As a person of—ahem—a certain age, 90’s pop music will always hold a special place in my heart. It’s the music I first partied to in public, the music I first got drunk to, the music I sang along to in my most joyful moments, and a certain amount of Alanis Morissette’s early canon even joined my most beloved standards and showtunes as Music For Melancholy Moods.
Fast-forward to today, and everything about the way we consume music has changed, but the content is still there. To that end, I have 90’s playlists on all of my devices, and tagged as favorites on the streaming service I use. So there I was one day, bopping along to the indisputable classic “Shoop” by Salt N’ Pepa, rapping every word with the track except for the one viciously ableist one that was still gross but not really balked at back in the day.
The next song was “MMMBop” by Hanson, the pop prettyboy brothers who captivated everyone I knew at the time except me. I never got into their music, their image, none of it. It just wasn’t my cup of tea, and I ordinarily skip this song when it comes up on a playlist, but I was walking swiftly and my phone had shifted to a relatively buried position in my bag, and I thought, “Oh well, it’s not the biggest deal in the world, I’ll just let it play.”
Not only did I let it play, but I actually listened to it, probably seriously for the first time ever, and holy shit! “MMMBop” is actually one of the most existentially bleak songs ever written.
I had never noticed because I wasn’t really paying attention, and it seems like the record-buying masses of 1997, who made Hanson’s most successful track an international hit that reached #1 in 27 countries, were too jazzed by the aggressively upbeat tune and rhythm to notice that this is some heavy stuff.
Some Wednesday Addams, Lydia Maitland kinda stuff.
I first started taking note upon hearing the lyric in the hook, “In an MMMBop you’re gone,” and I thought to myself, Wait, hang on, an MMMBop is a unit of time measurement? Even having personally dismissed the song so significantly, I couldn’t help but to have heard it several trillion times, ubiquitous as it was for so long. I thought I was at least familiar with it overall, and that the title was part of the quasi-gibberish/scatting that filled so much of it.
The revelation that “an MMMBop” is a thing was just the beginning of my edification.
What in the name of emo self-doubt is all this? Right out of the gate, after the aforementioned sorta-scatting, (sorry Hanson and Hanson fans, they technically are scatting but I’m too much of an Ella Fitzgerald fan to really give them that), we’re told, “You have so many relationships in this life / Only one or two will last.”
Let’s pause and remember that Isaac, Taylor, and Zac Hanson were only 14, 12, and 10 years old at the time.
Having established from jump that the majority of our relationships are doomed, the adorable trio grimly acknowledges: “You go through all the pain and strife/Then you turn your back and they're gone so fast.”
I’m not doing that thing where adults question the sincerity of the “deep thoughts” of very young people just because they are very young. Rather, some filament of memory in my brain lit up with the knowledge that the Young Brothers Hanson had written it themselves, a fact that was undoubtedly spouted by some talking head back when MTV played videos and lodged itself in my subconscious to be put to use 20 years later. So my thought wasn’t that these children were parroting some approximation of “deep thoughts,” or that they were puppets for an adult songwriter, but omg this is so dark how did I never know this was so dark?
I can’t stand perky music that’s perky for perkiness’ sake. I don’t mind happy music and I appreciate joyful music, but peppy, perky, and other words that begin with P and end with Y generally make me nauseous. I do however, allow for perkiness as a melodic counterpoint to dark lyrical content, and greatly appreciate such juxtapositions, so how on Earth did I not know all this time that MMMBop was more than just mmms and bops?
After warning us that life is about bullshit relationships and loss, the telegenic trio wisely advises: “So hold on the ones who really care.” Which seems fair enough. But they immediately double down on their Debbie Downer-ness by explaining that the reason to hold on is because “In the end they'll be the only ones there.” Excuuuuuuuse me, cutie pies?
We haven’t even reached the hook yet when the boys are pleading, “And when you get old and start losing your hair / Tell me who will still care / Can you tell me who will still care?”
Mind fully blown, I hit up my good girlfriend Google to see if I was having some sort of personal crisis that made me read waaaaay into these lyrics or if others had documented this.
It all made sense when I learned that MMMBop was originally conceived and recorded by the boys as a ballad, and the version that ruled the world for a summer or so was (re)produced by the prolific producing team The Dust Brothers, whose work with artists like Beck and the Beastie Boys is anything but ballad-heavy.
They surely did their Dusty thing on MMMBop, transforming the boys’ existential lament into an uptempo boogie that, for me, unforgivably obscured the lyrical content. To be clear, the original version is still a mid-tempo jam and not some slow, string-filled funeral dirge in a musical sense, but it’s slower enough and sung more thoughtfully enough to make so much more sense to me than the manic track that topped the charts.
Though some of their follow-up songs indeed showcased solid vocals and great harmonization, MMMBop felt so thoroughly bubblegum to me that I was always confused when I heard Hanson describe their sound as R&B, as in this recent interview where they described their music as “Jackson 5–esque soulful songs.”
That’s a bit of a reach, until you factor in that original MMMBop, which is… exactly that. Where was this song in 1996? Had it not been buried, I might be Hanson’s #1 fan today!
Lyrically, after that first chorus, MMMBop goes on to cast a negative pall on the unpredictability of life, which could be viewed as a beautiful sea of unbridled possibilities, or, through Hanson’s eyes, as an answerless void where you keep planting seeds without knowing what may or may not ever grow from them. The song’s final minute or so is spent in a downward spiral of repetition, with the boys answering their own desperate plea “Can you tell me who will still care?” with a terrifying “Can you tell me? / Oh / No you can't 'cause you don't know.”
“Can you tell me? You say you can but you don't know.”
THAT song would have fit in just fine with my Morrisette-heavy playlists, and it’s no wonder to me that CDs of the original MMMBop, which the boys had recorded themselves and sold only at their own perfromances and at regional outlets in Oklahoma until they landed a record deal, sell for hundreds of dollars on eBay.
Perhaps you already knew that the lyrics to MMMBop are an emotional journey to the heart of existential darkness, but this was news to me, and the chart-topping version will never be the same again.