Just beyond the Ferris wheel, the Wac-a-Mole, and an alley of deep-fried food, 500 people are gathered in front of the main stage at the Western Fair in London, Ont. They’ve shelled out the $14 admission on Friday night for the retro kick of seeing former teen sensations Hanson play their 1997 megahit MMMBop. They will not leave disappointed.
“We play MMMBop almost every show,” Taylor Hanson says before they take the stage. “I mean honestly, MMMBop is a fun song to play. It’s a groovy song, it’s not actually that hard to sing.”
When the band launches into those telltale opening chords late in their 90-minute set, there’s a collective cheer from the spectators, who are holding a mix of cotton candy, kids, and tall cans.
The members of the band are extremely good-natured about the fact that they’re playing at a fairground, a gig where their competition on a side stage is a hypnotist: “If you’re just walking through the fair, grabbing a snow cone—we’re a band called Hanson!”
Exactly 15 years ago, this sort of announcement would not have been necessary. Isaac, Taylor and Zac Hanson were on their first stadium tour, playing to thousands of fans every night, selling out venues like the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles. As one of a legion of teen girls who lost their minds for the brothers, I remember the madness well. I bought four tickets to their June 1998 show at Toronto’s Molson Amphitheatre for myself and three friends—and then I bought four more when better seats went on sale.
“That first tour was kind of an extraordinary situation,” Taylor says. “You always want to play for as many people as possible, so make no mistake, arenas are awesome.
“But I think musically, it is a better experience for us, and I think also for the audience, in a theatre or larger club,” Isaac finishes.
No, Hanson isn’t on a reunion tour. Since leaving their label to become an independent band in 2001, they’ve actually put out four albums, playing the new material to smaller audiences. Starting in Vancouver in Oct. 2, they have 14 Canadian stops planned to promote their latest album, Anthem. Their sound has matured, but not in a forced Miley Cyrus way. It’s simply a little less pop, and little more blues and soul. Unlike their 1990s contemporaries—the Backstreet Boys, N’Sync, the Spice Girls—they never broke up to enter rehab, or pursue film careers, or marry David Beckham.
But what their lower profile masks is the religious devotion that still exists for the band from a core group of dedicated Fansons (their pun, not mine). If you wanted a front-row spot at the London show, you would have had to get in line 28 hours earlier, when superfans like Jen Willock from Cambridge, Ont., arrived to spend the night outside the gates.
“Since I first heard MMMBop, I was hooked,” says Willock, who is seeing Hanson live for the 79th time. There have been times when she’s had to fight her bosses for additional time off in order to follow the band. In 2009, when she had tickets to Hanson’s stint on the Rock Boat cruise in the Caribbean but no vacation time, she says she “broke down and cried” until they relented.
After more than a decade of devotion, it’s difficult for the Fansons to articulate why their favourite band from their tween years is still their favourite band today. They’re just the best. They just are. Most express a mix of crushes on the brothers, an appreciation for their charity work and how well they treat their fans, and real admiration for their musical talent.
“Can you write that they’re not a boy band?” Arica Hanley asks. This is her 23rd concert, which she dismisses as “a very low number” by Fanson standards. “They write real music. They play their own instruments. They don’t do synchronized dance routines.”
Hanson released its first major-label album in the boy-band friendly summer of 1997, and the brothers have been fighting that association ever since. I remember making exactly the same arguments with my 13-year-old peers whose loyalty was to the Backstreet Boys. They were totally manufactured! Hanson was a real band. I allowed no other CD in my discman. I bought every magazine they appeared in. I started an eBay business selling merchandise only available in Canada, in order to make enough money to buy more merchandise. I blame the hair.
Isaac, Taylor and Zac all lost their long blond locks years ago, but otherwise their live show doesn’t look dramatically different. Back in 1998, I remember the screaming (us) and the singing (them). No pyrotechnics, no dancing, no costume changes. The same holds true in London, 15 years on. They play a mix of old and new material, throw in some acoustic numbers, and generally channel a passion for music and performing.
“You can tell that they love it. They wouldn’t be around this long if they didn’t love it,” says Rebecca Rae, 26, who remembers crying when she and her cousin first saw Hanson live.
The brothers, who were between the ages of 11 and 16 when they shot to international stardom, have grown up to become genuinely nice, well-adjusted, business-savvy guys. They’re all married, with nine children between them. They laugh when they remember the days they couldn’t go into a mall for fear of being mobbed. They’ve moved on. They relish the creative freedom that comes with being an independent band, including side projects like Taylor’s band Tinted Windows and songwriting retreats with other artists.
The connection that Hanson has maintained with its base fans is something a political party could only dream of. Every product the band puts out gets snapped up. This includes a board game called Hansonopoly and a new beer that has hit the American market, MMMHops.
“We realized pretty early on that our fans were connecting with more than only a song. The song was like the invitation into what we were doing, what we were excited about,” Taylor says. “We had some success early enough to take chances. We’ve really always seen it more as a brand business than simply a song business.”
Here in London—the birthplace of Justin Bieber—perhaps what’s most extraordinary about the fact that Hanson is still standing is that the brothers weren’t sidetracked by any of the darker sides of fame along the way.
None of the brothers, who now range in age from 27 to 32, have much time for that aspect of celebrity culture. Taylor says they’ve always been here for the music, and Zac adds that it’s a choice not to end up in the tabloids, a choice not to do stupid stuff.
“People remember Hanson for our music—like it, hate it, whatever it is,” Zac says. “We’re proud for that to be a reason, and don’t want it to be about our monkey, or our gas mask, or our Ferrari.”
Isaac laughs: “Another reason you never saw me driving a Ferrari down the streets of Sunset and getting in trouble is because I was driving a $30,000 SUV, which I still own.”