-by Jonathan Gold
Blond as wheat, cute as pie, pop as Crush, the three hit-making sibs known as Hanson are turning junior highs and the music biz upside down. Jonathan Gold finds out if they know how to count to a million. "We're going to get wasted after the show," Zac Hanson blurts, snickering like an 11-year-old waiting for his sister to discover the garter snake he's just hidden under her pillow.
"We're going to get really drunk...," chimes 14-year-old Taylor Hanson. "On Dr Pepper."
"Ooohhh," says a passing brunette ultravixen as she admires the tiny braid that runs down the middle of Taylor's back. "I want it."
"Believe me," says 16-year-old Isaac Hanson. "We are not growing up too fast."
Out past the shiny restaurants and museums of Santa Monica, California's municipal airport, beyond the rows of sleek, corporate Gulfstreams, the MTV Movie Awards have taken over the tarmac on this coldest Saturday night in June, and the birthplace of the DC-3 aircraft swarms with more celebrities than you'd see in a lifetime of Hollywood Squares reruns.
In the area behind the soundstage, you can watch Jim Carrey nosh on lunch meat, compare Mira Sorvino's dark roots with Cameron Diaz's, or admire Will Smith admiring the way En Vogue have poured themselves into their gowns. Fairuza Balk flirts with David Spade. A limousine the size of a soccer field rolls up, and a security guard barks into a walkie-talkie: "This man here says his name is Puff Daddy; someone named Pimp Daddy is going to be along in a couple of minutes."
You might also spy the Hanson brood -- the three kids in the band, their very Brady-ish parents, Walker and Diana; their sisters, Jessica and Avery; their baby brother, Mackie; and various baby-sitters -- who have turned this expensively catered extravaganza into an occasion for a pop-and-potato-chips family picnic.
"If you spend all your spare hours working on your golf game, what do you have to show for it in 40 years?" Mr. Hanson counsels a new father. "Nothing is more important than the time you spend with your kids."
Later, the brothers will ride out on a rowboat to present an award. Spade, in a blond Hanson wig, will make a fairly obscure crack about their home schooling, and though Hanson have been famous for all of 43 seconds, everybody will get the joke.
Even from a plane circling overhead at 5,000 feet, you could probably pick out Hanson amid this celebrity ant farm: three velour shirts; three red, pouty mouths; three bright yellow skeins of Breck Girl hair that hang together with the consistency of the three dots in an ellipsis. "MMMBop," their debut single, is the No. 1 song in the country; their album, Middle of Nowhere, is No. 4. The Hanson Web site is drawing more than 100,000 hits a day, and almost 25,000 fan letters a week come Hanson's way. There are so many hysterical girls at Hanson shows that the band reportedly wears earplugs onstage to protect themselves from the screaming.
At a moment when MTV is laden with impenetrable techno bands, eighth-generation grunge, and a slew of female singer/songwriters who make you long for the songcraft of Poe, Hanson's "MMMBop" may be laying down the template for pop music in the late '90s: teen spirit, hold the irony. "MMMBop" sounds remarkably like a great 1969 Jackson 5 single, while the video clip -- as informal as a home movie -- is almost revolutionary in its refusal to do anything but show the three goofing around and having fun. Hanson are perhaps the only band in recent history beloved by both hormonally crazed 12-year-olds and their Motown-loving parents, by both Tiger Beat and the New York Times.
"Before we learned our instruments," says Taylor, nuzzling a can of Diet Dr Pepper, "we had this thing back in Tulsa where we'd start to sing in every restaurant we'd go to, hoping they'd give us free pizza or something."
"Even at Pizza Hut," admits Zac. "You wouldn't even have talked to us then."
Suddenly, the littlest Hanson, Mackie, a towheaded three-year-old who is bound to become the Andy Gibb of the family, breaks from the Hanson entourage, runs up to Elle MacPherson, and wraps himself around her impossibly long legs. "You're pretty," he says. MacPherson, looking something like a 10-story construction crane folding in on itself to pick up a load of rebar, bends down and kisses him.
"Yuck," Mackie says accusingly. "You got lipstick on my ear."
Isaac looks out at his lucky brother and sighs. "We used to joke around about the girl thing," he says, redirecting his gaze to the young hotties who have drifted toward his table. "We were writing songs about girls long before we even cared."
"I was six," Zac says. "What was I going to do with a girl?"
"We kind of just did company parties at first," Taylor says, "and then we did a school assembly, and there were girls."
"As scary as it is," says Isaac, "it's just cool. But what band doesn't write love songs?"
"Beck!" Zac says.
"He's not a band," Isaac says. "That doesn't count."
"He's not a band with, like, other people...," Zac says.
"Beck is awesome," says Taylor.
"Beck," Isaac says, "is awesome." (is there an echo?)
Even at this embryonic stage in Hanson's career, when much of America believes that the fella who plays the piano is a girl, and before most 12-year-old girls have decided whether or not MRS. ZAC HANSON delicately scribbled on their PeeChee folders looks better than MRS. TAYLOR HANSON, the band's legend is well-oiled.
In 1990, before Walker Hanson, a Tulsa-area oil-industry consultant, took his family to South America for a year, he mail ordered a series of Time-Life rock'n'roll anthologies, 1957-1969, the ones you see advertised on late-night infomercials. Divorced from American pop culture, the three brothers listened obsessively to the Time-Life tapes, and they taught themselves to harmonize by singing along with numbers like "Rockin' Robin" and "Good Golly Miss Molly." When they got back to Tulsa, Isaac, then 11, started writing songs, and the brothers harmonized on those too. The three formed an a cappella trio, debuted at their father's company picnic, put out two self-produced CDs, and eventually performed everywhere from the state fair to, well, Pizza Hut.
"They've been coming in here since they were little kids," says Mark Brown, an editor at the Tulsa World newspaper. "They all had blond locks that were exactly the same length. They sang to a backing tape. They were just too precious."
Any special memories?
"Five years ago, when the six-year-old was acting up during a photo shoot, his mother whacked him and said, 'Zac! You smile!' You'd better believe he smiled."
Hanson were "discovered" outside the South by Southwest music conference in Austin, Texas, four years ago, where the brothers buttonholed everyone who looked like a record company employee. Most conference participants fled from them as if the singing trio were begging for quarters on a street corner; Christopher Sabec, an attorney who had dabbled in music law, liked what he'd heard and agreed to manage the band.
The mid-'90s, when punk rock was the flavor and even teen idols were challenged to prove their street cred, were not the easiest time to market a teenybopper band. So Hanson were turned down by every major label -- once when Sabec shopped the first indie album as a demo, and again when he sent around the second, which included an early version of "MMMBop."
The tape eventually found its way to Steve Greenberg, Senior VP and head of A&R at Mercury who had earlier produced the Stax/Volt and Sugar Hill compilations for Atlantic. Greenberg thought he had come across the Jurassic Park of pop-soul, a '90s band with the DNA of a band from the '60s. He was hooked.
"I've been to their house," Greenberg says, "and I've seen those Time-Life tapes, and it's true: Their knowledge of rock'n'roll stops cold at 1970 and doesn't pick up again till about Hootie. They loved the Beach Boys but had never heard of the Eagles. I realized this was a chance to make the great lost record of my youth."
Greenberg brought in old-fashioned songwriters -- including Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, who cowrote "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" -- to help Hanson flesh out their material, and a mod squad (Black Grape producer Steve Lironi, the Dust Brothers, video director Tamra Davis) to make the project ill enough to appeal to fans of the Beastie Boys. At a certain point, Hanson were so freaking hip that their success seemed inevitable.
"It's not so easy!" Mercury president and CEO Danny Goldberg snarls over the phone. "With a band like Hanson, you need to orchestrate impact: front-load the marketing, overspend on advertising, try to be most-added. Hanson isn't like Jewel, something you can let build over a year or two. A phenomenon had better act like a phenomenon. We were lucky...it was like pedaling downhill."
Hanson do have their musical charms, and the next afternoon, in front of an audience of young plutocrats and shimmying mommy people at a pediatric AIDS benefit high in Bel Air, they display most of them. Zac plays competent garage-band drums, pushing the beat with the charming insouciance of a Meet the Beatles-era Ringo; Isaac is a fair if uninspired guitar player, and a decent singer when he takes a verse or two.
But Taylor Hanson is extraordinary -- able, for instance, to play tambourine completely without irony, an art that most people thought the Partridge Family had killed off for good. And he can growl through a chorus -- admittedly, in a way more reminiscent of Leon Russell than of Otis Redding -- without rolling his eyes. On "Where's the Love," his high, soulful voice inflects the lyrics with the authority of a gospel singer and the wiggle of a young Stevie Wonder. Supermodel Tyra Banks gets up and starts to bop; Lakers guard Kobe Bryant bobs his head like a rap producer at a recording session. Way in the back, Diana Hanson glances around to make sure no one she knows is watching her, smiles sweetly at the sound of her children's voices, then loses herself in a dance in a way you can imagine her doing 25 years ago when Moby Grape came on the radio.
"We're really lucky to have the parents that we do," Taylor says later. "School is extremely important, but they're smart enough to know that right now we have to do this."
You can only imagine what Hanson are going to sound like after they've been at "this" a while. You wonder -- thinking of other family bands like the Jacksons, the Bee Gees, and the Osmonds -- if they will ever be normal again.
"I've been in the public's eye since I was five," says Donny Osmond from his mother's house in Utah, "and when I was 18, I started to lose it a little, because I wanted to be normal. Even now, when guys come to hear me sing -- it's still mainly women -- I think sometimes they're there to make fun of me. I will always be the Donny Osmond who sang 'Puppy Love.'"
The next morning, Hanson do Melrose -- or at least a short visit to a couple of stores on the street with Cindy Crawford for a segment of MTV's House of Style.
"I wanna go to a body-piercing place," Zac whines to Crawford, who is clearly intrigued by the possibility of interviewing America's most wholesome teens among the ampallangs and scarification displays at the nearby body modification parlor. Mrs. Hanson, a few yards in front, manages a tight smile.
"Body piercing?" Zac says in a suddenly smaller voice. "Please?" His mother shoots him a look that anybody with a mother would recognize. Zac gazes longingly at the shop, but the Hansons drift straight past it, and the three of them head for their bus. Eleven-year-old Zac will have to do without a septum ring today.