The Number Ones

March 17, 2012

The Number Ones: Fun.’s “We Are Young” (Feat. Janelle Monaé)

Stayed at #1:

6 Weeks

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present. Book Bonus Beat: The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal the History of Pop Music.

It was a sunny afternoon in the spring of 2012, and my wife and I were driving somewhere. Our daughter Clara, probably two but about to turn three, was strapped into her car seat in the back. “We Are Young” was on the radio. This wasn’t new. Around then, “We Are Young” was always on the radio, and my wife and I were always happy to encounter it. We usually sang along. We were singing along this time, but the song sounded a little different — weirder, higher-pitched. I checked the rearview mirror, and sure enough, Clara was bellowing along to “We Are Young” — big smile, shouting with all her might.

Clara always liked music. The first time she ever laughed, it was because my wife and I were singing INXS to her. (She thought this was hilarious.) She had songs that always chilled her out. For about two years — swear to God — she couldn’t fall asleep unless the first Lower Dens album was playing. But this was the first time I’d ever heard Clara singing along with a song on the radio, and she was going for it. That image, I am happy to say, will never leave my mind. I’ll always remember the way the light looked that day, the exact corner we were on, the expression on her face in the rearview. And anyway, Clara wasn’t lying. She really was young.

Fun.’s “We Are Young” didn’t sound much like the other #1 hits of the early ’10s, and its success led a whole lot of prognosticators to make big pronouncements. Fun. were the first rock band with a #1 hit since Nickelback! That was one that I saw lots of times. But Fun. and Nickelback don’t really belong in the same category. “We Are Young” has guitars, but they’re less prominent than its sheets of synth and its programmed drums. The song’s surging bombast is one thing that it had in common with the giant dance-pop hits of its day. It caught on thanks to a Glee episode, a Super Bowl commercial, and the growth of a certain kind of festival-friendly music that didn’t fit under any particular genre umbrella. Mostly, though, “We Are Young” blew up because it has the kind of chorus that could make a two-year-old sing along.

Fun. didn’t get their start in that traditional rock-band way. They weren’t bored teenagers in a garage somewhere. Instead, the band’s three members were all career musicians who’d come up through the MySpace-emo ecosystem and whose other bands had all broken up. They came from different places, and they joined forces as a way to keep their careers going. They moved to New York, made industry connections, and eventually came up with a big motherfucker of a hit.

Fun. lead singer Nate Ruess got started out as the teenage leader of the Format, an Arizona pop-punk band who moved on to something closer to full-on pop. (When Ruess was born, the J. Geils Band’s “Centerfold” was the #1 song in America.) The Format released two albums — one on a major label — and broke up in 2008. Ruess was friendly with Jack Antonoff, a New Jersey musician whose band Steel Train was signed to the big emo label Drive-Thru but whose music had more of a soaring, Springsteenian flair than most of their peers. (Kenny Loggins’ “Footloose” was the #1 song in America when Antonoff was born. I usually only do the birthday thing for people who sing lead on #1 hits, but Antonoff will become such an important recurring character in this column that he deserves that treatment, too.)

Steel Train were a pretty popular band — popular enough to play Bonnaroo and Coachella and Conan, anyway — and they kept going for a little while after Antonoff teamed up with Ruess to form Fun. The third Fun. member was Andrew Dost, keyboardist and multi-instrumentalist for the relatively abstract Chicago band Anathallo. Ruess knew Antonoff and Dost from the touring circuit, and he proposed that they form a new group. Ruess has a huge voice and a gift for soaring Broadway-style melodies, and his idea was that he’d come up with vocal melodies while the other guys handled the music. (The band stylized their name as “fun.” I’m willing to grant them the period, but the all-lowercase thing is too much for me.) Fun. recorded their 2009 debut album Aim And Ignite with Redd Kross’ Steven McDonald producing, and it’s all giddy, maximal go-for-broke melodic grandeur. These guys wanted to be huge.

It didn’t happen right away. Fun. toured as openers for other post-emo maximalists like Manchester Orchestra, Hellogoodbye, and Paramore. The MySpace dramatists Panic! At The Disco were probably the band who Fun. most wanted to emulate. Fun. toured with them, too, and they also teamed up with that band on the 2011 one-off single “C’Mon.” (Panic! At The Disco’s highest-charting single, 2018’s “High Hopes,” peaked at #4. It’s a 2. Main Panic! At The Disco guy Brendon Urie also guested on Taylor Swift’s “Me!,” which peaked at #2 in 2019. It’s a 3.) Aim And Ignite did decent numbers for an independent band’s debut, but that wasn’t good enough for Fun. They wanted to be a whole lot bigger than that.

In 2010, Fun. signed to Fueled By Ramen, the Atlantic subsidiary that had already launched huge emo-leaning bands like Fall Out Boy, Paramore, and (yup) Panic! At The Disco. Fun. were interested in going more fully pop on their next album, and they kept seeing a name in the credits of the pop records that they liked: Jeff Bhasker, a Kansas City native who’d gotten his big break as the musical director on Kanye West’s Glow In The Dark tour. Bhasker was working on huge records for people like Kanye, Drake, and Beyoncé. (His work will appear in this column again.) Ruess didn’t know that one of his own bandmates would soon be an even bigger pop producer than Jeff Bhasker. In retrospect, Bhasker was probably too busy to work with a small-time band like Fun. Nate Ruess kept trying to set up meetings with Bhasker, and Bhasker kept cancelling them. Finally, Ruess got 10 minutes with Bhasker at a New York hotel bar. He made them count.

Nate Ruess hadn’t finished writing “We Are Young” yet, but he was buzzed and slightly nervous, and he had to pitch Jeff Bhasker on something. Ruess has said that he came up with the “We Are Young” chorus while driving into Manhattan for that meeting, and he sang it for Bhasker on the spot. Bhasker lost his mind. The next day, Bhasker and Ruess recorded an early version of “We Are Young,” and while they were at the studio, Alicia Keys and Swizz Beatz also heard the chorus and freaked out. A day after that, Bhasker brought Ruess to meet Kanye West, and “We Are Young” almost ended up on Kanye and Jay-Z’s Watch The Throne album.

On my friend Damian Abraham’s Turned Out A Punk podcast in 2021, Ruess said, “[‘We Are Young’] was on Watch The Throne until we had a dispute about publishing… I didn’t have a dollar to my name, so I was like ‘Give the fucking song to Jay-Z and fucking Kanye! I don’t care if they want to just give me, like, five percent.’ Everybody was like, ‘No, the song’s going to be a fucking hit. Don’t let them have the song.'” I cannot imagine how any combination of the “We Are Young” beat and chorus would’ve sounded on Watch The Throne. I try to visualize it, and my brain just gives me white-noise fuzz. Anyway, it didn’t happen. Fun. kept “We Are Young,” and Jeff Bhasker produced their whole sophomore album Some Nights.

Jeff Bhasker shares songwriting credit on “We Are Young” with all three members of Fun. On the final recording, Jack Antonoff plays bass and guitar, and Andrew Dost plays piano. Jeff Bhasker plays piano, too, as well as a bunch of different keyboards and samplers. As far as I can tell, there are no real drums on the song. The members of Fun. have credited Bhasker with helping them strip away excess ideas, turning Some Nights into something sleeker and more direct. Some Nights still sounds plenty huge and maximal to me, but working with Bhasker, the band definitely evaded any remaining associations with emo. Instead, they found a kind of twinkling digital grandeur that’s hard to describe. They don’t sound like musicians playing in a room together. The record is all these waves of sound — pianos, drum machines, samples, choirs, strings, bloops, bleeps, cascading booms — all put in service of Nate Ruess’ flailing, majestic yelps.

Queen comparisons always come up when people describe Fun. Bhasker mentioned the band when he talked about his reaction to the “We Are Young” demo, which means that Bhasker was the first among many to draw that connection. I can definitely understand why people reach for that comparison; the world isn’t exactly full of operatic, histrionic, truly gifted rock wailers. To me, Ruess sounds a little more like a high-school drama kid who’s trying to become Freddie Mercury, but I say that with admiration. I guess that’s probably what Freddie Mercury once was, too.

When people would say that Fun. were the first rock band since Nickelback with a #1 hit, I had a hard time with that. Fun. were more of a rock band than, say, Maroon 5; that’s fair to say. But were they more of a rock band than Plain White T’s? Owl City? I don’t know. The distinctions are a little meaningless, anyway. The success of “We Are Young,” at least to me, feels more like a culmination of the kind of anthemic, digital, festival-ready indie-pop that built steadily for a half-decade or so — a line that runs through first-album MGMT, Miike Snow, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart-era Phoenix. In 2011, Foster The People made it to #3 with “Pumped Up Kicks.” (It’s a 6.) “We Are Young” feels like the next step after that. Fun. were more dramatic — that’s the Panic! At The Disco thing — put they were playing with similar combinations of sound.

I’ve been blathering on about the “We Are Young” phenomenon, but I haven’t said that much about the song itself. Here’s what I think about the song: It’s good! It takes big swings, and those swings connect! The thing that immediately grabbed everyone was that chorus, and it really is a world-beater. It jumps right out of the speakers — Ruess with a whole children’s choir behind him, wailing, “Toniiiiiight! We are youuuung! So let’s set the world on fiiiire! We can burn briiighter! Than the suuuuuun!” As soon as Ruess starts howling at the sky, the drums get a whole lot louder, and the keyboards blare away along with him. It’s a readymade fists-up drunken-singalong moment, and it’s a blast.

Within the context of the song, the “We Are Young” chorus needs to be a fists-up drunken-singalong moment because that’s the only thing that’s allowing the narrator to keep his shit together. This is one of those songs that sounds like an anthem of positive affirmation until you actually listen to the lyrics — one of those reliable old tricks that rock bands love to pull. “We Are Young” is not a love song, but it fits right in with all those sardonic pretend love songs that are really about creepy behavior.

Ruess starts off like this: “Give me a second, I/ I need to get my story straight/ My friends are in the bathroom getting higher than the Empire State.” That’s some good scene-setting. Ruess’ narrator is in a bar where everyone is fucked up, and he’s falling apart. Someone is asking a girl about a scar, and he gave it to her months ago. Was it an accident? Was it abuse? We never find out. We know he feels terrible about it, and we know he’s also petrified of losing this person. He can’t say anything to make things better. So these people, who might be terrible for each other, just get drunk and high enough to make it seem OK. Ruess’ only real promise is that he’ll carry a passed-out girl home from the bar. That’s not romance. That’s enabling. The people in this room are all giving each other license to annihilate themselves. I’ve been there. It wasn’t healthy, but I miss it. The euphoria of the chorus isn’t an illusion. It’s a way of coping.

So here we’re sitting with this frantically fragile, possibly-violent guy as he’s getting drunk enough to tolerate himself and his actions. That’s not necessarily a fun place to be, and Ruess sells it, really sounding like he’s falling apart. But the majesty of the chorus and the echoing synthetic production are charged with the kind of adrenaline that can make it all sound like a good time. That’s a neat trick. And somewhere in there, there’s Janelle Monaé, bringing a sudden and shocking serenity, instructing us to carry her home tonight.

The members of Fun. didn’t know Janelle Monaé, but Jeff Bhasker did, and he sent her the song. Bhasker later claimed that the members of Fun. wanted to get Rihanna to sing the song’s bridge. (See? Ambitious.) That didn’t happen, but when Monaé heard the track, she knew that it would reach a lot of people. When she agreed to sing on it, she got a feature credit on an actual hit — the only time, at least thus far, that that’s ever happened.

Janelle Monaé is an extremely famous maker of music, but she’s not a pop star, at least in the Hot 100 sense. Monaé comes from a working-class Kansas City family, and she grew up singing in church. (When Monaé was born, Phil Collins and Marilyn Martin’s “Separate Lives” was the #1 song in America.) She got really into theater in high school, and she went off to study at the American Musical And Dramatic Academy of New York. She didn’t last there for long. Instead, she moved to Atlanta, enrolled in a different college, and started recording demos. Big Boi, one half of OutKast, heard those demos and included Monaé on a couple of tracks from his 2005 Purple Ribbon All-Stars compilation, and that led to the now-disgraced Sean “Diddy” Combs signing Monaé to Bad Boy.

Janelle Monaé was a weird fit for Bad Boy. She wasn’t a standard R&B singer. Instead, she was a big-concept type. For the longest time, she wore the same androgynous uniform every time she performed — black suit, white shirt, bolo tie, pompadour. Her records were all about post-human futures. She started up an Atlanta collective called Wondaland, and she became close with Georgia art-pop weirdos of Montreal. When I saw of Montreal at Lollapalooza in 2011, Monaé came out to sing David Bowie’s “Moonage Daydream” with them and hit an unbelievably clean moonwalk. Her presence was electric.

Janelle Monaé quickly built up a cult audience and won a lot of critics over. The Grammy nominations started arriving quickly. Her talent and creativity were undeniable, but her early records didn’t get anywhere near the pop or R&B charts. She was too weird. Honestly, Monaé is barely on “We Are Young.” All she gets is a five-word refrain, repeated a few times. But her presence is still vital. She’s the counterbalance to Nate Ruess’ anguished self-laceration, the force of calm in the middle of the chaos. In the video, walking toward the camera in extreme slow-motion, she looks cool as hell.

The success of “We Are Young” didn’t really affect Janelle Monaé’s trajectory. She kept making music and started racking up Grammy nominations. (She’s up for Album Of The Year — a category crammed with people who have worked with Jack Antonoff — right now.) She’s also found success as an actor. Unless you count her voice role in the 2014 cartoon Rio 2, she made a grand cinematic debut with two huge prestige pictures in 2016. Monaé played prominent roles in two phenomenally succesful movies, Moonlight and Hidden Pictures, that were both nominated for Best Picture. Moonlight won. Monaé has had some misses since then, but I really liked her in the Knives Out sequel Glass Onion last year. She’s probably more famous as an actor than as a singer, and she’s only made small dents in the Hot 100 since “We Are Young.” (Her highest-charting lead-artist single, the 2015 Jidenna collab “Yoga,” peaked at #75.)

We should talk about the “We Are Young” video. Director Marc Klasfeld, a music-video veteran, starts the clip with Fun. — the three main guys and their touring-band accomplices — in formalwear, looking uncomfortable onstage. Then there’s a product-placement moment — a girl, in extreme slow-motion, texting the word “now” and then throwing her phone. (It’s fashion designer Rachel Antonoff, Jack’s sister, who was dating Nate Ruess at the time.) All of a sudden, some guy smashes a bottle over her head, and I don’t know what to do with that. Maybe the song and the video both aestheticize violence against women, or maybe I’m just reading too much into absurdity. The rest of the video plays out in slo-mo, as the bar breaks out into a titanic, surreal brawl. The members of Fun. keep playing, even as things literally explode around them. For the most part, it’s an attractive form of bedlam — the kind of inexplicable, cinematically arresting spectacle that’s really only possible in music-video form.

But the video wasn’t the reason that “We Are Young” blew up. That took time. A full year before “We Are Young” reached #1, Fun. performed the song at Coachella. The single came out in September 2011, and it caught on a few months later for a very specific reason. Before the song was out, Fueled By Ramen boss John Janick handed a CDR over to the music supervisors of Glee. They insisted that the kids on the show only sang songs that were already huge, and then they listened to “We Are Young” and changed their minds. On a December episode, the Glee cast covered “We Are Young.” Almost immediately, the Fun. original and the Glee cast versions of the song burst onto the Hot 100. (The Glee cast’s cover of “We Are Young” peaked at #49. Their highest-charting single, their 2009 take on “Don’t Stop Believin’,” peaked at #4. It’s a 3.)

A month later, “We Are Young” got another big boost when it soundtracked a Super Bowl commercial — stunt drivers doing insane things in Chevy Sonics. Those media syncs drove up the song’s download numbers, and radio finally got on board. In March, all that attention finally pushed “We Are Young” to #1 — a slow-building phenomenon that served as an early warning that the Dr. Luke dance-pop formula was wearing thin, that people were ready to hear different things. In the weeks ahead, we’ll see more evidence of that surge of interest in that kind of neo-new-wave alterna-pop.

The “We Are Young” single eventually went diamond, and Fun.’s album went triple platinum. The band followed “We Are Young” with “Some Nights,” their LP’s title track. That song sounds even bigger and bolder than “We Are Young.” I think it’s better, too, and it went all the way to #3. (It’s a 9.) Third single “Carry On,” another good one, peaked at #20. Fun. haven’t been back on the Hot 100 since. That’s mostly because Fun. haven’t come out with any more music.

At the 2013 Grammys, Fun. performed “Some Nights” in a fake onstage downpour. “We Are Young” won Song Of The Year, and Fun. took home the trophy for Best New Artist, beating out the Lumineers, Hunter Hayes, Alabama Shakes, and (oh boy) Frank Ocean. Soon afterward, Fun. started working on their next album, but it never came out — at least not under the Fun. name. In 2015, the band announced an indefinite hiatus. That hiatus remains unbroken. The members of Fun. have worked with each other on a few projects, but Fun. haven’t played a live show since September 2014. In 2017, Jack Antonoff told The New York Times, “I remember immediately — immediately — feeling like, ‘I don’t want to play “We Are Young” when I’m 35. I don’t want to be defined by this.'”

Jack Antonoff, as you are probably aware, quickly became a mega-successful pop producer. These days, he might as well be Max Martin in 2011. In that capacity, Antonoff will appear in this column many times. At this point, given all of Antonoff’s success, I would be shocked if Fun. ever got back together. Antonoff also started Bleachers, a new band of his own, in 2014. They don’t sound much like Fun., and I was slightly surprised to learn that they haven’t landed a Hot 100 hit yet. Andrew Dost scored an indie film called The D Train in 2015; I don’t really know what he’s up to now.

The songs that were supposed to appear on Fun.’s third album landed instead on Nate Ruess’ first — and, thus far, only — solo LP, 2015’s Grand Romantic. That album wasn’t a huge commercial success, and “Nothing Without Love,” its big first single, peaked at #77. As lead artist, Ruess hasn’t been back on the Hot 100 since then. But the world wasn’t sick of Ruess’ monumentally wounded howl. As a guest, Ruess will appear in this column again.

My daughter still sings along with “We Are Young” in the car, by the way. So does my son, and he wasn’t quite born yet when the song reached #1. We’ve got a tradition: Whenever we’re getting back from a road trip, we try to time it so that “We Are Young” is the last song that we play. I am categorically not young, but in those moments, I sing along, too.

GRADE: 8/10

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BONUS BEATS: Here’s “We Are Young” soundtracking a montage on the 2012 season finale of Gossip Girl:

(Leighton Meester reached #7 as a guest on Fueled By Ramen act Cobra Starship’s 2009 single “Good Girls Go Bad.” It’s a 3. XOXO.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Kelly Clarkson, someone who’s been in this column multiple times, singing a stirring version of “We Are Young” at Wembley Arena in 2012:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: I had to really scour the internet for this one, and I couldn’t find the original, but it’s something that you need to see. Here’s a wonderfully unpredictable 2022 TikTok video that’s built around “We Are Young”:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s teenage New York rapper Sugarhill Ddot turning “We Are Young” into a furious 2022 drill anthem:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Travis Scott leading a “We Are Young” nightclub singalong earlier this year:


Replying to @Simer Sandhu Travis Scott singing We Are Young at the Utopia After Party in Rome #utopia #afterparty #travis #travisscott #travisscottconcert #utopiaitaly #utopiaroma

♬ original sound – Saint Léon

(Travis Scott will appear in this column a bunch of times.)

THE 10S: Drake and Rihanna’s sleek, wounded duet “Take Care,” brilliantly built around a throbbing Jamie xx remix of a Gil Scott-Heron track, peaked at #7 behind “We Are Young.” If you let me, here’s what I’ll do: I’ll tell you it’s a 10:

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out now on paperback via Hachette Books. Buy the book here and carry it home tonight.

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