"It really felt like a scene out of 'That Thing You Do!'"
Billboard is celebrating the 2010s with essays on the 100 songs that we feel most define the decade that was -- the songs that both shaped and reflected the music and culture of the period -- with help telling their stories from some of the artists, behind-the-scenes collaborators and industry insiders involved.
When Fun. debuted “We Are Young” at Coachella in 2011, the audience didn’t know what to make of it.
“I remember thinking, ‘This is going to be massive and everybody's going to freak out,” says Andrew Dost, former keyboardist for the New York-based pop/rock trio. “But then everyone didn't even know when to nod their heads. Those early days of playing it, [I was] thinking, ‘This is actually kind of a weird song.’”
Dost was right; “We Are Young” was a little strange. It shirks the traditional pop framework, plunging headlong off the tempo grid just as it enters its methodical, nostalgia-laden chorus. The synthetic drums still boom, but for a song that sings “Let’s set the world on fire,” it’s certainly a slow burn.
It was an oddity for Fun., too. The group that formed in 2008 after the fizzling of their respective indie-rock bands -- Nate Ruess’ The Format, Jack Antonoff’s Steel Train and Dost’s Anathallo -- was, to this point, largely a Pet Sounds-adjacent chamber-pop outfit. Fun received critical praise but only moderate commercial success for its 2009 debut LP, Aim and Ignite, which reached only No. 71 on the Billboard 200 albums chart. They’d never written anything even remotely resembling “We Are Young.”
Dost says the soon-to-be smash was, at first, just another tune floating in the band’s ether, with digital files being passed across the trio from their homes across the country. Dost had penned the traipsing piano bed and Ruess wrote the soon-to-be-iconic hook, but it wasn’t until Ruess met with renowned hip-hop producer Jeff Bhasker (Kanye West, Jay-Z) that the song gained its potency, adding a feature from Janelle Monáe and plotting one of the decade’s most memorable indie crossovers. "I thought this was the perfect time to try something different," Ruess noted in a 2012 Billboard cover story.
But “We Are Young” almost never happened for Fun. Kanye loved Bhasker’s hypnotic beat and nearly included his and Jay-Z’s own version on 2011’s Watch the Throne. Ultimately, Kanye and Jay decided to drop the song and it was back in Fun’s lap, poised to change their lives forever.
The addictive cut entered the Hot 100 chart at No. 53 on Dec. 6, 2011 and continued to climb courtesy of a high-profile appearance on Glee, a bonafide pop tastemaker in the early ‘10s. But it was the priceless visibility of appearing in a Chevrolet commercial during Super Bowl XLVI that really launched “We Are Young” into the mainstream -- a month later, it climbed to No. 1 on the Hot 100, staying there for six weeks.
The ascension of “Young” to the top spot of the Hot 100 spurring an epic 23-week run of mainstream newcomers dominating the chart; Gotye’s slinky “Somebody That I Used To Know” and Carly Rae Jepsen’s bubblegum banger “Call Me Maybe” would claim the next 17 weeks. It was a run that demonstrated how rapid and wide-reaching viral popularity could be at the height of the iTunes era in the early ‘10s, when a well-placed sync and/or a valuable co-sign could result in a relatively left-field pop song exploding from a curiosity to a phenomenon practically overnight.
The immense success of “Young” -- which also included a song of the year win at the 2013 Grammy Awards, where the band also won best new artist -- came as an understandable shock to the members of Fun. “It really felt like a scene out of That Thing You Do! where they're just seeing their song climb the charts,” Dost remembers. “It just was incredible.”
“We Are Young” also exemplified how hip-hop producers would become the backbone of the 2010s’ pop songbook, thumping up tunes for everyone from Beyonce and Ariana Grande to Ed Sheeran and Justin Bieber. “With [Bhasker], there was a gravity that he brought to ‘We Are Young’ that I don't think the three of us were capable of doing at the time,” Dost says. “He added a size and a depth to it that we were just learning how to do.”
Despite the song’s enormous success -- as well as that of parent album Some Nights, and its top 5 hit title track -- Fun. chose not to release a follow-up and announced an indefinite hiatus in 2015. “We would've been trying to recapture something that we had already seen the logical conclusion of,” Dost says. “You can't make ‘We Are Young’ part two.”