HANSON: WHO KNEW? When the trio of brothers emerged in 1997 with "MMMBop," it was easy to hate them. As three blond, floppy-haired teenagers, their nonsense hyper-pop seemed like a direct rebuke to the dark, insistently meaningful character of grunge that was then synonymous with authenticity. And one of them was named Zac. Zac!
But as we all got some critical distance, we maybe started to reconsider. After all, "MMMBop" was produced by the Dust Brothers, the same team behind Beck's Odelay. And outside of that moment, it seemed like the only essential difference between Zac Hanson and Beck Hansen was an awareness of irony.
But their upcoming show at the Wonder Ballroom is not a reunion tour or a state-fair nostalgia act where they roll out their catalog. Hanson is a viable, ongoing concern. An independent band before "MMMBop" (they were discovered at SXSW!), they fought a battle with their record label for creative control (then made a documentary about it, just like Wilco!) and broke off to form their own indie label. The first record they released on that label in 2004, Underneath, did well enough that, against all expectations, it was clear they had retained a sizable fanbase.
So what do Hanson's fans like about Hanson? Younger readers may be surprised at their continued appeal in the same way I'm baffled that people still like Counting Crows, and that's not a bad comparison. Both bands work a similar sound of sensitive singer/songwriter rock indebted to California acts from the 1970s; both bands overcame pop hits to cultivate a sense of authenticity; and both have cultivated fans through steady road work. Hanson is touring off a new album called Shout it Out that's pretty good listening. Mock Zac's '90s cornrows all you like: Their moody, thoughtful rock is traditional but undeniably pleasing. At the same time, it's not like they've got a lot of tweens at their concerts. Hanson fans seem to be people who were lured in by "MMMBop" to devour Middle of Nowhere and follow the band down the trad-rock rabbit hole, so they tend to be somewhere in their mid-20s or beyond.
A better question to ask, then, may be what it means that Hanson still exists. I'd argue they resonate with their fans as the last of the rock stars, a species that still exists but has been deprived of breeding stock. The music industry is dead, reduced to niches, pop stars, and a long tail. But where music once delivered the fantasy that our lives are dramatic, now acts like Hanson deliver the fantasy that music still matters. It's one we desperately want to believe—see, for instance, The Devil Wears Prada author Lauren Weisberger's new book Last Night at Chateau Marmont, about an unknown musician achieving instant stardom through, apparently, magic—and Hanson, a group of hard-working musicians with hundreds of thousands of fans and a firm grip on their own legend, can put on a show that makes it seem like you're seeing Bread or Thin Lizzy. And we like that. Hanson have made, and continue to make, some great music. But maybe they're beloved because they represent something we feel slipping slowly away.