At a pivotal moment for my problematic faves, I explore a Pinterest gun meme scandal, a close-knit fandom and why it’s okay to expect more from the bands we love.
Remember the song ‘MMMBop’, from all the way back in 1997? Maybe you also remember Hanson, the band that sang it: a trio of brothers with confusingly pretty hair. What if I told you that I’ve seen them perform live eight times in the last ten years? And that as I type there is a values-based Pinterest-adjacent scandal brewing that threatens to tear their carefully curated fandom to its very core?
Inspired by the Motown sounds that filled their childhood home in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Hanson have been making wholesome, harmony-filled pop rock music for more than 25 years. From the bubblegum record scratches of their earlier stuff to their more rock-influenced recent sound, Hanson’s music is precisely my cup of tea. A tight combination of guitar, piano, drums and three-part harmony will win me over every time. Their work is clever and emotional, with interesting lyrics and unforgettable melodies, and they have an electric stage presence. A Hanson show in the 21st century is like nothing else: nobody is just casually attending. You either forgot they existed around 2006 or you’re an all-in, card carrying Fanson. (I mean that literally – for two years between 2011 and 2013 I paid my $40 and joined the actual fan club).
All this is to say: some people, including me, still really like Hanson. And this has never been a particularly controversial position; unusual maybe, but largely unproblematic. They rarely make it into the mainstream press these days but earlier this month, a story emerged about Isaac Hanson (the eldest brother) announcing on Instagram that COVID-19 is part of a conspiracy to cancel Christmas. Knowing a bit about his penchant for posting vaguely spiritual, airy-fairy things, I skim-read the piece and wrote it off as Isaac being Isaac. I mean, yes, in a country that has now passed a quarter of a million COVID-19 related deaths, nobody should be so irresponsible as to spread inaccurate information and encourage non-compliance with guidelines, but it felt like more of an eye-roll moment than anything too sinister.
However, last week I saw that Vice had published an in-depth article entitled Hanson Is Facing a Mutiny From Its Own Fans, which exposed much deeper issues going back months. It details how the band members were, or were perceived to be, reluctant to voice support for the Black Lives Matter movement back in the summer when public figures from all walks of life were speaking out. According to the article, it took a sustained campaign from their fans (fans apparently much more engaged than I was) before they eventually posted on Instagram somewhat guarded responses which initially did not feature the actual words “Black lives matter”. Ashley Spencer wrote in Vice, “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.”
I’ve tried to spend as little time as possible on Instagram lately (I know, yawn) so if Vice hadn’t released the article about it, I’m not sure I would have ever come across this story. I didn’t notice anything amiss about their response at the time; to be honest I didn’t notice their response at all.
It turns out, though, that the BLM controversy was only the beginning. The Vice article goes on to explain that a Pinterest page (of all things) belonging to Zac Hanson was leaked in early June, which contained “a trove of pro-gun memes, many of which were racist, transphobic, homophobic, and sexist”. Although the page was never intended to be public, it was nevertheless brought into the public eye and fans, reasonably, wanted an explanation. At the time, Zac offered some responses to specific questions on social media, which basically amounted to doubling down on the content: “It’s a joke… Maybe it’s in bad taste, a lot of comedy is.”
Now, if Isaac is the one who is known to have his head in the clouds sometimes, youngest brother Zac could be described as the ‘loose cannon’. Since becoming world famous before his teens, Zac has been the one most likely to make a risqué joke in an interview, or say something slightly edgier than his brothers. These memes were not risqué jokes. The pro-gun content on the now-deleted page was highly offensive, and not just to people like me, leftie queer snowflakes. Much of it would be offensive to anyone, for example a meme equating the right to own an air rifle with Rosa Parks’ right to sit on a bus, or another suggesting that men who are opposed to guns are gay.
After the Pinterest page first emerged, a community was formed on Reddit called PostHanson, a space for “former and ambivalent fans to discuss and support each other”. They are a large and growing group of people who have been documenting the developing situation. For a subreddit dedicated to why a band is problematic, the tone is surprisingly supportive. The criticism stems not so much from the BLM response or the Pinterest page itself (although those things were obviously the catalyst for the group’s creation) but more from actions that have been taken subsequently, like the failure to appropriately apologise, the deletion of critical comments, blocking fans who are raising concerns, and not showing enough leadership in the face of comments sections turning against fans – often people of colour – who were raising those concerns.
I have spent some time looking around the subreddit and what becomes clear is that they are for the most part people who care (or cared) very deeply about this band. They genuinely want them to do better and have been trying to help them understand how to, including releasing an open letter in June giving them step-by-step instructions (“acknowledge your actions, recognize the hurt you’ve caused, apologize”: basic stuff really), advice that in the last 5 months the brothers have, apparently, ignored. The tone of this community is best summed up by a member quoted in Vice: “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… So for them to abandon their marginalized fans in return is really sad and disappointing. But what we are doing is accountability, not cancelling.”
Reading the Vice article was an eye-opening experience. I, like most fans, always knew that Hanson were from a Christian, southern, conservative background. Frankly, there was even a time in my life when I saw that as a positive: their B-side ‘Every Word I Say’ was one of my favourite ‘secretly a worship song’ songs when I was still a churchgoer. And, again, like many fans, even as my personal views began to diverge from what I assumed theirs probably were on some issues, it didn’t mean I couldn’t appreciate the music. I never needed or expected them to be the world’s most progressive artists, but I did think they were, well, nice. As one of the fans interviewed by Vice put it, “I’m okay if they have different views on taxes or guns, but I can’t support bigotry.”
I don’t believe any of the members of Hanson are bad people. I don’t believe they were or are trying to cause anyone any pain. However, I do believe that they live in a different world to the more progressive segment of their fans. This storm is not about whether or not Zac Hanson thinks it’s his right to own a gun. It’s about whether he, and by extension his band, think it’s okay to do and say things that cause genuine hurt to people who care about them – people who have invested a lot of time, money and emotion in them – and whether they are willing to listen to the voices of those who feel like they aren’t being heard. If being asked to affirm that Black lives matter feels like an attack, or the idea of apologising for a pro-gun meme that uses homophobia to make its point is too much to ask, it sounds like the probably-conservative side – which has always been there – is winning out over the loving, music-industry-savvy side, the side which has seen them support numerous charitable projects throughout their career and which, crucially, has kept them firmly away from anything too contentious before now.
(Incidentally, the band have also never been overtly religious in their public image, with Zac telling Christianity Today in 2007, “I never really talked about [details of beliefs and faith], though people have asked us. I think, unfortunately, it can be a barrier to people.”)
The political and the personal have never been more intertwined. In many ways, this situation is a distillation of tensions blowing up over dinner tables and WhatsApp chats across the western world: “We’ve been friends for decades and now suddenly we’re falling out over our opinions on guns/Brexit/facemasks/Christmas conspiracies!?” Over the last five years the political landscape has become more polarised than ever, fuelled by the former (a bit premature but let me have it) President and an increasingly partisan media. It used to be possible to have differing perspectives on fundamental issues and still maintain healthy relationships. This was, to be blunt, often made possible by widespread tolerance of casual oppression of marginalised people. There is a huge amount of work still to be done to make the world a more equitable place, but it feels like we have started making incremental progress. Four years ago, Colin Kaepernick was vilified and lost his job for taking a knee at a football game to protest racial inequality. Last summer, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, as celebrities were tripping over each other in their keenness to – at the very least – be seen saying something, Hanson chose not to acknowledge it for days. It spoke volumes.
We no longer tolerate measured silence. There are some issues which should not be up for debate. By trying to steer clear of anything controversial in public, Hanson revealed the disappointing truth that they apparently considered the phrase “Black lives matter” to be, itself, controversial. (It should be noted that they did later state, after days of being asked to, including by many BIPOC fans, “There is no question we believe that black lives matter.”) It can feel bewildering when the world moves on and leaves you behind but the delicate balancing act that Hanson have been perfecting for the last 25 years, of keeping their personal views and public image separate, is no longer fit for purpose.
When I met the band before a London gig in 2011, I had travelled 45 minutes on the train. My fellow meet-and-greetees had come from Australia and Scotland, just for the show. Feeling like a part of something, like you have secret knowledge of this wonderful music that everyone else chooses to ignore is intoxicating. For me, it’s the inverse of the thrill of being an early adopter. We’re Hanson hipsters, it’s just that they’ve come out the other side of the mainstream. And the band, unlike so many of their nineties peers, managed to convert this devotion into a sustainable career. As well as purchasing fan club membership, people attend their annual events in Tulsa and pay thousands of dollars to go to ‘Back To The Island’, a communal holiday/convention in the Caribbean that takes place every year. There are fan club-only music releases, weekly emails, member forums, meet-and-greets and countless other opportunities for exclusive content and interaction.
Since the beginning, Hanson have maintained a close relationship with their fans. The fandom is a dedicated, diverse group brought together by a love of their music. But, as one of the fans quoted in the Vice article pointed out, it is also relatively small: “If Hanson loses a bunch of fans, it affects them because they don’t have that many to begin with. 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.”
Taylor Swift and Harry Styles are surprisingly pertinent comparisons in this case. Like Hanson, they experienced global fame when they were still in their teens. Coming from the conservative world of country music and the squeaky-clean boyband machine respectively, they spent the earlier years of their careers being put into boxes and meeting people’s conventional expectations of them, never saying or creating anything too challenging. Since going through a brutal civil trial in 2017 relating to a sexual assault she experienced several years before, Swift has become outspoken in her liberal views on social and political issues, having previously not even endorsed Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election (an obvious choice not only for, you know, humanity, but also totally on-brand for the kind of bland, white, ‘girl power’ feminism she espoused at the time). Similarly, Styles left his sanitised, normcore boyband image behind when he struck out on his own, and just this week became the first solo man to grace the cover of US Vogue, doing so while looking incredible in a Gucci dress, enraging a handful of conservatives in the process.
Swift and Styles are two of the most successful artists on the planet, but becoming more outspoken about potentially controversial issues hasn’t harmed their careers – they’ve never been bigger. Being able to create and exist in an authentic way helps, I’m sure, but it’s also convenient for them that their authentic selves chime with the way that society is moving more generally. Van Badham wrote an article in the Guardian this week: “The conniptions about Harry Styles in a dress are the desperate cry of losers in a culture war.” As I’ve wrestled with my own views on HansonGate (did I mention it’s called HansonGate?), it’s been uncomfortable to confront the possibility that the band’s reluctance to take any particular stances might stem from an awareness that their stances would be the “wrong” ones. But, again, nobody is asking them not to be politically conservative or not to own guns, just to acknowledge that they let some people down with their reticent Black Lives Matter response and to apologise for the hurt caused by that and the fallout of it. This is not about politics; it’s about core values.
As three wise young men once told us, “hold on to the ones who really care, in the end they’ll be the only ones there”. In fandoms and friendships alike, the ones who really care are the ones who are willing to hold us to account and who expect more of us than we expect of ourselves. That so many people care so much about Hanson is a testament to the dedication and talent they have poured into their career so far. This feels like a point of no return. Will they step up, engage, listen, respond and commit to building a community with the people who have given them that career, a community that embraces its differences from a place of mutual respect and accountability? Or will we have to watch them dig their heels in and continue on the same course as ever? And what will we do if they choose that path?
There is a lyric from their 2004 track ‘Dancing In The Wind’ which – judging by the amount of tattoos and inspirational calligraphy it inspires – has been meaningful for a lot of Hanson fans, including me: “This music is a place to hide”. I remember listening to the song while travelling on a bus the day before I found out my degree result. I sat there, face pressed against the cold glass, gazing out towards the North Sea and the future, the wheels rumbling along beneath my seat. I knew that whatever happened next, I’d have that song – and all the others – to go to whenever I needed them. The music of the Hanson brothers has been “a place to hide”, a comfort and an encouragement, for many of us over the years. In this defining moment, it is my sincere hope that they choose to come out from behind the music and start to embrace the brave new world we find ourselves in, in all its fullness.