If you’re prone to think the youth of today are growing up way too fast, the current stampede of rock & roll high schoolers won’t ease your mind. The pre-teen idols of the past — the pubescent Jackson 5, Osmonds, and New Edition — sang as if their worst experience were not sitting next to their latest crush during lunch period. The teen rockers of the ’90s are a different class altogether. From brooding chanteuse Fiona Apple to tormented grunge brats like silverchair’s Daniel Johns and Radish’s Ben Kweller, they seem, even by adolescent standards, inordinately angst ridden and world-weary — freakishly mature. LeAnn Rimes, who belts standards while dressed like a Sears saleswoman, already seems to be, what, 35?
Zac, Taylor, and Ike Hanson, the Tulsa brothers who constitute Hanson, are 11, 13, and 16, respectively. And on their single ”MMM Bop,” they sound as if they’re…11, 13, and 16. Driven by singer-keyboardist Taylor, whose voice has the squeaky, yearning passion of pre-high school Michael Jackson, ”MMM Bop” is an undeniable confection. It’s a giddy trampoline bounce of a record that tells us to ”hold on to the ones who really care” because ”in an mmm-bop they’re gone.” The turntable scratching (courtesy of the Dust Brothers, Beck’s coproducers) is a retro-hip touch. But ”MMM Bop” never pretends to be anything other than what it is — the overdue return of bubblegum pop. In the equally charming video, Hanson frolic around on beaches and Rollerblades. They’re a slacker Partridge Family, with flaxen-haired drummer Zac their very own Chris Partridge.
Like the Jackson 5’s ”I Want You Back,” New Edition’s ”Popcorn Love,” and Debbie Gibson’s ”Shake Your Love,” ”MMM Bop” isn’t some romper-rock novelty. It’s fully realized pop that just happens to be sung by kids, and the same goes for Hanson’s equally yummy debut album, Middle of Nowhere. Like long-forgotten ’70s Top 40 singles, teen beats like ”Where’s the Love?” and ”Thinking of You” feel like a bike ride with a pal on a sunny spring day. The boys also bounce through skate funk (”Speechless” and ”Look at You”), and Taylor’s sweet-13 soul redeems even a goopy lean-on-me power ballad like ”I Will Come to You.” (Note to roots-music snobs: To kids like Hanson, Journey probably are roots music.)
That lack of guile is Hanson’s most endearing quality. Although many grown-ups helped make Middle of Nowhere — from song doctor Desmond Child to Brill Building vets Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil — there’s something utterly natural and unaffected about it. Hanson dispense their share of lame Hallmark profundities, but they primarily sing of what they know: a broken heart (”Madeline”), coping with ”a cookie-cutter world” (”Weird”), the classmate who vanished (”Yearbook”), and that homeless dude at the bus stop (”Man From Milwaukee [Garage Mix],” which rocks more joyfully than anything by Radish). If an alt-rocker were to use ”I love Lucy” as a chorus, it’d be annoyingly kitschy. When Taylor does it, on the heartbreak-kid weeper ”Lucy,” it’s sincere — the sound of a teen for whom a breakup means the end of the world as he knows it.
Except for brazenly manufactured playthings like the Spice Girls, they don’t make buoyant, all-ages-allowed pop like Middle of Nowhere anymore. Which begs a question: Should they? Are Hanson, with their dweeby ’70s thrift-store clothes, too innocent for their time, an adult’s concept of what teen music used to be? Today’s high schoolers wear the armor of the hip-hop nation — baggy jeans, baseball caps — and live for rap, ska, and hardcore. By comparison, Hanson’s music seems old-fashioned and anachronistic. It’s easy to imagine the brothers getting bullied for being such girly-boys. That same quality, though, is what makes their music so winning. Until Taylor suffers through the inevitable, Peter Brady-style change of voice, Hanson are walking on sunshine, and don’t it feel good. A-