You may have noticed that the tagline for this blog has changed lately. It used to be something like Gays. Guys. Movies. Music. Politics. Pop culture. All that and then some, and I liked the way that played off the blog’s title (Welcome to all that (and then some, get it?), but now it instead read Introspection masked as culture criticism. I changed it because I wanted to warn the reader that although this blog is concerned with the popular culture at large, it’s also a deeply personal blog. Not only in the sense that I often put my gayness at the center of my writing, put also in how I try to use my pop culture experiences past, present and future, to try to understand myself. And in a way, the tagline is particularly aimed at posts like this one. If you didn’t know that I like Hanson you wouldn’t really know me, because, as I’ve written about previously, my self-realization as a Fanson tracks fairly closely with my self-realization as a gay man.
This, then, is the first installment in a planned series about all of Hanson’s studio albums (with a potential bonus post at the end about their various live recordings and unreleased material), in anticipation of the new album, Shout It Out, set for release on June 8. When I first mentioned the possibility of this series back in January (at the heels of their newly released EP Stand Up Stand Up), I said this:
I’m planning to write my way through their studio albums in the weeks and months ahead, in anticipation of the new record, but I’ll say straight away that I don’t necessarily have a favorite Hanson period. I don’t feel the need to distance myself from the escapist optimism of Middle of Nowhere or the sudden seriousness of the otherwise burstingly catchy This Time Around, but I also appreciate how they have matured as musicians, vocalists and songwriters on their later albums.
This is true, but for an unrepentant nostalgic like me, there will always be something special about the first album, although paradoxically not necessarily because of the nostalgia itself. My passion for Hanson actually wasn’t all that great back in 1997, or at least my self-discipline was stronger, although I did appreciate them in secret, and my undeclared inner gay appreciated Zac Hanson even more. I somehow conformed to the belief that public displays of affection for Hanson would make me seem (what I have only later found a way to express as) gay, but I am forever grateful to my sister (she’s a year older than me) for playing Middle of Nowhere at all times, so that, while conveniently publicly condemning it, I could still get my regular fix. And of course, during the remainder of ’97, they were everywhere anyway. Nowhere spawned an endless web of singles, and even the non-singles seeped into the culture at large, at least if you knew where to look for them, or you were simply young enough to be there (I was 12).
But even though I can now admit Hanson fandom was one of the various closets I inhabited at the time, Middle of Nowhere means much more to me today than it ever did back then. Some of that course has to do with the nature of nostalgia itself; at its best and most effective, making us remember may be what music does best. But the main reason why Middle of Nowhere is so important to me, and the most important external reason for why it’s pretty close to being my favorite Hanson album, is that it actually helped me change twice. The first time was back in 1997, when Zac Hanson become my most serious gay crush yet, but the other had to do with how central Hanson became to preparing myself for embracing a gay identity. I alluded to in a recent post about Savage Garden; how the fact that I stepped up to publicly embrace bands like Hanson and Savage, or television shows like 7th Heaven, was the humble start of a process during which I started caring less about what people thought of me and more about what felt right.
In this broader narrative, however, we have to leap a little ahead of ourselves, to a story that really is more related to Underneath. If Middle of Nowhere was what drew me to Hanson in the first place, it was in fact Underneath, or more specifically its lead single Penny and Me that should be credited with getting them back on my radar, and it happened in a way I can now recognize as an amusingly clear sign that my Hanson fascination can not be completely separated from my gayness: When I rediscovered Hanson, it wasn’t even the music that made us click. One evening, I was zapping semi-conciously through the music networks when this beautiful young man suddenly caught enough of my attention to make me stop. I had a vague hunch that I had seen him before somewhere, but it was not until I unmuted the volume I realized that the guy in question actually was Zac Hanson. Weirdly, I didn’t make much of the fact that I would later frequently freeze the frame of the video (3:59!) and just dev0ur in his beauty; instead doubling down on the fact that I really, really loved the song. I may not have been ready to come out as gay yet, neither to myself nor to anyone else, but liberated from my previous parameters of Good Taste, I was more than ready to defend my new-found 90′s nostalgia, which had the fortunate side effect of allowing me to immerse myself in Hanson fandom as a point of self-realization.
I should perhaps mention that my brother, who like me was a closeted gay, instantly got what I was doing. We have always liked much of the same music, and he relished the chance to finally embrace Hanson every bit as much as I did. As I talked about a little bit in my Early Gay Crushes posts about Chris Egan and Jesse McCartney, I suspect that we both had our suspicions that these common interests and obsessions didn’t just have to do with the music or the particular TV shows, but since neither of us were ready to tackle the gay question outright, for fear of being asked the same in return, we settled for simply sharing the joy of finally getting to revel in a sort of unmentioned campness that we’d both downplayed or denied for years. Sharing the a second coming of Fansonism with my brother like this has only added to the emotional pull of Middle of Nowhere for me.
It’s not purely emotional of course, but the early albums, Middle of Nowhere and This Time Around, have a special place in my heart because, in addition to their nostalgic feel, they seemed to embody just the youthful sense of liberation and optimism that characterized my reintroduction to Hanson in itself. Middle of Nowhere is simply a great pop record, and I don’t mean that as in “a great record for being made by a bunch of teenagers”, or “a great first shot”. No, I mean it’s great, period.
I swear that it’s not an urge to seem original that makes me say this, but when I listen to Middle of Nowhere today (and I do, almost every week), with the pop noise machine long since silenced, what strikes me is how great the songs that didn’t make it into singles were. I’ve gotten older since it was first released, but I’d say I’ve gotten older with this record, meaning I hope I’ll never become so old and cynical that I’ll stop appreciating the enthusiasm this Southern trio showed in shamelessly cutting corners to get to choruses that may have been lyrically clumsy at times, but also inventive (what, exactly, is an MmmBop, anyway?) Of course all the attention was at MmmBop, a song very unfairly derided by many (particularly considering what a long way it came to become a world-wide smash – listen to this tambourine-drenched early demo version on 3 Car Garage (1997), and you’ll get what I mean. It’s dreadful, and it drags on forever), but I actually like stuff like A Minute Without You and Man From Milwaukee (a great acoustic performance is here) even better. Isaac has not delivered many of the group’s most memorable moments, but depending on the mood, I may consider A Minute Without You the single best Hanson song ever. Once, I saw someone say about Born To Run (incidentally, maybe my favorite record of all time) that it was Bruce Springsteen’s ‘play-as-much-as-you-can-all-the-time record‘, and it was not meant as a compliment. But that, meant approvingly, to me is what encapsulates the best of the early Hanson tradition. It’s clunky, sure, (‘All the minutes in the world could never take your place/there’s one-thousand-four-hundred-forty hours in my day‘), and had this not been Hanson, I suspect that I may have written it off as laughably over-produced, but it’s somehow right in tune with what this record is about. (Madeline is another seriously underrated song.) Man From Milwaukee has the same set of flaws-turned-strengths, exemplified in Zac Hanson’s endearingly rambling outer-space Babybird thing near the end. It’s a silly song from start to finish, but underneath its wall of sound they have nevertheless taken the time to add a little narrative twist (the storyteller morphs into the Man from Milwaukee himself) at the end.
Not that they didn’t also take a stab at the (somewhat) serious, though. It was just that even the more serious/earnest moments were more impressive for their fine-tuned pop-iness than for their great lyrical weight. As Taylor’s voice has matured (see the version on the Underneath Acoustic Live DVD), With You In Your Dreams, always balancing on the right side of cheesy has grown into one of those songs where you kind of thought it was a single, because it became such an important part of the Hanson repertoire. Likewise, Yearbook shows off an early talent for vividly imaginative, almost plot-driven songwriting, although it’s saddled with a somewhat heavy-handed production. Zac’s only number, Lucy (again, it’s just wonderful acoustic), is a little bit one the lighter side again, although its earnestness is clear enough. While no masterpiece, it has hints of what in my opinion makes this album; an ability and willingness to wrap even the saddest lyrics in a slightly upbeat sound. Zac’s pre-teen breakup song is perhaps also notable for being the closest Hanson has come to ever doing country music (to the extent that a guitar and a tambourine could be considered country attributes, of course) , and backing vocals that for some reason remind me of The Beatles’ Sun King from Abbey Road (‘Oooh, her eyes! (Her eyes!‘ etc.).
But if, for the final we’re moving on to the blockbusters, let’s stay with Hanson and The Beatles for a moment. Doesn’t MmmBop remind you ever so slightly of When I’m Sixty-Four (‘When you get old and start losing your hair/can you tell me who will still care? vs. ‘When I get older losing my hair/many years from now (…)/will you still need me/will you still feed me/when I’m sixty-four?’). Anyway, the only negative thing I can say about MmmBop is that Bono once called it a perfect pop song, and I really can’t stand Bono. Other than that, it’s one for the ages. But so, I discovered when I returned to it in my early twenties, is I Will Come To You. This was one of those songs that garnered Hanson copious amounts of scorn at my schoolyard, but you still can’t argue with those harmonies, perhaps even better captured in later versions on Live & Electric and Underneath Acoustic Live. And finally there’s Weird, the gorgeous ballad whose message of fearing being the one standing out could easily have been written to tie this particular blog post together, resonating equally deeply with the unsettled me whether it was 1997 or 2005. It seems only fitting that the video was directed by Gus van Sant.
Middle of Nowhere is full of moments like that, where seemingly innocent lyrics meet a reality in which pop is personal. Moments that have made it a point of pride in my record collection.