That was the question I kept asking myself while I was reading through a series of reviews of Jonas Brothers’ June release Lines, Vines and Trying Times recently, compiled by the aggregator site Metacritic. To answer this question however, I have to define what is meant by the term Hanson treatmenmt. The answer goes way back.
Hanson, of course, debuted in 1997 with their multi-million selling album Middle of Nowhere, propelled by the incredible success of its irresistible lead single, MMMBop. Despite being grouped in with a bunch of other all-male pop acts of its time as a boyband – think Backstreet Boys or N*Sync – Hanson actually wrote many of their own songs and played their own instruments, which made the comparison with corporately constructed boyband projects a little unfair. Still, the teen market was quickly soaked with a small flood of hastily put-together albums – a collection of demo tapes, a concert album, and even a Christmas record – before Hanson disappeared from the scene, to work on their follow-up to Nowhere. Year 2000, three full years later, saw the arrival of This Time Around, a record that was fairly well-received, although reviewers never forgot to point out the lack of a MMMBop-size smash hit. A fair point, that wouldn’t have annoyed me so much if it weren’t also a sign of the slight condescension that greeted the Hanson comeback.
On This Time Around, much of the catchy but goofy pop intuitiveness of the debut – most notably songs like MMMBop and Man From Milwaukee – gave way to a darker lyrical landscape, draped in a more ambitious, sometimes downright bombastic sound – as evidenced in Save Me and This Time Around. This then prompted something close to knee-jerk dismissals from some critics, along the lines of ‘Why couldn’t Hanson have kept to the bubble gum pop music they do best, instead of trying to grow up too fast and be all things to all people?‘. My point here is not to say that such a criticism is illegitimate. I still appreciate Middle of Nowhere just as much as their later works. Rather, there is something about the tone of the argument. By arguing that Hanson should have kept to making the same kind of pleasurable but utterly unambitious pop songs, these critics elegantly set up Middle of Nowhere as a masterpiece of a pop sub-genre that they were at the same time implicitly belittling. That way, they could embrace Middle of Nowhere without actually having to embrace it, because they made sure to frame it in condescending terms.
Which brings us to Jonas Brothers, and Lines, Vines and Trying Times. Reading a bunch of reviews in short order, I was not only struck by how the critics pretty much all picked up on the same things about the album – the digs at Joe Jonas’ ex-girlfriend in Much Better, the implicit sexual frustration content in Poison Ivy – but also how nearly everyone framed its diversity and genre-confusion as a sign of how the brothers were now trying to break free of their Disney heartthrob status. Again, I’m not necessarily saying these are not valid points, they are just not very interesting. The almost therapeutical interpretation takes attention away from the actual musical product, and anyone who has actually listened to their previous records should know that they haven’t been immune from playing with their officially projected image before. You just have to listen to Hollywood or Video Girl for examples. Plus, the perceived novelty of what’s framed as a rebellion against the constraints of their sound and image, gives critics an opportunity to embrace previous Jonas Brothers incarnations that they can’t really get themselves to fully embrace in a non-ironic way. In the end it feels somewhat reductionist, just like with Hanson at the start of the decade.
Thus, Bilboard’s ‘Don’t be so quick to grow up, guys‘, intended as a compliment on what works on Lines, could just as easily be read as a write-off. Likewise, I’m not sure if it’s the intention of Allmusic’s review, and it’s not as blunt, but ‘Lines is designed to showcase a mature Jonas Brothers, who wear their maturation in an increased stylistic range, and fussed-over arrangements that lend this a stiffness of a band well beyond their years‘ still smacks more of condescension than substantive criticism. First, it reduces the band to a kind of focus-grouped marketing tool, and second, it rather crudely proceeds to use their young age against them. I’m not saying that the conclusion is necessarily horribly wrong, but I disagree with the tone and reasoning behind it.
Lines, Vines and Trying Times actually is a messy and uneven pop record, and I do agree that Jonas Brothers are better at crafting straightforward pop songs and the occasional power ballad (check out the truly horrendous rap-rocker Don’t Charge Me For The Crime, or the country-influenced What Did I Do To Your Heart for evidence of the perils of veering too far out of your comfort zone) that their previous two records were brimming with, than this year’s anything-goes approach. And there are several decent tracks here; from the collaboration with Miley Cyrus on Before The Storm; to the funky World War III and Paranoid; the vintage Jonas Brothers rocker Poison Ivy; and the much-hyped Much Better. In total, I guess that means I’m mostly in line with critics, except for one thing: I don’t think the weaker parts of Lines is due to artistic growing pains, just like I would not (even implicitly) argue that their previous albums worked because that’s the kind of music people their age are most qualified to make, or whatever.
At least, the direct comparisons to Hanson were fewer this time around (pun unintended). Of course, earlier comparisons were both evident and not exactly discouraged by the band itself (complete with allusions to a battledance against Hanson in the song That’s Just The Way We Roll on Jonas Brothers), but they should stop nonetheless. Much as it saddens me, Hanson’s stint on the world stage pretty much ended with Middle of Nowhere, while Jonas Brothers may still be laying the groundwork for continued tween world dominance. With that important distinction in place, we might also hope that fewer comparisons in the future may even mean that the Hanson treatment soon will be just a distant memory – for both bands.