Published on March 13th, 2012 | by Hunter Schwarz0
“We Are Young” Reaches No. 1: Does A New Blockbuster Smash Mean Rock Is Back?
This week, fun. becomes the first rock band in more than a decade to take their debut charting single to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 as “We Are Young” feat. Janelle Monae moves from No. 3 to No. 1. The chart topper marks a major Hot 100 milestone, but could it be a possible turning point in the trajectory of the charts?
Before fun. was fun., they were Fun (a Scandanavian band that went by the same name asked them to change theirs, so they added a period and made the ‘F’ lowercase). And before they were Fun, they were The Format. Well, at least lead singer Nate Ruess was.
The two albums that defined my high school years in Gilbert, Ariz. in the mid-00s were The Format’s Lullabies and Interventions and Jimmy Eat World’s Bleed American. Both bands were from Arizona, and both bands were like The Beatles to us — their songs an inescapable soundtrack to our youth.
While we were rocking out to “The First Single” and “The Middle” in the Grand Canyon State, the rest of the country was infatuated with hip-hop and rap. In the four years I was in high school, a single rock song topped the Billboard Hot 100: Nickleback’s “How You Remind Me” in 2001.
Hip-hop and rap’s dominance lasted up until Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl,” the No. 1 song the day I graduated in 2005. The track was produced by N.E.R.D.’s Pharell Williams, so it did have some hip-hop credentials, but it was a breakthrough for a female pop artist that led to a loosening of hip-hop’s grip on the airwaves and the charts.
By 2006, several other pop artists managed to score No. 1 hits working with hip-hop producers, co-billing with rappers or artists with more of an urban appeal (Rihanna’s “SOS,” Justin Timberlake’s “My Love” feat. T.I. and Shakira’s “Hips Don’t Lie” feat. Wyclef Jean all topped the chart that year). But by decade’s end, unapologetic electro-pop hits by Lady Gaga and Britney Spears were ruling the charts.
The transformation of the Hot 100 was evident last year as the only rap song to go No. 1 was Wiz Khalifa’s “Black and Yellow.” And yes, Kanye West had a No. 1, but he got it by hitching a ride with Katy Perry on “E.T.”
Although pop has made a comeback from its ’00s slump, rock hasn’t done as well. But maybe “We Are Young” represents a turning point. Maybe “We Are Young” means to 2011 what “Hollaback Girl” meant to 2005.
Since Nickelback’s “How You Remind Me” went No. 1 in 2001, four other songs by rock bands have topped the charts: Plain White T’s “Hey There Delilah” and Maroon 5’s “Makes Me Wonder” in 2007, Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida” in 2008 and Maroon 5’s “Moves Like Jagger” feat. Christina Aguilera in 2011. It’s not the kind of rock Dave Grohl makes in his garage, but it’s something.
So why didn’t any of those songs kick off rock’s comeback and what makes me so sure “We Are Young” will? I don’t know the answers to those questions, but I do know rock (or maybe we should dust off the ‘90s catch-all word “alternative”) is looking stronger than it has in years. Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know” feat. Kimbra enters the top 10 this week at No. 9, and last year, Foster the People’s “Pumped Up Kicks” reached as high as No. 3. A rock/alternative/indie song can be a hit, but the people just have to hear it.
“We Are Young” gained an audience thanks to Glee and the Super Bowl. The Glee cover of the track reached No. 12 in December (the first song the show “broke”), but the single took off after it soundtracked the Chevy Sonic ad during the big game (meanwhile, Madonna’s “Give Me All Your Luvin’” feat. M.I.A. and Nicki Minaj that was performed during the halftime show languishes at No. 86).
While fun. is indebted to Glee and Chevy, it could also be that they just took cues from Gwen Stefani.
Stefani teamed up with hip-hop producers like Pharell Williams, Dr. Dre and Andre 3000 for her album Love. Angel. Music. Baby. and similarly, fun.’s album Some Nights was produced by Jeff Bhasker, a man who also worked with Jay-Z, Kanye West, Drake, Kid Cudi and Beyonce. The 808s & Heartbreak-styled autotune and vaguely hip-hop beats were intentional.
Of course, for “We Are Young” to represent a true turning point in rock band’s chart fates, we need more hits. Way down at No. 89 this week sits the title track from fun.’s sophomore album. Who knows, maybe they can go two-for-two. ♦ ♦ ♦
Hunter Schwarz is a senior at BYU studying journalism. He is the editor of the Student Review, an off-campus alternative newspaper in Provo, UT. You can follow on Twitter at @hunterschwarz.