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How I learnt to stop worrying and love MMMBop

Yo Zushi looks back at Hanson's 1997 hit. 

Back in 2011, the SUNY Albany psychology professor Dawn R Hobbs found that around 92 per cent of the songs that entered the Billboard top ten “contained reproductive messages”. In other words: they were about fucking.

On average, she logged 10.49 sex-related phrases per hit single, with R&B leading the way in raunch (country, it turned out, was the most reserved genre). A few years earlier, a University of Florida study had reached a similar yet perhaps more generous conclusion. “American culture is in love with love,” announced its author, Chad Swiatowicz. While the “tolerance for offensive language in pop music” had “drastically increased” over the decades, modern music hadn’t necessarily lost its sense of romance. It had just become OK for Beyoncé to sing stuff like: “He so horny, yeah, he wants to fuck… He Monica-Lewinsky-ed all on my gown.” Getting it on, after all, is a part of getting together.

Either way, romantic love and sex remain the preoccupations of most modern pop, and so they should. “To search for love, that ain't no more than vanity,” sang a God-frazzled Bob Dylan in 1980, and never had he sounded so unrelatable. The drama of attraction (and arousal, too) is something that most of us put front and centre in our lives. That’s why songwriters keep coming up with lyrics about it.

But I think pop music that works without resorting to romance and all its bodily trappings is something to treasure. Songs that manage to do so are a relief from all that love business, which can be as stressful as it is vital. (Who actually relaxes to, say, the quietly harrowing Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely, or Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks?) In Nick Hornby’s novel High Fidelity, the record shop owner Rob wonders whether he listens to depressing music because he is depressed, or if he is depressed because he listens to depressing music. If Professor Hobbs and co are right, the songs he was talking about were most likely love songs.

Twenty years ago this week, Hanson released their first and most successful single, “MMMBop”, which reached number one in 27 countries and received three Grammy nominations. At the time, I was a 15-year-old and so not allowed to like it. Clean-cut evangelical brothers with girly hair didn’t fit the image I was trying to project through my music taste (a dumb thing we all do as teenagers; we wear pop as much as we listen to it). But hearing it again today, I think it’s almost great. There’s the embarrassing production – guitars in overdrive that are too neat to really rock, ineffectual “scratching” effects, a general lack of dynamics once the song gets going – and the music video that looks like the opening sequence of a Nickelodeon kids show, but Isaac, Taylor and Zac (then 16, 14 and 11, respectively) do a good job of channelling Jackson 5-style soul power. It’s a fun, small single and that’s all it seems to aspire to be.

It’s also one of those non-romance-obsessed songs that lifts you up like a can of Cherry Coke. It’s all sugar and energy and none of the boring stuff like fibre or nutrients. Taylor Hanson recently told the Vulture website that he wanted to “interweave relatively serious thoughts” into the lyrics, but the chorus goes: “MMMBop, ba duba dop,/Ba du bop, ba duba dop,/Ba du bop, ba duba dop,/Ba du,/Yeah.” The verses warn of the “pain and strife” we go through in our lives and, like Kool and the Gang’s “Cherish”, instruct us to “hold on to the ones who really care”. I suppose it’s an important message, and a bittersweet one, but the sound of the song makes it a celebration.

Hanson were a rock band that was marketed as pop idols, and they quickly became stars. Taylor (the girliest one who sings lead) was receiving marriage proposals years before he could legally smoke or vote or drive. The first instinct of many music journalists in 1997 was to snipe at these sun-kissed brats who’d got too much glory too soon, but it soon became clear that these were just good kids, sons of an accountant in Oklahoma, who had worked for their success. Melody Maker’s Ben Myers was surprised to find that, rather than members of “some master race of robotic beauties” or “force-fed monkeys dictated to by cigar-chomping organ grinders”, they were young musicians who did “everyday things”. There was “nothing extraordinary about them”.

If their straitlaced image was off-putting to me at 15, I find it appealing now. Hanson were so simple. “MMMBop” tried to be profound but it failed, and failed in the best way. Its frivolity makes it endlessly appealing, a three-minute holiday from grown-up life. The brothers’ chemistry as musicians is also quite moving in itself. In her 1988 song “Crescent City”, Lucinda Williams sings, “We used to dance the night away/Me and my sister, me and my brother/We used to walk down by the river.” Anyone who actually gets on with their siblings will know that there’s a kind of good time that you can only have with your brother or your sister. “MMMBop” doesn’t explore it directly like “Crescent City” does, but every second of it captures the way it feels.

Yo Zushi is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. His latest album, It Never Entered My Mind, is out now on Eidola Records and is on Spotify here.

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Netflix's Ozark is overstuffed – not to mention tonally weird

Could the channel use a hit? Every time my subscription leaves my bank account, I think again that it could.

The main reason why Ozark, the new Netflix series, feels so underpowered has to do with its star, Jason Bateman (who also directs): a good actor who badly wants for charisma, he simply can’t carry it alone. Watching the first few episodes, I kept thinking of Jon Hamm in Mad Men and (a better example here) Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad, both of whom played, as does Bateman, characters around which the plots of their respective series turned. When they were on screen, which was often, it was all but impossible to tear your eyes from them; when they were off it, you felt like you were only biding your time until they returned. But when Bateman disappears from view, you hardly notice. In fact, it feels like a plus: at least now you might get to see a bit more of the deft and adorable Laura Linney.

In Ozark, Bateman is Marty, an outwardly square guy whose big secret is that he is a money launderer for the second biggest drugs cartel in Mexico. When the series opens, he and his wife Wendy (Linney) and their two children are living in Chicago, where he nominally works as a financial advisor.

By the end of the first episode, however, they’re on their way to the Lake of the Ozarks in rural Missouri. Marty’s partner, Bruce, has been on the fiddle, and the cartel, having summarily executed him, now wants Marty both to pay back the cash, and to establish a few new businesses in which future income may be cleaned far from the prying eyes of the law enforcement agencies. If this sounds derivative, it is. We’re in the realm of Breaking Bad, only where that show gave us out-of-control Bunsen burners and flesh-eating chemicals, this one is more preoccupied with percentages and margins.

Where’s the friction? Well, not only is the FBI on Marty’s tail, his wife has been cheating on him, with the result that their marriage is now just another of his business arrangements. The locals (think Trump supporters with beards as big as pine trees) have proved thus far to be on the unfriendly side, and having paid off their debts, the only house Marty can afford has a cliché – sorry, crotchety old guy – living in the basement. On paper, admittedly, this all sounds moderately promising. But hilarity does not ensue. As dull as the Lake of the Ozarks when the tourist season is over, not even Linney can make Bill Dubuque’s dialogue come alive. Her character should be traumatised: before they left Chicago, the cartel, for reasons I do not completely understand, pushed her podgy lover – splat! – off his balcony. Instead, she’s fussing about the crotchety old guy’s sexism.

Ozark is overstuffed and tonally weird, so I won’t be binge-watching this one. This completes rather a bad run for me and Netflix; after the lame new series of House of Cards and the egregious Gypsy, this is the third of its shows on the trot to bore me rigid. Could the channel use a hit? Every time my subscription leaves my bank account, I think again that it could.

And now to The Sweet Makers: A Tudor Treat (19 July, 8pm), in which we hear the sound of the “living history” barrel being scraped so loudly, those attending the meeting at which it was commissioned must surely have worn ear defenders. Basically, this is a series in which four confectioners “go back in time” to discover how their forebears used sugar (first, the Tudors; next week, the Georgians).

What it means in practice is lots of Generation Game-style faffing with candied roses and coriander comfits by people in long skirts and silly hats – a hey-nonny-nonny fiesta of pointlessness that is itself a sugar coating for those nasty things called facts (ie a bit of tokenism about slavery and our ancestors’ trouble with their teeth).

Resident expert, food historian Dr Annie Gray, strained to give the proceedings urgency, sternly reminding the confectioners that the sugar house they’d spent hours building did not yet have a roof. But who cared if it didn’t? Destined to be eaten by fake Tudor guests at a fake Tudor banquet, it wasn’t as if anyone was going to lose their head for it – not even, alas, at Broadcasting House. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder

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