The Tulsa trio have become pop's poster boys of the new feel-good culture

Even the world’s smallest pony isn’t awake yet. The sun has barely shoved through the haze on this early summer morning at the Meadowlands Fair in northeast New Jersey. But already, an army of Ivory-fresh adolescent girls is making a beeline for the red-and-white-striped tent in the middle of the grounds, past the candy-apple booth and directly to the left of the cage that will eventually house a two-foot-tall horse. Perhaps the fair should be rechristened Lollipop-alooza.

The girls, accompanied by groggy parents, are here to gawk, but not at a one-shtick pony. Shortly after the un-rock & roll hour of 8 a.m., an announcer informs the crowd that the featured performers have arrived, and onto the stage bound the brothers Hanson: Isaac, 16, Taylor, 14, and Zac, 11, all blond ponytails, baggy slacks, and work boots. Standing side by side, with Zac easily a foot shorter than Isaac, they look like the skyline of their hometown, Tulsa. Hanson launch into ”Man From Milwaukee,” one of the chewy pop gumballs on their platinum major-label debut, Middle of Nowhere. The fans, perched on their parents’ shoulders or dangling their arms over the front barricade while clutching posters ripped out of Teen Beat, shriek and sing along. It is such an ear-rattling cacophony that even Hanson’s backup musicians admit they’ll need to start using earplugs on stage.

Half an hour and six songs later, the show ends, and the boys are spirited into a waiting rent-a-van; next stop Minneapolis, for another show this evening. ”It’s just so fun for us — all these kids, and moms and dads, who love this music,” says Isaac, plopping into the backseat with his brothers. Sporting wraparound shades and scraggly ringlets, Isaac (or Ike, as he’s called by his family) already has the air of a brooding rock star, albeit one with braces. ”It’s just so cool that all these people are having fun and dancing or clapping to your music.”

”For a while, there was that alternative thing, and it was huge,” adds Taylor, the band’s cherubic heartthrob, rising star, and most soulful and distinctive singer. ”And now it’s coming back to music being fun. Not corny, but enjoyable. Not down-and-out ‘I hate my life.”’ Interjects Isaac: ”There’s definitely moments of depression in life. But our music focuses on other things instead of being depressed.”

The scene in New Jersey — all part of Hanson’s action-packed promotional tour — has been repeated, in the U.S. and abroad, for the past few months and will continue for a few more. Only the venues — a free concert or mall appearance here, a Today or Tonight show there — change. Hanson play, and girls squeal — not out of angst, but joy. When the show is over, there will be no rioting, no moshing, only lingering cries of ”We want Hanson!”

Why Hanson, why now? The trio’s faster-than-a-Rollerblader success — Middle of Nowhere and its unstoppable first single, ”MMMBop,” have been entrenched in the pop top 10 since their May release — can be attributed to pure statistics. Nearly a decade has passed since the reign of the last major teen-pop idols, New Kids on the Block. In the years since the Kids’ peak in 1990, a new, larger generation of teens has come of age. There are now 19 million 10- to 14-year-olds from coast to mall-crammed coast, up from 17 million in 1990. The same boom has occurred overseas, which helps explain why ”MMMBop” has hit No. 1 everywhere from Ireland to Australia. (Hanson hold such sway over teens that this fall they’ll appear in a ”Where’s your mustache?” milk ad, to promote calcium usage among adolescent girls.) ”Everyone told me kids today would never exhibit hysteria for a young rock band the way they did a generation ago,” says Steve Greenberg, the Mercury A&R exec who signed Hanson. ”But kids are kids. They don’t change from generation to generation.”