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.