a license plate that says mmm nope
Photo via Unsplash by NICHOLAS BYRNE
Entertainment

Hanson Is Facing a Mutiny From Its Own Fans

More than 20 years after “MMMBop,” the teen idols’ impassioned following is splintering over issues like Black Lives Matter, guns, and COVID.
November 10, 2020, 4:00pm

When Danee was 9 years old, her mother gave her a choice: She could either buy a Jonathan Taylor Thomas poster or a Hanson CD. A tough call in 1997, but Hanson narrowly won out. As one of the only Black kids in her small town, Danee took solace in the band's lyrics that lamented how "when you live in a cookie-cutter world, being different is a sin." It was the start of a pop love affair: For the next two decades, she remained a hardcore Hanson fan, traveling to see them in concert more than 60 times, accessorizing her car with an MMMBOP license plate, and politely enduring constant teasing by those who didn't understand her allegiance.

All of that changed this summer.

Now, the brotherly trio formerly of flowing manes and TRL fame is facing a mutiny from its own fans. And 23 years after "MMMBop" went platinum, many like Danee are walking away from Hanson for good. 

Unlike most other late 90s pop groups, Hanson has stayed quietly active since their chart-topping teen idol days, operating largely outside of Hollywood while still consistently touring and releasing new music as indie artists. The result: a tight-knit, loyal base of “Fansons,” mostly women in their 30s who still follow every move made by Isaac (39), Taylor (37), and Zac (35). 

Catering to the elder millennial set, the official Hanson store currently stocks multiple baby bibs, cookie cutters, and a branded earplug holder. In Facebook fan groups, women share stories of naming their pets and children after the brothers or monikers mentioned in the band’s songs titles; a daughter named Lucy, a basset hound called Penny. And a thousand-member strong "Hanson Tattoos" group exists solely for enthusiasts to show off their Hanson-related ink.

But for some Hanson fans, including many in the Black and queer communities, a wake-up call came in late May, when they say they felt gaslit and ignored by the band and other fans in the wake of George Floyd's death.

As protests swept America following Floyd's May 25 killing, widespread support for the Black Lives Matter movement soared. Within a matter of days, country acts like The Highwomen sent a clear message to their followers by using the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, and K-pop group BTS donated $1 million to BLM, a sum their fans quickly matched. But as tensions ran high, Hanson stayed largely silent on the mounting racial strife, instead posting about the SpaceX launch and their personal fitness. For a group known to cite Motown artists for inspiring their music and who have covered songs by Stevie Wonder, Chuck Berry, and Bill Withers, the omission felt especially pointed to their fans. "This really was never about politics. It was about human decency. And just, why is our favorite band not saying anything?" said Janice, a 31-year-old Black fan from New York who had previously converted her husband into a Hanson fan as well. (Like Danee and the other fans VICE spoke to, Janice asked to go by a pseudonym for fear of harassment and doxxing from fellow Hanson fans who disagree with her stance.) "They went from being the princes of pop to the kings of being tone deaf."

"If Hanson loses a bunch of fans, it affects them because they don't have that many to begin with"

After fans flooded the brothers' Instagrams with comments asking them to speak out, all three eventually posted anti-racist sentiments, ranging from “We are all one family! Racism is wrong!” (Isaac) to “My hope for the world is that all people live up to their greatest potential” and information on the "8 Can't Wait" initiative (Zac). Taylor shared a post honoring George Floyd and acknowledging the anniversary of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, but none of the members individually used the phrase “Black lives matter," and many fans felt the official group account's eventual June 5 post amounted to little more than saying all lives matter. After continued pressure from fans, the band ultimately shared a follow-up Instagram on June 9 that included an unattributed Martin Luther King, Jr. quote with the added line, “There is no question we believe black lives matter.” On that post, they disabled comments.

"For me, to say Black lives matter should be as easy as saying the sky is blue because it's a fact. Period," said Jade, a 35-year-old Black fan from Memphis who clung to Hanson's music after her mom died when she was 14 and supported them ever since. "So, to have them duck and dive and do everything that they could possibly do to not say Black lives matter was really interesting. It was just weird." 

In an emailed statement to VICE, the band wrote, "We are so grateful to our incredible and diverse community of fans for their continued support and powerful connection with our music. We are proud to have people of so many different backgrounds as a part of the community who consider themselves Hanson fans."

But that was just the beginning. Following the "black lives matter" post, someone leaked a now-deleted Pinterest account revealed to belong to Zac—the youngest of the three, who was only 11 when Hanson released their Grammy-nominated Middle of Nowhere—that housed a trove of pro-gun memes, many of which were racist, transphobic, homophobic, and sexist. Among them was one supporting George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin, and another comparing the right to use an AR-15 rifle with Rosa Parks’s right to sit on a bus. "How can you equate those two things?" Danee said. "Maybe it's because I'm a Black woman, but I don't see how a person could say I need this gun as much as you need the right to be treated like an equal human being in this country." Other memes shared by the account labeled men who don’t like guns as inherently gay and likened "a man wanting to dress like a woman" to having a mental illness. 

Days after the leak, Zac confirmed that the Pinterest account, which was under the username "Commanding Officer," belonged to him in Instagram replies to fans. "It's a joke," he wrote in defense of one meme that showed a man being consoled by a woman with the caption, "I told her guns make me feel uncomfortable. She said we should both see other men." 

"Maybe it's in bad taste, a lot of comedy is," Zac continued to the fan. "Yes she's putting him down, cause she's hard core [sic]. It's the woman that 'gun guys' daydream about."

As Hanson carried on with their regular, unrelated programming on Instagram, upset fans continued to voice their dissatisfaction on each new post. And while Hanson’s defenders posted comments encouraging Zac to "keep your head up" and ignore "that BS stuff" and "virtue signaling," multiple fans say Zac was actively deleting dissenting comments and blocking those who expressed concerns. This, some say, is what hurt the most. "I would have been over the Black Lives Matter thing. That didn't even bother me as much as their treatment of the fans afterward," Danee said. "The fact that they deleted people who were defending the Black fans, that's what did me in." 

Added Kaia, a 37-year-old Black fan who's traveled from her home in Hawaii to see the band more than 10 times across the U.S. mainland, "It really started to piss me off that Hanson didn't come out [to the fans defending them] and be like, 'You guys need to chill. Stop trying to defend our honor.' They just let it happen. It was really stirring the pot, and it left us feeling like we're on the outside.”

In an emailed statement to VICE, Zac wrote, "The leaked Pinterest page provided a distorted view of the issues surrounding race and social justice, which do not reflect my personal beliefs. I apologize for the hurt my actions caused."

In response to the fan-dubbed “Hansongate” or “Pinterestgate,” distraught fans began donating to Black Lives Matter initiatives in the band's name and demanding fan-club and pre-ordered merchandise refunds. They also created a new “PostHanson” subreddit “for former and ambivalent Hanson fans to discuss and support each other” while meticulously documenting the events as they unraveled, a group that now has more than 1,000 members. 

For a band with a niche audience, hemorrhaging even a modest number of fans can be problematic. "If Hanson loses a bunch of fans, it affects them because they don't have that many to begin with," Janice said. "It's a very small fan base, so they can't afford to lose people the way that a Taylor Swift or a Harry Styles can."

That the band has conservative leanings isn't exactly a shock. The brothers are still based in their hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma, all married young (to women they met at Hanson concerts), and currently have 14 kids among the three of them. (Taylor and his wife are expecting their seventh in December.) And yet, the band’s past hesitancy to wade into any political discourse, coupled with current and previous charity efforts—including a 2008 tour called The Walk, in which they walked barefoot across tour cities with fans to raise money for the AIDS epidemic and "related poverty ravaging Africa"—led some fans to believe the group shared their inclusive, if not wholly progressive, ideals. 

"They always presented themselves as supportive of people who are outsiders or who are marginalized in any way," said Ann, a 35-year-old white Utahn and co-moderator of the PostHanson subreddit. “I’m okay if they have different views on taxes or guns, but I can’t support bigotry.”

(Many also now look back on The Walk era and cringe. "At the time, I felt like, Oh they're being activists," Danee said. "But as you learn and you grow, you realize how performative it was, like, ‘We’re going to save these poor little Black children in Africa.’ I almost feel guilty for feeding into that back then.")

“I've seen a woman get punched in the mouth by someone holding a baby, just to get a good spot. No other fandom is like that.

Overall, fans described the brothers as having cultivated an image through their music that drew in listeners from all backgrounds and particularly appealed to those who’ve felt ostracized in their own lives. “They do attract queer fans. I’m one of them,” said Lorraine, a 33-year-old white fan who also moderates the PostHanson subreddit. “And you see this group of good-looking, upper-class white guys say, ‘Hey, it's okay to be you. I want you to talk about who you are and be proud of it because that's our thing’—but then they shut it out when you ask them directly [about their views].”

Just as Harry Potter fans have expressed feeling betrayed by J. K. Rowling’s increasingly vocal transphobia, Hanson fans saw the events of this summer as a disheartening departure for the band they’ve followed since childhood.

Before YouTube, X-Factor, or TikTok bolstered young talent, Hanson independently recorded albums in a garage in Tulsa and finagled festival and county-fair gigs into a Mercury record deal while they were all still literal children in the mid-1990s. The rare "boy band" to actually be a band in the traditional sense of playing their own instruments and writing their own songs, they left the corporate music world (via a contentious split from Island Def Jam that was documented in a 2004 documentary) after their second album and went on to release six more studio albums on their own independent label, embark on innovative tours, and even create an Mmmhops craft beer.

That indie approach led fans to feel like they intimately knew and understood the brothers. Add to that the cornerstone of the Hanson fan experience: Hanson.net, a private, exclusive world, which serves as both a free portal for fans to read blogs written by the band and purchase merch, as well as a $40-per-year fan club used to distribute music and other special content to subscribers. As their 90s contemporaries struggled to stay connected to their fans through greatest hits releases or occasional reunion tours, Hanson found a lucrative way to continually tap into their base's incessant appetite. Over the last 17 years, the group has released annual EPs available only to members, resulting in a library of restricted tracks that now rivals that of their wide releases. Members also have access to message boards, a podcast, and the ability to purchase tickets to elaborate annual destination events that allow for in-person interactions with Hanson, like Hanson Day in Tulsa and the all-inclusive Back to the Island retreat in the Caribbean, which can cost thousands

 While those marketing tactics have bred fierce loyalty, they've also proven exclusionary. "Hanson set up this cult mentality of either you're in or you're out," said Janice, who threw her fan club CD straight in the trash when it arrived this summer before she could cancel her membership. "It's just a bubble now. If you're outspoken, you're not in it—or you're attacked by other fans."

Kaia, who's attended a past Back to the Island getaway, stressed that even the most intimate Hanson concerts can feel overwhelming for fans of color. "Hanson shows have a really big reputation that when you go you meet other fans and you become like family, almost instantly. That's the case for a lot of people, but not really for POC fans," she said. "You go to the shows and you're maybe one of, like, six dark people there. It's intimidating." And, Kaia added, the atmosphere at the concerts can be far from civil. "Hanson fans can be real assholes. I'm just going to be honest," she said. "They will push and shove and backstab you just to get front row. Fights will break out, grown women stepping on kids just to throw themselves at the stage for Hanson. It's insane, but I've seen some stuff, man. People tearing into each other like they're in middle school. My god, it's crazy."

Echoed Danee, “I've seen a woman get punched in the mouth by someone holding a baby, just to get a good spot. No other fandom is like that. This energy is just so different."

For their part, Hanson is focusing on promoting their new album, Perennial (a compilation of Hanson.net tracks made available to the public for the first time), and raising awareness around the Save Our Stages Act to support independent venues during the ongoing pandemic. They’re also performing a series of livestreamed concerts at Cain's Ballroom in Tulsa, which fan club members can attend in-person by buying tickets in tables of four for $160. At a time when live music venues have been decimated, it’s a welcome economic boost. But despite whatever social distancing measures may be in place, some feel the shows are just another example of Hanson disregarding the wellbeing of their fans, who are known to cross states and oceans to see them in the flesh.

"I live in a household that is immunosuppressed. My life has been completely turned upside down in terms of taking the pandemic very, very seriously," said Josephine, a white, 35-year-old flight attendant who planned her schedule last year around seeing Hanson in concert 12 times in various cities but can no longer bring herself to listen to their music post-Hansongate. "They can say that they're going to do it in a way that's responsible, but the people who will be indoors at those concerts over the coming months will be on airplanes or on the road stopping at rest stops state to state to state. It horrifies me."

In early November, Isaac sparked a new wave of concern that the band is ignoring the severity of the pandemic when he posted an Instagram story lamenting that “our governments” want to cancel Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter in the face of COVID. "I for one will not comply," he wrote.

"What I shared was driven by an emotional reaction to a recent personal experience," Isaac wrote in an emailed statement to VICE. "I’m sorry for the pain and worry that my posts caused. I don’t believe there is a group conspiring against Christmas, only that I hope value is placed on both practices of safety and of faith."

Even post-vaccine, however, some fans say they're unlikely to attend Hanson events again. "I would have spent thousands of dollars," said Jonette, a 33-year-old Black fan in Florida. "But they have alienated a lot of people who spend the most money. I don't know if it has hurt their bank account yet or not, but I know of at least 10 people who were going to go to the next Back to the Island and decided to cancel their vacation because of everything that happened. That's about $2,000 per person." 

Still, the public dissenters represent only a fraction of Hanson’s total fanbase. Many within the fandom support the band's views or feel people should be able to separate the art from the artists, regardless of their ideologies. "If you’re a fan, then their music should speak to their character…" posted one fan on Instagram. "ALSO, when have they EVER been anything but private when it comes to sensitive matters? The reasoning behind that is probably 100% [to avoid] this 'Hansongate' crap." In fact, plenty take issue with the fans who are speaking out against Hanson and claim they are, as another commenter wrote, "having temper tantrums and trying to destroy [the brothers'] livelihoods." 

But the aggrieved fans stress that they don't actually want to see Hanson cancelled in any way, and instead are hoping for accountability and acknowledgement that their pain matters. 

"Most Hanson fans have taken a lot of shit over the years from people who misunderstand the band, and we've spent countless energy defending their artistry," Ann said. "So for them to abandon their marginalized fans in return is really sad and disappointing. But what we are doing is accountability, not cancelling." 

Some are still holding out hope that the brothers will speak out about the controversy, despite months of silence. "We don't want lip service, but I would love for them to finally show some support for their Black fans," Kaia said. "They totally missed the mark on Black Lives Matter, but I still think they can redeem themselves." 

Others, like Jade, are done with Hanson forever: "It's almost like you realize a long-term friend that you've had is toxic, and you hit this fork in the road where you have to make the decision to walk away. You do you, but I'm going to do me and say that's it. Fuck you. I'm amazing, and my life matters."

Follow Ashley Spencer on Twitter.