As defined by the band, an MMMBop is a span of time that’s gone before you know it. It refers to something in which you are so intensely involved that you can’t understand the scope of it until it’s disappeared. The band applies the term to life’s many fleeting relationships, singing, “In an MMMBop they’re gone.” It is a commentary on the human perception of the passage of time. And, as a sound, the word captures its meaning brilliantly—the fleeting nature of measured time, humming along for a brief moment—mmm…—and then, while you were still registering it: bop!… it’s gone.

This lyricism is the product of a kind of uninhibited playfulness that a more experienced songwriter could never conjure. Isaac, the oldest of the brothers Hanson, was a mere fourteen-years-old when they wrote the song, meaning the boys hadn’t yet lived long enough to become seasoned songwriters. The adage goes that good writers know the rules so well that they can properly break them. “MMMBop” is the result of the opposite: writers who don’t know the rules and yet somehow get them right.

Which is to say that “MMMBop” is, in essence, a piece of very impressive middle school poetry. It’s not particularly sophisticated stuff, but it avoids all the main pratfalls of the genre—clumsy metaphor, unfilled meter, weepy sentimentality. Hanson even subverts the technique of flowery imagery, utilizing it with coy literalness: “Plant a seed, plant a flower, plant a rose / You can plant any one of those / Keep planting to find out which one grows / It’s a secret no one knows.” Winking as it is, this stanza is the philosophy at the core of “MMMBop”—that relationships require cultivation before their true worth can be assessed. It’s a bold claim for the band to make, for it confronts one of the reigning convictions of American pop-culture: the mushy predisposition toward love at first sight. The Hanson boys, prematurely world-weary, are not so naïve. In call and response, they ask, “Can you tell me which flower’s going to grow?” answering back with, “You say you can, but you don’t know.” In other words, “Bullshit.” We are not so prescient a people. The band might as well be reciting divorce statistics.

No, most of our relationships will not last. Our efforts may mostly be futile and unpredictable. In response to such truths, it may be tempting to embrace defeatism and lethargy. But Hanson suggests we act otherwise. It is our duty, the brothers posit, to keep cultivating nonetheless, to “keep planting to find out which one grows.” “MMMBop,” ultimately, is a song that advocates resilience in the face of overwhelming odds, of persistent, methodical, meticulous application as the only means by which to transcend our fickle nature.

This isn’t typical Top 40 fare, to be sure. Of course, were any of it discernible in the vocals, “MMMBop” would never have achieved its chart-topping station. Instead it sounds like blather—light, airy, undemanding: all ideal elements for teeny-bopping. But locked in there is a more substantial, mature song, and one that, in the end, suggests its own trajectory, along with that of every other one-hit wonder. At the time, its presence felt inescapable and eternal. And then it was gone, suddenly, in a goddam, shimmering MMMBop.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V-QR54xjn8o&w=420&h=315]

Max Rubin is a writer living in Iowa City, IA. He is available for weddings and Bar Mitzvahs. Inquire at rubin.max@gmail.com.