Sunday, April 7, 2013

Serious Contenders: Hanson, "MMMBop"

The 90s were a fertile time for seemingly upbeat pop songs with secretly dark, sophisticated meanings: "The Way" by Fastball is a tragic romance (in that a couple seeking to escape their day-to-day lives ends up missing and eventually in real life dead) "Semi-Charmed Life" by Third Eye Blind is about meth addiction, "You Get What You Give" by the New Radicals is a rallying cry against commercialism, and I'm pretty sure "Fly" by Sugar Ray is about the JFK assassination. Or maybe not, but those other three, yes. By far, I would say, the biggest contradiction of the lot is Hanson's "MMMBop." No, this is not a stupidly late April Fool's joke. It's a well-documented fact that the lyrics to "MMMBop" are about the fleeting nature of youth, and about the uncertainty that we can ever know for sure who is really with us: "So hold on to the ones who really care / In the end they'll be the only ones there / When you get old and start losing your hair / Can you tell me who will still care? / Mmm bop, da ba du bop..."

This song was written by teenagers. It very nearly resembles morose poetry scrawled in the margins of a history textbook, but the fact is, the Hanson Brothers were (still are!) pop-literate musicians and songwriters who could marry the unwarrantedly-profound musings to an insanely catchy pop hook, based around, I think, the same chord progression as the Velvet Underground's "Sweet Jane" (itself a forefather of the dark-light pop blend.) And they came up with this completely insane yet totally accurate chorus to sum it up, which you would absolutely never guess based on the sound of it, far from the first thing you would arrive at if you were writing this song: "In an mmmbop, they're gone." An "Mmmbop," apparently, is a brief instant in time: you have people for a short period, and then suddenly (mmmbop) they're gone. And it just sounds like babytalk.

It would be a great catchy old pop song even without a hidden meaning, and I'm not sure that being secretly mature and observational makes the song any better but it accounts for its existence that way. The song's meaning does get stronger, though, when sung in the ebullient voice of a youthful pop song, itself a fleeting thing. It's very "in the moment," so much so, for 1996, that it has those DJ scratches randomly in the mix, along with cowbells.

There will always be those who don't recognize the song's greatness. It's better than you think but it could still not be for you because it is, again, overwhelmingly poppy, even with the actual content, and still sung by a shrill-voiced trio of precocious then-teenagers who are the last people you'd expect to muse about "When you get old and start losing your hair." That contradiction is the inherent difficulty in these secretly dark pop songs is that the form they take somewhat squirrels up their message. For those with ears to hear it, though, this is a serious contender.

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