The line stretched back at least two city blocks in the bright afternoon sun. There were 10 of us — if you showed up with fewer people, you’d be grouped together with strangers, and the stakes were too high for that. As we inched closer to the doors, an aura of nervous energy settled around our little cluster. We reapplied our lip gloss and checked our hair in the reflections of neighboring storefront windows. We wiped clammy palms on our jeans and exchanged excited smiles.
When our turn came, we stepped into the entryway of the music hall, and there they were: Isaac, Taylor and Zac Hanson, smiling and waiting to shake our hands and pose for one of several dozen group photos they would take with fans that afternoon. Zac wore a zipped-up leather jacket in spite of the warm day, Taylor was taller than I’d imagined, and Isaac was all in black à la Johnny Cash. I said hello, then found myself wedged under Taylor’s left armpit as the camera went off. Exhilarated, I grinned like a fool for the rest of the day. When the photos were posted online, I noticed a chunk of my hair stuck to the side of my face (probably thanks to that last coat of lip gloss and the breezy weather outside the venue). I was too delighted to care that it looked silly — I posted it to Instagram and Facebook, and set it immediately as the wallpaper on my laptop, where I would see it every day.
Since that first meet and greet five years ago, I’ve surprised a variety of unsuspecting acquaintances with the very personal disclosure that I’m a huge Hanson fan. There was the manager at my last job, where I booked time off months in advance for the band’s fan club weekend in Tulsa, Oklahoma; the new boyfriend who, after a make-out session on my couch, mused, “I can’t believe you have Hanson stuff on your walls”; the Canadian festivalgoer who asked which band in the lineup I was there to see and almost believed me when I bluffed about having “MMMbop” tattooed in a highly sensitive location. Although no one has ever said it to my face, I can always hear the question on their minds: “How have you not outgrown Hanson yet?”
I was 12 years old when the ubiquitous single “MMMbop” went to number one in 27 countries, and I quickly joined Hanson’s legion of lovestruck adolescent fans. Throughout middle and high school, I spent my babysitting money on CDs, posters, T-shirts and concert tickets. I called local radio stations to request singles and videotaped TV appearances on the family room VCR. My best friend and I bonded in seventh-grade homeroom over our shared love of the band. She was smitten with blue-eyed middle brother Taylor, and I was into rambunctious drummer Zac. We daydreamed about running into the band on her family’s annual beach trip to Sea Isle City, New Jersey, where our chosen brothers would fall hopelessly in love with us on the boardwalk at sunset.
Hanson released their third studio album, Underneath, in 2004 — the spring of my first year of college. Seven years after the smash that was “MMMbop,” the band had slipped from the mainstream pop radar. By the time I graduated and moved to New York to start a career and an adult life, no one around me cared about Hanson anymore. Except for a couple of summertime shows near my hometown during and right after college, I lost track of them, even though they frequently played New York venues within walking distance of my apartment and office. Hanson and their songs were like the clear plastic bin of yearbooks and photo albums I had left in my childhood bedroom closet: I revisited them fondly now and then, but I didn’t have room for them in my grown-up life.
Fast-forward to 2013: I was working long hours at a public relations agency, managing publicity campaigns and trying to persuade journalists to write favorable articles about my tech-company clients. I was overwhelmed by the number of tasks and responsibilities I had to juggle to meet expectations, and frustrated at spending the majority of my waking hours on work that didn’t feel significant or meaningful. Worst of all, the higher I climbed up the agency ladder, the less time I had for the one part of the job I enjoyed: writing.
After a particularly grueling couple of weeks, my team presented me with a tray of cupcakes in the conference room for my birthday. The effort it took to smile and celebrate when every molecule of my being wanted to run out the door was suffocating. I could no longer ignore the feeling that I was in the wrong place, doing the wrong thing. After my colleagues went back to their desks, I walked into my boss’s office and gave my notice. I felt a little like I was in free fall — equal parts thrilled and terrified.
At the same time, the dynamics of my tight-knit friend groups were starting to change. As our 30s approached, most of the people I’d been close with since high school and college were getting married, and some relocated to follow career opportunities. Couples bought houses with grassy backyards in good suburban school districts. New babies sucked up every morsel of their parents’ time, attention and energy. When we did get together, talk turned to wedding planning, then home ownership and child-rearing, subjects about which I, the perpetually single renter in NYC, had little to contribute. I loved all of these people as fiercely as ever, but I often felt left behind — literally and figuratively. With my career up in the air and the foundation of my support network shifting beneath my feet, the only thing that felt certain about my life was that very little was certain.
Then one springtime afternoon, early in my self-imposed period of unemployment, I started to wonder what my first favorite band had been up to lately. I sat on my bed with my scuffed aluminum MacBook and stumbled upon the documentary film Strong Enough to Break, which details Hanson’s years of conflict with their record label during the making of Underneath. In a stalemate over creative control of their own music, the band had walked away from their recording contract and launched their own independent label in 2003, at the ages of 18, 20 and 23.
I was distantly aware at the time that Hanson had fallen out with their record label, but it wasn’t until seeing that documentary that I understood just how big of a leap they’d taken to escape a stifling professional environment. This rekindled my admiration, partly because I had just made a similar leap in my own career. The brothers’ palpable frustration with higher-ups who didn’t understand their vision for the band; their feelings of desperation at being trapped in an environment where their work wasn’t valued; and their stubborn determination to make the music they believed in, even if it meant stepping off the path to commercial success — it all resonated deeply in my burned-out, low-key-panicked writer’s soul.
But most of all, Hanson’s story gave me hope. Their gamble had paid off, so maybe mine could too. Since leaving their label, they’d recorded three independent studio albums, and they were about to head out on tour to promote their next record, Anthem. I downloaded the music I had missed, bought a ticket to their upcoming concert at Irving Plaza, and jumped back into Hanson fandom with both feet at the age of 28. It felt like coming home.
When Hanson played a gig in New Jersey a few months later, I was three weeks into a new job (at another public relations firm, but this time as a full-time writer). I took the afternoon off to rent a car and drive down for the show. After I parked, I scanned the line of fans who had assembled, looking for familiar faces. I’d begun to dip my toe into the online fan community, and I was eager to meet some people who “got it” — who understood feeling a connection to this band and their music that was deeper than nostalgia for a teenage crush or a silly song that was inescapable for that one summer in the ’90s.
As the sun went down and the temperature dropped, one of the girls in the group I’d been chatting with suggested that we go sit in her car to warm up. There were still a couple of hours until the doors opened, so we decided to order a pizza. Over greasy cheese slices we talked and laughed, steaming up the windows of her little black Honda. By the time the show started, we’d all exchanged phone numbers, and thus began a years-long continuous group text.
Little by little, the amount of time and energy I spent on Hanson fandom increased, just as my old friends’ group trips and spur-of-the-moment happy-hour gatherings were tapering off. When work was slow, I logged onto the band’s fan club forums to “nerd out” with other superfans about our favorite albums, song lyrics and memories. Someone in our group text floated the idea of making the pilgrimage to Tulsa for the annual fan club weekend, and the next thing I knew we all had hotel reservations and plane tickets. I met fans who lived as far away as Australia and Senegal, and one who lived a block away from my apartment in Queens. The proportion of Hanson fans among my Facebook friends expanded until their faces regularly occupied at least half of the squares in the grid on my profile. After my third trip to Tulsa, I signed on for the fan club retreat at an all-inclusive resort in Jamaica (and then, within a couple of weeks of returning, booked the same trip for the following year). I was drawn in by the pull of a community defined by a shared experience — and the comfort of belonging to a group that didn’t remind me constantly of how far behind I was in completing Western society’s proverbial checklist for women my age (marriage, house, baby, etc.). Plus, there was the bonus element that it all revolved around one of my lifelong passions: music.
By 2018, I was deep into the Hanson community, but with Anthem’s five-year anniversary approaching, I was starving for a new full-length studio record. On top of that, I had just taken another career leap. After four years of churning out press releases and corporate blog posts, I was tired of bending over backward for every executive who had the money to pay the agency’s retainer. I wanted control over which clients I worked with, as well as the time and mental energy to pursue projects that more closely aligned with my values and goals, so I quit my 9-to-5 (again) to freelance. I had previously done some freelance work in between agency jobs, and I was both excited and anxious at the prospect of “going indie” for real this time. And I was craving a fresh hit of motivational energy from the band that had so profoundly inspired me the last time I took a big risk.
Around this time, Hanson began to tease their latest project: String Theory, a concept album and world tour featuring songs from their back catalog accompanied by a symphony orchestra. I bought a ticket immediately.
On the night of the String Theory performance, I watched the orchestra members emerge from the wings carrying their instruments: polished violins, delicate woodwinds, gleaming brass horns. As Hanson took the stage, I sat up straight in my plush upholstered seat and eagerly anticipated the moment when the music would swell up and give me that giddy, euphoric feeling that comes from hearing songs you love deeply performed live.
The moment never came.
String Theory was a Hanson show with a backup symphony — and on some songs, the effect was impressive. But I wanted more. I loved these songs, but they belonged to a bygone era. I needed new music to carry me into the future; String Theory was a repackaged soundtrack from the past.
With each offering the band marketed to fans that was not a new original record — vacation packages, a collection of Christmas songs, a vast catalog of merch, Hanson-branded beer — my interest waned. I began to feel like a shift had occurred: Where once the fan community evolved out of enthusiasm for Hanson’s music, it seemed like these days the music had been reduced to one of many offerings designed to expand the Hanson enterprise.
I wasn’t just sick of the same old songs. I missed the spirit portrayed in that documentary I’d watched on my old laptop in 2013: the brothers’ passion for their craft, their dedication to writing songs that meant something to people like me, and their stubborn determination to put those songs out into the world, no matter how big a risk they had to take to do it. In my mind, Hanson was proof that an earnest, creative underdog could make it as long as they did the work, believed in their art, and stayed true to themselves. Theirs was a story I needed to believe in — because as an earnest, creative person who had taken a few risks, it helped me believe in myself. Once I felt that ethos fading, the experience of being a Hanson fan started to feel hollow. I sat out a year of fan club events and changed my laptop wallpaper from the latest meet and greet photo back to a generic mountain landscape.
For some members of the fan community, Hanson is a steadfast, integral element of their lives and identities — and for a while, I was one of them. But as my own perspective has shifted, so has my relationship to the band and other fans. I don’t get that FOMO feeling when I skip Hanson shows or fan club activities to do other things, like running a 5K or hosting a book club meeting at my apartment. I’m not as thirsty as I once was for that elusive new studio album. And while I wouldn’t say I’ve outgrown Hanson or abandoned the fandom entirely, I’m no longer looking to Isaac, Taylor and Zac for inspiration as I chart my own course. Maybe that’s because the band is moving in a new direction. Or maybe it’s just that I am, and that doesn’t scare me as much as it used to.