“Funny how life gets in the way of your Hanson web site. When I was 20, it was the other way around. This is why, my friends, you should never write dolorous farewell notes or burn your internet bridges. Years will pass. The dust will gather. And you will wake up one morning with a song stuck in your head and an inkling to write about that band, the one that will not dislodge itself from your imagination, no matter how your life twists and turns.”
-Laura Motta, on Bright and Beautiful, in 2007
This year, pop trio Hanson returned to the public circuit. Before releasing their newest, independently financed album, The Walk, in late July, they recorded an acoustic version of 1997’s Middle Of Nowhere and played a round of East Coast shows. Their fan base responded: Hanson’s sold-out stop at New York’s Supper Club prompted a number of young women to sleep on the sidewalk in order to secure good seats. Local press provided coverage, and national media outlets like People Magazine and NPR documented Hanson’s evolution from mascots of PG-pop to veritable indie rockers.
For the sake of clarification, there’s a difference between a return and a comeback. A resurrection of old idols, from Van Halen and The Police to the Spice Girls, might be happening in sports arenas across the nation, but for Hanson, the release of The Walk and its subsequent tour aren’t a way to bring nostalgic audiences back to humming Mmmbop after a decade of silence. The Walk is, simply enough, the next step in the band’s career that, since 1997, has spun three other studio albums (not counting holiday releases, live albums or re-releases), a documentary project titled Strong Enough to Break and several live tours. The trio might be playing smaller venues, but they are still selling them out. Since it’s summer release, The Walk has reached #4 in the Billboard Independent Albums Chart and #1 in the Internet Albums Chart. Hanson walks a mile barefoot at each tour location to publicize their charity efforts that target AIDS and poverty in Africa, and often brings out a crowd of hundreds of fellow walkers. The band’s status as a teen sensation has evolved over the years, from inspiring fan fiction and countless internet message boards to maintaining a more concentrated, grown-up community, but a base of devoted fans remains. And, a love for one’s idol—both for the music and for the men behind it—still brews under the surface.
In the spring of 2007, writer Laura Motta, 27, made her own return to her Hanson-themed blog, titled Bright and Beautiful. Like Hanson, who put out their last (also indie) album, Underneath, in 2004, she had taken a nearly three-year break. Motta, who has been writing about Hanson since 1998, says that the reason for her absence was a combination of a busy, post-college working life as an editor in New York City—first at Random House and later in health care publishing—and a relative silence between the band’s two self-produced albums.
Motta’s attraction to Hanson is one of cultural fascination (“I find them funny and sort of weird, they live in this weird bubble and are weird as people,” she says), so when material temporarily ran out, she simply stepped away from the keyboard. As soon as The Walk dropped, however, she was back with an album review. She still has plenty to say about the band that inspires her, and the fans who have stuck by Hanson through its years of relative public obscurity.
“I wonder if youthful adoration has skewed our adult opinions of Hanson a bit. Is [2000’s]This Time Around the masterpiece that we were all so sure it was? Or were we all just a little hopped up on silky blond hair and too many concerts and the tantalizing lure of being culturally relevant?” she wrote in her review. “[The Walk] is miles stronger and more articulate than anything Hanson was doing at the height of their fame. For that, it has been worth hanging on.”
Motta says she first fell in love with Hanson when she saw the band appear in a Saturday Night Live skit in late 1997. In an endearingly self-critical moment, the segment placed the teenage trio in an elevator with two security guards (Will Ferrell and Helen Hunt) who forced the brothers to listen to Mmmbop on repeat until drummer Zac and guitarist Isaac lost their minds. After a caption announced that ten hours of Mmmbop had passed, the two stared at the elevator ceiling with glazed expressions (both obviously fighting laughter in the live taping).
“We kept rewinding and rewinding it and watching it like 400 times over the next three hours,” says Motta. “I think we connected with their weirdness.”
“Even when they were cool, they weren’t cool, which is one reason why I liked them,” she continues. “The first time I saw them, I thought ‘these kids are dorks like I am’.” The peak of their fame, she says, was also their height of uncool. Being a Hanson fan was never a status symbol.
“The Mmbop video had them literally grooving around in front of a giant backdrop of a pansy,” she says and laughs. ”They were always in baggy jeans and dorky thrift shop clothes. And they were so not polished. Even in interviews they weren’t rehearsed, they used to say the dumbest things.”
Motta began writing about Hanson after graduating high school the following spring. At the time, fictional stories starring Isaac, Taylor and Zac as characters provided a popular online medium for creatively minded fans—so popular, in fact, that the community of writers coined a term for the subgenre: Hanfic (the term still brings about 2000 hits on Google). Motta’s first piece of Hanson writing was a story told from the perspective of Zac; at the time, she says, most Hanfic writers were channeling Taylor or imagining romantic encounters. The two-part, ten-chapter story, titled Growing Pains, described Zac’s loneliness, frustration as the youngest of the bunch, and desire to be taken seriously.
“The crowd screams and screams. Some girl screeches above the rest, "I LOVE YOU TAYLOR!" and all I can think is "Yeah, Go ahead. Encourage him,” Motta’s Zac says in Growing Pains.
“It was all fans reading it. It’s not like the haters were going to bust in and be like ‘this is bullshit.’ It’s the fans reading it, and you know that as a fan fiction writer,” she says. “All these people read it, and I thought, ‘that was easy.’ I got all this feedback and emails, and it was fun. You could see the hit counter and see it getting attention.”
Hanson’s saturating fame, taking the form of biographies, collectibles and arenas of shrieking young girls, fizzled fast: 2000’s follow-up album, This Time Around, peaked at #19 in the U.S. Billboard Charts, and Island Records pulled its funding from a scheduled tour.
For Motta, the change only made the band more appealing.
“Taylor is fond of the word ‘evolution.’ The very implication of the word is that change is continual, that this Hanson is not the eternal Hanson, that there are still universes uncharted,” Motta wrote on Bright and Beautiful in 2000. “May we as fans have the courage to stay on their heels for the entire journey.”
“They had this increasingly complicated thing that they were dealing with. They were trying to market themselves in a new way that really wasn’t working, but the music was still good. So there was a convergence of elements that I thought was interesting and I liked writing about,” she says.
Hanson’s online fan community remained tight-knit, Motta says.
“A lot of girls got off on the novelty factor,” Motta adds. “I can’t tell you how often I heard things like ‘my favorite bands are Hanson and Incubus’.”
While Hanson struggled, Bright and Beautiful was at the height of its popularity around 2000, when it was getting between 300 and 500 unique visitors a day. Motta received frequent email feedback, and occasionally other fans recognized her at Hanson concerts.
She was continually fascinated by Hanson’s enigmatic persona; three home-schooled, evangelical Christian boys whose idol status made their social isolation only more apparent.
“I feel like they grew up in a bubble, and fame has kept them in that bubble,” she continues.
The band’s unpretentious image that had drawn its fans to Hanson was, perhaps, what kept the same groups writing, debating in online forums and standing in line for concert tickets. Besides their relatable geek-factor, Hanson is known for their casual demeanor and ability to chat up fans at meet-and greets, and it’s likely that many remaining fans felt a sense of entitlement.
“Their fans are very possessive of them,” Motta continues. “I think for a lot of fans pay a really high price for being Hanson fans. They catch a lot of hell for it, their friends diss them for it, so they feel they have gone through something for being Hanson fans.”
Somewhere between 2000 and 2004, remaining an active fan became more difficult. Hanson took a nearly four-year break between releasing This Time Around and their next album, Underneath. Most of the band’s energies, it seemed, were focused on their leaving Island Def Jam Records and starting their own label, 3CG Records. Message boards on Hanson.net never halted, but many independent sites were past their peak.
Browsing through old Hanson fan pages, it’s easy to take note that an indefinite site hiatus for many began right around the release of Underneath in 2004, when Motta too took her break.
As early as 2002, Motta considered a departure from Bright and Beautiful. In a February post, Motta addressed the drought between albums in and wrote that something was “deeply, deeply wrong in Hansonland.”
“When Hanson goes away, when they retreat into the studio to make their art, the Hanson online community stops being about them and starts being about us. It’s really hard to have an "us," a rallying cry, when all of the Hanson-sanctioned message boards are at Hanson.net, and when there are suddenly two kinds of discourse: The Hanson-approved discourse at Hanson.net, and the sprawling "other" out here,” she wrote. “We’ve got a fragmented, bored community that’s waiting for an album and is too afraid to try anything artistically bold on our own because we’re afraid we can’t cut it without Hanson.”
Another piece of drama amidst Hanson fans, however, triggered her return for her 2003-2004 stretch: Taylor Hanson got married, at 19 years old, to his visibly pregnant girlfriend, Natalie Anne Bryant.
When the news broke in the summer of 2002, Motta’s best friend called her and told her to sit down.
“Taylor getting married was immensely traumatic for Hanson fans. I don’t feel a whole lot of an emotional connection to it, but when I found out, it was even hard for me to wrap my head around. It was a signal that things were changing,” Motta says.
“One of the things that drove this adoration was this very adolescent ideal that this is your future husband,” she says. “All this venom was aimed at [Bryant], this poor girl.”
“The message boards exploded,” she continues. Especially Hanson.net, served as the arena. Some fans were calling Bryant a whore and slamming the decision, while others returned with counterattacks of expressing their happiness for the couple.
“Is the root of all the cyber flailing and whining simply that, despite our here-for-the-music posturing, we did, in the end, really really want it to be us?” Motta wrote.
From her fan fiction days, Motta has taken pride in not being what she calls a typical Hanson fan. Her writer’s eye gives her a combination of an emotional insider’s and an observational outsider’s perspective.
“I always viewed them with a little detachment. Sort of like, ‘I’m not one of those girls who actually wants to be their girlfriend.’ But I’m sure a little part of me did. A little part of me still does. Really, but not really,” she jokes.
After concerts, she liked to walk by the backstage door, not to wait for the band to arrive but to check out the fans themselves. She once had a chance to place herself in a fanatic concertgoer’s perspective when, after a 2003 Hanson concert at Carnegie Hall, a janitor offered her and her friends a stack of items from the band’s dressing room. The pile contained some unused paper napkins, a set list, and a handful of Taylor Hanson’s hair from a pre-performance trim.
“We were horrified for a minute, but then we were like ‘take it,” Motta remembers and laughs. “We were the fans who weren’t standing at the stage door after. We went to dinner and came back to laugh at the fans, but we were the ones who ended up with bags full of Taylor Hanson’s hair.”
Whitney Coulter, a senior at Rollins College in Florida, has been conducting an anthropological study of Hanson’s online fan community for the past year and a half. Last summer she got to know the brothers while working as an intern for Hanson’s record label in Tulsa, but Coulter says that her idea for the study sparked long before she landed the summer job. In 2005, while promoting their initiative for independent music, titled Are You Listening, Hanson gave a radio interview on Rollins’s student radio station and later scheduled to play a concert on campus.
Hanson hadn’t been a mainstream pop idol in years, but the fan response was overwhelming, Coulter remembers. The radio station received a flow of phone calls and emails from surrounding states, inquiring about ticket availability, and when Hanson arrived at Rollins, their car was greeted by crowds of young women who had been waiting on campus for their arrival.
“It was chaos,” Coulter remembers. “They were basically mobbing the car.”
“I just started thinking, what causes this?” she says. Coulter has met the band several times since 1997 during official meet-and greets, and over the years has witnessed them evoke the same feelings of hysteria. At a Hanson concert this year, she saw a young woman break down after receiving an autograph from Taylor Hanson.
“She stepped away and literally started sobbing and fell to her knees. It was like a religious experience, like she had just touched the hand of Jesus Christ,” Coulter says.
Hanson’s internet community of fans may not have returned to the days when new electronic shrines were constantly surfacing and best fictional fan stories were recognized with honors like The Literary Hanfic Awards, but a collective love for the music remains. Motta says that her site gets a fraction of the hits it used to. Still, however, she says that fan enthusiasm at concerts as remained unchanged; during a recent charity walk in Charlotte, NC, she saw fans in their ‘20s flock to the front of the crowd of several hundred to be close to Taylor. Motta preferred her usual spot, observing from some distance away.
Then, as a local police officer stopped Taylor about crowding the streets, Motta got the same rush of affection she had experienced when she first watched Hanson pretend to be tortured by their own song on SNL ten years ago. When she talks about the incident, she flails her hands, smiles and shakes her head in the way one would when talking about her silly younger brother. Her love has earned Motta the right to gently mock, and she knows it.
“The cop didn’t know who Taylor Hanson was, Taylor Hanson is not that famous—although I’m not sure if this cop would have recognized Tom Cruise if he walked up to him,” Motta says. “And the first words out of Taylor’s mouth weren’t ‘we’re really sorry, we’ll get everyone out of the street, we’ll fix this,’ but the first thing he started talking about was impoverished children and AIDS in Africa. It’s really earnest and your heart 100% in the right place, but you’re going to get arrested.”
Luckily, he didn’t.
Seeing the conversation between Taylor Hanson and the police officer, Motta grabbed her digital camera and held it over the heads of people standing around her. The resulting image shows both Hanson and the cop as blurry figures behind the ponytail and sunglasses of one participating fan; the top of her head dominates most of the picture and catches the focus of the lens. Taylor Hanson’s tall frame, barely distinguishable, is tilted towards the cop, while the cop is gesturing his thumb backwards—probably telling him to back up the crowd.
The girl in the photo—the owner of the dominant ponytail and sunglasses—later contacted Motta through her web site and requested to get a copy.
Motta wrote in her blog:
“I want to call all those people immediately, the dozens and dozens who have asked, “Why Hanson?” Because I finally know the answer. The real answer, not the one I’ve been giving for years and years, the helpless shrug, the pointed, “Because they’re good.” And the answer is because they’re crazy because their fans are crazy because they’re crazy because their fans are crazy. It’s that simple. And I will rely on no documentary for this conclusion. I stand agape, hands shaking so hard that I can’t even compose the shot on my camera’s LCD screen, because I saw it rise up strange and obvious, right across the median.”
She may have stood at a distance, but Motta nevertheless took the time to tell us how much she cared. In their now-solidified indie status, perhaps she’s exactly the kind of fan that Hanson needs.