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Entertainment Weekly Article
July 25th, 1997

"Hanson Rules this Summer's Pop"


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."

What has changed is a cultural moment. For nearly a decade, we've been slouching toward the millennium, to the accompaniment of Marilyn Manson and gangsta rap, The X-Files and Seven. For many, the antidote has been a dose of old-fashioned, feel-really-good entertainment. That may be why some are turning to heaven-scented TV like Touched by an Angel or rejecting Jim Carrey in The Cable Guy but flocking to the family-values fable Liar Liar. It's why not one but two Christian-pop albums (by Bob Carlisle and Kirk Franklin; see story on page 32) have ascended to the top of the pop charts. And that's why people have taken to the cheery, unabashedly hummable pop of the Spice Girls and three flaxen-haired Breck boys from the Midwest--even if, in Hanson's case, those songs concern fleeting relationships, dead grandmas, and missing teens.

Whatever the reasons for their success, Hanson are no longer in the middle of nowhere, but in the middle of a pop tornado. And like any rock stars on tour, they need to let off steam--in their own way, of course. Settling into their seats for the flight to Minneapolis, Zac doodles on a pad while Isaac takes a catnap. Neither notices the spiral-notebook paper that glides past them and into the aisle.

"Is that a paper airplane I see in first class?" says the stewardess, frowning. She glances around the cabin, but Taylor, blushing and flashing an embarrassed grin, has already ducked behind his seat.

Minneapolis, 2 p.m.: rock stars with hit albums do not normally wait for their bags at airport carousels. But such is the scene when Hanson and their mini-entourage--two managers, bodyguard, and father--touch down in the Twin Cities. Upon arriving at their hotel, the brothers check out the video arcade while their dad, Walker--an amiable 43-year-old who, with his gray-flecked goatee, resembles a lanky, Midwestern version of head Virgin bon vivant Richard Branson -- orders burgers and soda for all. Their mother, Diana, also 43, arrives later with younger siblings Jessica, 8, Avery, 6, and Mackenzie, 3--Hanson: The Next Generation. With their mountain of luggage and scampering moppets, they could be any harried suburban family on vacation.

To say family plays a prominent role in Hanson's career is akin to saying their new single, "Where's the Love," is a mildly catchy ditty. The story begins with Walker and Diana, high school sweethearts who married at 19, during their freshman year at the University of Oklahoma. Walker eventually found a job as a CPA in the international-finance department of an oil-drilling company. They both decided that Diana, whose hair is even blonder and longer than her kids', would home-school their children. In doing so, the Hanson brood became six of the nearly half-million grade-schoolers nationwide who opt out of public schools. "We just felt it was better for the kids" is all Walker will say about it. The concept came in especially handy when the family moved around South America for a year as part of Walker's job.

Soon, Isaac (born Clarke Isaac) and younger brothers Taylor and Zac (short for Zachary) grew interested in music, thanks to their father's rock-oldies collection. Back in Tulsa, they began singing a cappella around the house, gradually picking up instruments (guitar for Isaac, piano for Taylor, drums for Zac) at thrift stores. Once they completed their homework ("You end up teaching yourself, to some degree," Ike says), they would head into the living room and play. For them, rock & roll was an extracurricular activity. First calling themselves the Hansons and then the Hanson Bros (for that extra touch of white-rap culture), the boys began performing at state fairs, at parties in neighbors' living rooms, even the parking lot at a Tulsa bar called the Blue Rose Cafe. "We'd feed the kids in the crowd little burgers and soda pop, and they'd sit there mouthing all the words," recalls owner Tom Dittus. "It was just the cutest thing in the world." Walker would set up the equipment while Diana sold T-shirts and their homemade CDs, Boomerang (which included a cover of the Jackson 5's "The Love You Save") and MMMBop (which featured early renditions of the title track and two other songs from Middle of Nowhere).

In 1994, they took a tape of those early songs to South by Southwest, an annual music-industry schmooze-fest in nearby Austin, Tex., and sang a cappella for Christopher Sabec, at the time all-bran-rocker Dave Matthews' lawyer. Duly impressed, Sabec became their manager--only to rack up, during that grunge-sated time, 14 rejection slips from record companies. "I had friends telling me 'Dude, don't do it--don't embarrass yourself,' " he says. Finally, Mercury's Greenberg reluctantly went to see Hanson last year at a state fair in Kansas. Expecting to find a lip-synch act, he instead heard "a little rock show" by the three-kid band. (Indeed, the versions of "MMMBop" and "Thinking of You" on the hard-to-find MMMBop are more crudely played than those on Middle of Nowhere, but they prove Hanson are no studio creation.)

Greenberg signed the brothers to a six-album deal, although not before making several get-acquainted trips to Tulsa. On his second visit, the family took him to a local amusement park, where he and the boys rode go-carts and bumper boats. "That was great fun, but it's very different," he recalls. "You probably don't do that when you're signing Pearl Jam." Last year, the entire clan made a temporary move to L.A., where the boys spent seven months writing and recording Middle of Nowhere with credibility-enhancing producers (like the Dust Brothers and British knob-twirler Stephen Lironi) and a dozen additional musicians to help pump up their sound.

The fact that Hanson cowrite, sing, and play most of their own music isn't the only unusual fact about them. The Hanson family are evangelical Christians ("very much so," says a family friend). Their faith is evidenced not in their music but in details of their daily life--the way the phrase "God's will" is written at the bottom of their daily itinerary, or the way Middle of Nowhere is dedicated to "the One." This too makes statistical sense: A U.S. Department of Education study says families who practice home schooling are generally "more religious [and] more conservative." Whether out of a need for privacy or fear that a nonsecular aura could turn off the masses, the topic of their religious belief isn't one Hanson take to comfortably. When asked about it, the brothers, chilling out poolside at their hotel, take a rare, awkward pause. "Our faith is important to us," Isaac finally says. "It keeps your head screwed on straight, just like having a good relationship with each other and our family." Before the conversation can venture any further, the generally rambunctious Zac cuts them off at the pass. "What we're focused on is the music and this album, Middle of Nowhere." End of discussion.

Whatever the Hansons do in their free time, it's working: They are an inordinately tight-knit, levelheaded clan. They're so normal they appear abnormal. As they're driven around Minneapolis in a minibus, Walker (who quit his day job three months ago to unofficially oversee his kids' career) joins his sons in alphabet games, and he videotapes their concerts and appearances like a proud dad documenting his child's contribution to a science fair. When business questions arise, he huddles with them; decision making is a family affair. Heading to a press conference before a group of visiting Latin American reporters, he refreshes their Spanish, reteaching them phrases such as "I liked living in South America." The boys listen intently; Zac even stops his deliberately grating rendition of "99 Bottles of Beer" and using the interior of the bus as a swing set.
,BR> "That's the cool thing about having your parents around," Isaac says. "You don't have to read through contracts, because your dad's looking out for you." Upon hearing good news, it's not unusual to catch Walker high-fiving his sons. At times like that, they seem like the only non-dysfunctional family left in America. They are the anti-Simpsons.

The Hanson blitz has only just begun. Coming next month is the official merchandise line, including T-shirts, baseball caps, even coffee mugs. "You won't be able to shake a dead cat without hitting a Hanson product out there," says PolyGram marketing exec Michael Pontecorvo. A concert tour and an authorized biography are set for the fall; they've also been approached about TV specials and a cartoon series. However, the boys deny a rumor posted on one of their many unauthorized websites that claims they will release a new album in December. "The last thing you want is overkill," Isaac says, already sounding like an industry vet. "Like Hootie...where they released an album that conflicted with the other album, and they both fell off the charts. You don't want to make mistakes like that." Privately, Walker (who, like his wife, shies away from interviews, often at their sons' request) worries about the differences between the numbers-specific oil world and the "smoke and mirrors" music business.

Right now, the coffee mugs and cartoons will have to wait. Hanson have barely been in Minneapolis two hours when they have to jump back into their bus for their second concert of the day. And where better than outside the city's 4.2-million-square-foot bastion of consumerism, the Mall of America? "We're gonna pack this baby!" exclaims Taylor, glancing out the window at the long line already forming. To accommodate the throng, Hanson will be playing in a makeshift amphitheater set up in a parking lot. By show time, excitable fans--again predominantly preadolescent and female--will fill the 7,000 seats.

Before the crowd is allowed to enter, Hanson perform a sound check, and it's here that their developing musical skills are most evident. With their three supporting musicians on bass, second guitar, and keyboards, the boys warm up with a funk-fusion jam that lasts nearly 20 minutes, complete with a few exploratory guitar noodles from Isaac--call it the "Hanson go H.O.R.D.E." tour. "I wouldn't be doing this if they weren't serious about their music," says keyboardist Peter Schwartz, 37. "And they are. I've seen Ike go over to Zac during a show and say, 'You're singing flat.' "

Sound check over, the fans begin streaming in, pausing only to buy Hanson T-shirts. "They're our age, so that's cool," says Christie Rossow, 13. Adds her friend Kelly Gillen, also 13: "They've got an up beat. I mean, not all of the songs are up, but--"

"It's not like Bush," interjects Rossow.

Teens aren't alone in welcoming Hanson. Fighting her way back out of the T-shirt line, Linda Dehn, 40--who's brought her own 13-year-old girl--says, "I only let my daughter listen to Christian music, but this seems okay." Officials from the mall and the concert's cosponsor, Northwest Airlines, exhale visible sighs of relief that Hanson exist at all, using phrases like "good, clean entertainment." "We have to be careful about our image," says Northwest managing director Charlie Pacunas. "But this is nice, wholesome music."

As usual, the crowd explodes as soon as the band takes the stage. They play their standard six-song, 30-minute set, and with each gig they sound tighter, more professional, and funkier. Standing at his keyboard, Taylor rocks it back and forth exuberantly. Zac, who peppers their shows with hammy wisecracks, more than keeps the beat; Isaac is already starting to make guitar-face grimaces. The fans cry, sing, snap photos with disposable cameras, and hold aloft signs, and the show ends with Hanson tossing beach balls into the crowd. As Hanson take a bow, their blond hair flopping in their faces, they look eerily familiar--like three younger Kurt Cobains with a happier, healthier childhood.

The dark side that eventually seduced Cobain seems far removed from the world of Hanson--most of the time, that is. Their Mall of America gig (and an hour-long autograph session) finally over, everyone piles into the minibus. Zac and Taylor toss around leftover beach balls, and the band and crew, though exhausted, gamely join in.

Everyone except Jason Browning, Hanson's stocky, shaved-head bodyguard. A half-dozen cars are following the bus, most filled with cheering fans. Browning keeps a cautious eye on each vehicle. But as the nearly one-hour drive to the hotel continues, he starts to stiffen up considerably: A Range Rover, piloted by a lone driver, is directly on the van's tail.

Browning asks if anyone can make out any details about car or driver. Even here, the task becomes a fun-for-all family game. Isaac and Taylor squint out the back window as Walker grabs his video camera to zoom in on the potential stalker's license plate.

Finally arriving at the hotel, the mysterious car still right behind, Browning jumps out, watches the Hansons bolt into the lobby, and approaches the vehicle. After a curt exchange, the man drives off. "I don't worry about a bunch of girls following us," Browning says. "But I do worry about a 25-year-old guy in a car by himself. They get a lot of weird things in the mail."

"You get a few, 1 or 2 percent, who are maybe a little bit dangerous," says Taylor the next morning, before Hanson head back out for more interviews, a press conference, and another hit-and-run concert. "There's that one guy, maybe, whose girlfriend is in love with you, or he's kind of screwy anyway. But most of them are fans who are just excited."

Even that one driver? "It's not a classic fan," he replies innocently. "Why would he follow you by himself?" You don't have the heart to tell him about that other America lurking somewhere in the darkness. One day he'll learn, but until then, there's no point in spoiling Hanson's fun, or ours.