Radio Hits One: fun.'s "We Are Young" Brings Indie Pop To The Super Bowl And The Hot 100

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Lindsey Byrnes
Last week Billboard published the Hot 100 chart covering the post-Super Bowl week, and unsurprisingly the most notable leap on the chart was made by a song featured on the telecast. The surprise was that it wasn't "Give Me All Your Luvin'," Madonna's new single, performed during her halftime show performance with the help of some controversial hand gestures from critical darling M.I.A. Instead, "We Are Young" by the New York-based band fun. (with the help of Pazz & Jop-beloved Janelle Monáe) rocketed up 38 spots to No. 3 on the Hot 100 after being featured in a Super Bowl commercial for the Chevy Sonic. (Madge's latest settled for a piddling No. 10 in its second week on the charts.)

Since being released in September, "We Are Young," the lead single from the band's new album Some Nights, has seen a steady rise in profile. Its Hot 100 peak comes primarily from sales—the song topped the Digital Sales chart with nearly 300,000 units sold—but it had already sold more units that that before the Super Bowl ad aired. So far, it's only made airplay waves on rock radio, rising to a new peak of No. 6 on the Alternative Songs chart last week. But it's hard to imagine that the song won't quickly cross over to pop radio in the same way as Foster The People's "Pumped Up Kicks," which peaked at No. 3 last year.

"We Are Young" topped the Digital Songs chart once last year, in early December. But the version was by the Glee cast; the song was featured in an episode of Glee in early December, a few weeks after the single's release. Like many covers from the FOX cash cow, the Glee cast recording of "We Are Young" hit No. 1 on iTunes, helping it reach No. 12 on the Hot 100.

Even before "We Are Young" raced up the charts last week, I had a creeping feeling that it would be one of 2012's ubiquitous songs. The Chevy Sonic ad has blanketed the airwaves since its Super Bowl premiere, and if you haven't heard it yet, I'm sure you will in a matter of days. The first time I saw its video last year, I initially only stopped channelsurfing to try and find Monáe, who lent anonymous backing vocals on the song's bridge and got a few seconds of screentime in the video. Soon enough, though, the song's shrill, nasal vocal and feelgood platitudes about setting the world on fire and shining brighter than the sun had lodged themselves permanently in my brain. If the song doesn't rise to No. 1 this week, look for "We Are Young" to fully saturate pop culture around May, when it inevitably becomes the biggest commencement song since Vitamin C's ghastly "Graduation (Friends Forever)."

I think of fun. as an "indie pop" band, and to be clear, that's an aesthetic distinction; they're signed to a subsidiary of Warner Music Group. But the particular subsidiary is Fueled By Ramen, which started out in 1996 as a tiny Florida pop-punk label, before going corporate and helping to bring about emo's mainstream crossover in the mid-2000's. "We Are Young" is the ninth top 10 hit released by Fueled By Ramen since 2005, following hits by Fall Out Boy, Panic! At The Disco, rapper Travie McCoy and his group Gym Class Heroes, and Cobra Starship (the platinum Paramore has also notched a handful of top 40 hits, not counting frontwoman Hayley Williams's guest appearance on B.o.B's top 10 smash "Airplanes"). And the label is on a roll: "We Are Young" is the third of those hits just in the past six months, following Cobra Starship's "You Make Me Feel" and Gym Class Heroes' Adam Levine-assisted "Stereo Hearts." GCH's followup "Ass Back Home," at No. 12 right now, may soon continue the top 10 streak.

Prior to "We Are Young," all of FBR's top 10 groups spun off from its Pete Wentz-foundd Decaydance imprint, and the bands' aesthetics leaned more toward emo or punk/pop than indie (sometimes modified into the emo rap of Gym Class Heroes of the emo dance pop of Cobra Starship). fun., which features former members of The Format, lands squarely on the indie side of things (although the band does share in the Decaydance tradition of mixing genres and flirting with the urban mainstream, both with R&B singer Monáe's guest spot and with Kanye helper Jeff Bhasker producing "We Are Young").

"Indie pop" is perhaps an even more nebulous term than "indie rock" or just plain "indie," but I feel like that particular strain of collegiate underground American music—which in the States encompassed bands like the Apples in Stereo, Velocity Girl, and Tullycraft, as well as labels like K and Slumberland—may be experiencing something of a commercial watershed moment. Fifteen years after trailblazers like the Elephant 6 collective helped reclaim the once-painfully unhip Beach Boys as a musical touchstone, indie pop crossover poster boys Foster The People shared the stage with Brian Wilson and Mike Love at the Grammys. That same week, "We Are Young" flew up the Hot 100.


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3 comments
Jim Testa
Jim Testa

I'm hoping for an April Smith boom from that Lowe's paint commercial.

Chris Molanphy
Chris Molanphy

There's one other track you could add to both the (a) stole Madge's thunder from the Superbowl meme; and (b) owes her success to a commercial theme: Kelly Clarkson. "Stronger" is no longer No. 1 (Katy Perry took over this week...fun. is also not quite there yet) but the whole reason Kelly topped the Hot 100 this time was the car ad in which she sang the song, plus a likely boost from her Anthem performance at the big game.

Al Shipley
Al Shipley

True, but for the purposes of this column I was more interested in how ads can launch the chart careers of unknown or cult/indie artists. The effect ads have on new songs by established artists is a little more nebulous, like I wouldn't credit the iTunes commercial for making U2's "Vertigo" a hit, because while I'm sure it helped, we're still talking about U2 (or, for that matter, Kelly Clarkson).

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