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The wind cries ‘MMMBop’

Tulsa newcomer examines Hanson fan culture

Fansons from across the globe pack downtown Tulsa during Hop Jam 2019.

Trevor Niemann

Last Friday, a 4.4 magnitude earthquake hit northwest Oklahoma, and aftershocks rippled through Tulsa all weekend. On Monday, a severe weather system barreled through, complete with flash flooding and tornado warnings. In between, lightning and thunder flashed over the Arts District. But it was another force of nature that drove neighborhood residents to take cover in the basement: Hanson Day 2019.

Tulsans are familiar with Hop Jam, the free annual music-and-craft-beer festival thrown by locally based pop band Hanson. Tulsans also likely know about Hanson Day, the multi-day, multi-venue, activity-packed festival exclusively for members of Hanson’s international fan club. Tulsans are comfortable in the amiable shadow cast by the hometown boys who not only made good but made “MMMBop,” the 1997 hit that went #1 in 27 countries and catapulted them to mega-stardom before Taylor’s and Zac’s voices dropped.

But for those of us new to Tulsa, Hanson’s power is mysterious. Even if we can hum the tune of “MMMBop,” even if we’ve spotted them outside their 3CG label headquarters and confirmed they’re still cute (if you’re into that), the fervor of Hanson Day revelers is flat-out dumbfounding. As early as Wednesday, lines—mostly women in their early 30s—gathered on the sidewalk and in the alley around Hanson’s studio. How good could the merch be? What’s at the heart of this singular fandom? What keeps the Fansons coming back?

* * *

On Saturday morning, rainclouds draped low over downtown. I walked past Mayfest booths, where artists wrapped up their canvases and pottery, giving up on foot traffic during the imminent storm. On the sidewalk near Cain’s Ballroom, people sat quietly in ponchos and camp chairs or crouched under tents and awnings. I approached three women cross-legged on the concrete, each with an umbrella pitched over her head like a one-person tent. They had driven in from Wisconsin and camped outside of Cain’s all night—since Taylor Hanson’s DJ set ended at 1:30 a.m.

They pointed to their car parked nearby, packed with sleeping bags and supplies; this wasn’t their first rodeo. They said “most people” are cool about respecting your place in line if you need to go to the bathroom or buy food. I asked if they were planning to buy tickets at the door. In response they held up their arms, displaying pre-registered wristbands. This camp-out was not about getting in; it was about getting the front row.

Was 1997 that good of a year?

 A., in her late twenties, said, “If I can get up right against the stage and watch them like this”—she rested her chin on her fist, her eyes turned up to the sky—“then I’m in heaven.”

“It’s so worth it,” each of the women repeated, referring to the distance traveled, the sleep lost, the waiting, the cost. Fan club membership costs $40 a year, which includes access to online forums and early sales for Hanson shows. But each of the many Hanson Day events carries a separate price, from $15 for karaoke or the dance party to $50 for bowling or a more intimate concert. The Wisconsinites attend Hanson concerts when the band is on tour, but also make the trip to Hanson’s annual “Back to the Island” concert weekend at a Jamaican all-inclusive resort. Packages start at $1,775.

“We joke that we’re putting their kids through college,” E. said.

“They do have a lot of kids,” I said.

D., bright-eyed and dressed in yoga pants and tank top, showed me some of her Hanson tattoos. I asked what she hears when Hanson starts playing.

“Oh, I go right back to the beginning, to 1997,” D. said. “I saw them on TV, performing on the Today show. There was that boy with the rat tail, and I was done.”

D. and I are both 32, which was arguably the perfect age for the Hanson juggernaut. When “MMMBop” dropped in April 1997, I was ten, about to turn eleven: what should have been the sweet spot from which to pour my burgeoning, amorphous sexuality into the wholesome vessel of Hanson. The androgynous boys were cute; they could sing. They were soulful yet innocent, and the single was an undeniable earworm. But when I heard the chipper, retro strains of “MMMBop”—from a classmate singing in the cafeteria and then all over the radio that whole year—my first reaction was: Meh? Soon enough I was making fun of the song’s neutered doo-wop for being cheesy. (I didn’t like Billy Joel or Huey Lewis either.) Even without my prepubescent ears, “MMMBop” went on to sell 10 million copies, cementing the song as an international cultural touchstone and ushering in the Boy Band Era.

“Was 1997 that good of a year?” I asked.

“The songs remind me of other good times,” A. said. “As soon as I hear ‘Gimmie Some Lovin’’ [Spencer Davis Group cover] or ‘Where’s the Love?’ I think of the live album or seeing them at Summerfest.”

Her friends agreed, and I realized that hearing the songs live, surrounded by fellow Hanson fans, reminds them of fond memories—of hearing the songs live, surrounded by fellow Hanson fans. The fandom is self-contained and self-feeding, generating its own energy. The music’s nostalgia doesn’t invoke memories of reciprocal heartache or background zeitgeist like a prom song, because by the time most of these fans went to prom, Hanson was nowhere near the airwaves. Instead, Fansons recall lining up in gray Chicago snow, cops gently kicking them off corner after corner.

A user on a Hanson.net forum described Hanson Day as “Comic Con for Hanson fans,” where “everyone gets it” and you won’t be belittled for your devotion to a band that most people consider a one-hit wonder.  It’s the sensation of the fandom itself the Fansons seem to want to recapture. The music is the scaffolding for the safe, insular space Hanson has created.

* * *

Hanson formed this community in earnest in 2005, when the band left a frustrating relationship with Island Def Jam, starting its 3CG label and basing operations in the family’s hometown—industry and mainstream market be damned. This move proved to be ahead of the curve of major artists seizing control of their music’s distribution. Instead of trying to gain larger or more diverse audiences, Hanson dug into the fanbase that had followed them since the start—a sort of restorative-nostalgia revolution.

 “Hanson has never been driven by trends or fame,” the band/fan club’s website reads. A cynical view is that the band has capitalized on the niche obsession it inspired, and its approach is fan service at the expense of art. Possessing total creative control and developing such a personal connection with fans protects Hanson from failure. “Hanson.net gives us a place…to throw the musical gloves off and know that those who hear what we’re up to will understand where we are coming from or at very least enjoy it,” the website reads. “In other words… We trust you.” How are you going to say Meh to musicians who treat you as though you’re part of an extended Hanson—Fanson—family?

The more generous take, however, and Hanson’s claimed ethos, is that the group’s music career is inextricable from its bond with its diehard fan community. In this trusting relationship, the band asks for continued listener investment, and the Fansons ask that the band keep delivering music that reminds them of that first rush. Sure, the brothers are in their thirties, their blonde hair has darkened, and they could field a soccer team (plus an alternate) with their brood, but the band can’t change too much. For example, Taylor—the one who people always said “looked like a girl,” a beautiful one—has recently grown a beard, and it’s a source of debate among the Wisconsin women.

Fandom must be a space where the fan can experience and release extreme or excessive feeling, where one can scream for passion, for no reason. Where one can fly to Tulsa from Switzerland or Japan, can wait in line or in an alley, through wind and lightning, for a hug from a band member—and not be misperceived, taken advantage of, or threatened. Fandom is a space where one must be allowed to be too much.

Asked whether they’ve met the Hansons, the Wisconsinites replied, “Of course,” and showed me a few photo-ops on their phones, as rain started to spit. “See? No beard,” D. said.

“[The Hansons] remember everything about us except our names,” E. said. But her tone was casual, as though contact with the embodied idols was almost beside the point. After all, in just one weekend, these three would come in close contact with a Hanson at least five times. After a while, I imagine, the Hanson brothers are merely the fixed point around which the larger Fanson family reunion revolves.

There’s another criteria for preserving Fansondom, and any fandom of the sort seeded in adolescence, especially for female-identified people: It must be a space where the fan can experience and release extreme or excessive feeling, where one can scream for passion, for no reason. Where one can fly to Tulsa from Switzerland or Japan, can wait in line or in an alley, through wind and lightning, for a hug from a band member—and not be misperceived, taken advantage of, or threatened. Fandom is a space where one must be allowed to be too much.

* * *

On Sunday, I watched Hanson’s set from a vantage overlooking the modest crowd. Folks pressed to the front and waved their hands in the air, back and forth in the golden-hour light. On a Main Street sidewalk, a young Fanson twerked along to “MMMBop,” bumping against anyone in her path. Meanwhile on stage, Hanson delivered consistently polished, upbeat, and mostly generic pop-rock. They sounded good, professional, and I wished I could better make out the tight sheen of their harmonies. I realized I could sing along enthusiastically to the Mmm bop ba duba dop portion of Hanson’s world-changing hit single. The other lyrics had been a mystery, but after so many performances Taylor has sharpened his enunciation, and I heard the words for the first time.

“So hold onto the ones who really care,” Hanson sang. “In the end they’ll be the only ones there.”

Oh shit, I thought. They’re holding onto the fans who really care. All this time, Hanson had a master plan!

“In an mmmbop they’re gone,” Taylor kept singing. “In an mmmbop they’re not there.”

“Oh, it’s about death!” I said. My friends, also new to Tulsa, did not look comforted by this pronouncement.

I don’t know why exactly Hanson continues to mean so much to its Fansons. I do know that when we’re performing the fragile construction of a self, it’s important to have a thing that’s yours. Usually, that thing is fleeting: the band breaks up, the moment loses its urgency. The miracle for Fansons is that their chosen boy band did not insist that they abandon the songs and sweet silliness of youth in order to grow up. It may be cheesy, and it may be lucrative business. And Fansons, like Tulsa weather, are recognizable by their extremes. But in turning towards its audience, Hanson has indeed made a tangible and lasting community—and for one weekend a year, they hold their family reunion in our neighborhood.