Radio Hits One: fun.'s "We Are Young" Brings Indie Pop To The Super Bowl And The Hot 100
When last week's Hot 100 hit on Thursday morning, I tweeted the news about "We Are Young" along with my snarky addendum: "Enjoy your new, even worse 'Pumped Up Kicks,' America." And more and more, I wonder if Foster The People really were the tipping point for, if not indie pop in general, than at least mainstream acceptance of a certain strain of indie vocals: the naïve, chirpy male singing style pioneered by The Flaming Lips, Daniel Johnston and Gobo from "Fraggle Rock," as well as Foster's more immediate precursors MGMT. For decades, underground rock has set itself apart from the mainstream with defiantly offbeat, untrained, or not especially tuneful vocal styles, safe in the knowledge that top 40 listeners would never prefer Lou Reed to Barry Gibb or Stephen Malkmus to Mariah Carey. fun. frontman Nate Ruess's voice is blood-curdlingly unpleasant to me, but I acknowledge that it's a bit more on the accessible side of this spectrum while being the kind of vocal I wouldn't have easily pictured on a major chart hit five or ten years ago.
But then, a lot has changed in the last decade in regards to indie and other niche genres enjoying fluke chart hits. The two biggest changes go hand in hand: advertising and iTunes. Music history is rife with songs popularized by ads, but it's only been since the late '90s, when Moby's Play became a multiplatinum blockbuster in large part thanks to every single track on the album being licensed for commercials, that advertising has become a lucrative and well-known avenue of exposure for indie and alternative labels. The arrival of the iTunes Store, which unbundled the album and in doing so democratized the singles charts, meant that the moment you hear a song that grabs your ear, you could look it up and buy it from the comfort of your own laptop. When a lot of people are hearing the catchiest 30 seconds of a catchy song on the same national TV spot at once, the flurry of clicks that ensues can send that artist up the Hot 100. Appropriately, Apple itself was one of the companies that demonstrated the most savvy in picking songs by relative unknowns and turning them into charting singles: The Ceasars, Jet, the Ting Tings, and several others enjoyed Hot 100 breakthroughs thanks to iTunes and iPod ads. In 2007, indie queen Feist got all the way to No. 8 with "1234" thanks to Apple, and the next year the previously unknown Yael Naim's "New Soul" got to No. 7.
In 2008, M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes," then already a year old, became a sudden chart hit after being featured prominently in ads for the movie Pineapple Express; it eventually became a multi-format radio staple and peaked at No. 4 on the Hot 100, years after the Sri Lankan firebrand had been written off as a critical darling who'd never break though to the mainstream. When "We Are Young" hit No. 3 last week, it didn't just stealing the post-Super Bowl spotlight from Madonna collaborator M.I.A.; it usurped her signature song's role as arguably the biggest ad-driven chart hit in recent memory.
When Owl City's "Fireflies" rose to the top of the Hot 100 in late 2009, the music blogosphere snickered and griped for months about the fact that a heretofore unknown synthpop act had attained crossover success with music and vocals that so closely resembled The Postal Service. That electronic side project of Death Cab For Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard had been one of indie's biggest success stories of the decade; its sole 2003 album Give Up gradually reached gold sales certification two years after its release (only the second gold album in famed indie label Sub Pop's long history after Nirvana's Bleach, which experienced a major post-Nevermind sales boost). And here was some Christian pop act blowing up on MySpace and becoming ubiquitous on pop radio with some suspiciously Gibbardian gibbering. At the time, I found myself posing a loaded question to friends and colleagues at the time: did "Fireflies" feature the most "indie" vocals ever on a No. 1 hit? I still say yes, but if "We Are Young" rises just a couple more spots, there'll be a new answer to that question.