Illustration by Laura Lannes
Welcome to New Retro Week, a celebration of the biggest artists, hits, and cultural moments that made 2012 a seminal year in pop. MTV News is looking back to see what lies ahead: These essays showcase how today’s blueprint was laid a decade ago. Step into our time machine.
It’s difficult to conjure up memories of 2012 without Fun’s Some Nights spinning in the background. The pop-rock group’s frenetic, theatrical sophomore album dropped like an atom bomb, with lead singles “We Are Young” and “Some Nights” immolating notions of what both genres could sound like blended together for a new decade.
It also catapulted the New York City-based trio — lead vocalist Nate Ruess, bassist and pianist Andrew Dost, and lead guitarist and drummer Jack Antonoff — to fame, scoring them six Grammy nominations and two wins. Each member has gone on to forge their own career, too, with Ruess releasing an album on his own and collaborating with the likes of Young Thug; Dost scoring a number of films and television shows; and Antonoff making a name for himself as both a successful solo act (Bleachers) and pop music’s most sought-after producer. He’s imbued Taylor Swift’s Folklore with its wistful, woodsy thrum, Lorde’s Melodrama with its dispirited spectacle, but it was the critical and commercial success of Some Nights that gave Antonoff legs on which to stand.
And it all started with an evocative, unforgettable chorus.
Despite Fun’s bombastic sound, the band had humble origins. Ruess’s previous outfit, The Format, disbanded in 2008, and the singer-songwriter reached out to Antonoff, who had previously fronted Steel Train, and Dost, who’d played percussion and sang backup vocals for Anathallo, to collaborate on what would eventually become Fun. The trio cut their teeth touring with Jack’s Mannequin in 2008. Their first album — the indie rock-leaning Aim and Ignite, full of lively, guitar-driven bops punctuated by the occasional trumpet or vocal crescendo — dropped the following year.
Although Fun’s debut didn’t reach mainstream audiences, it did capture the attention of Fueled by Ramen, the emo-centric record label behind pop-punk giants like Panic! At the Disco and Paramore. The trio signed with the label in August 2010. “It was kind of a weird one in terms of what Fueled by Ramen had done at that point,” Mike Easterlin, co-president of Elektra Music Group, Fueled by Ramen’s parent company, tells MTV News. They had a somewhat emo look — who could forget Antonoff’s thick-rimmed black glasses? — but the similarities stopped there. Between Ruess’s soaring voice and the band’s penchant for flamboyant instrumentals, their sound was more comparable to Queen than Fall Out Boy.
While ideating around their second album, Ruess, Dost, and Antonoff were inspired by hip-hop artists like Kanye West and Jay-Z. Ruess soon realized a single songwriter-producer was the common denominator: Jeff Bhasker, whose credits include everyone from Beyoncé to Taylor Swift. Ruess managed to score five minutes of Bhasker’s time while the producer was coming through New York in early 2011. Bhasker remembers that first meeting well, mostly because he thought nothing would come of it.
“I invited Nate up to my hotel room and played him some stuff,” he tells MTV News. “I said, ‘What are you working on?’ And he said, ‘Well, the other day in a cab, I was just writing this song.’” Ruess proceeded to belt the rousing hook to explosive lead single “We Are Young,” its lyrics and melody already fully formed. Bhasker felt like a slot machine hitting triple-sevens. “My eyes lit up, and I said, ‘We’re going to a studio tomorrow.’ And that’s exactly what we did.”
By the time Bhasker was on board, Fun had already written the bones of five songs, including Some Nights’s title track, a stirring cut with an existential bend, and “Carry On,” a piano-backed pop ballad about moving forward after a tragedy (“May your past be the sound / Of your feet upon the ground”). The writing and recording process moved quickly: With the help of co-producers Emile Haynie and Jake One, Some Nights dropped in February 2012, less than a year after Ruess’s fateful chat with Bhasker.
Around that time, Easterlin was in charge of radio promotion for Fueled by Ramen and Roadrunner Records, another EMG subsidiary. He says John Janick, the label’s former president, kept the album under wraps during the recording process. Easterlin himself didn’t hear “We Are Young” until it had already been placed in a Super Bowl commercial for Chevrolet. “I can’t say that radio quite got it, even with the commercial, until they started seeing the sales that happened off of it and the amount of downloads the song had,” he explains. “It just became almost undeniable, something people really couldn't ignore.”
“We Are Young” takes hold of you from the very first drumbeat. The song opens with lyrics that set a vivid scene, your lover waiting for you just across a hazy New York bar. Ruess’s dramatic vocals build to a simple yet anthemic chorus based around the three-word title. Bhasker likens Ruess’s talents to, who else, Freddie Mercury. It’s a lofty comparison, but Easterlin agrees. “No one had heard a voice from a man in a long time who could hit the notes he could, and it just jumped out. I think people were trying to figure out, who is that? What is this?”
“We Are Young”’s hook also boasts backing vocals from Janelle Monáe and a “really heavy, knocking hip-hop beat,” two factors Bhasker believes play a major role in its enduring popularity and cross-genre appeal. To date, “We Are Young” is Fun’s most streamed song on Spotify, with over 7 million plays. It also scored the band a Song of the Year Grammy in 2013.
Jeff Bhasker with Nate Ruess, Jack Antonoff, and Andrew Dost at the 2013 Grammys.
“If this is in HD, you can see our faces, and we are really not young,” Ruess quipped in his acceptance speech. It didn’t matter. Like other carpe-diem pop hits before it, “We Are Young”’s anthemic lyrics spoke to an overarching urge to “set the world on fire” and let loose, even if only for a night.
Although 2012 was a politically charged election year in the United States, it predated a number of destabilizing events in the years to come. Bhasker rattles off a few that left indelible marks on younger millennials and Gen-Zers: the opioid epidemic, the rise in mass shootings, and now the global COVID-19 pandemic. “Those generations don’t have a lot to look forward to, so their music is kind of numb and repressed,” he says. “But ‘Tonight we are young / We're going to set the world on fire’ — this music is very emotive and has an ultimate air of hopefulness even among the sadness.”
Fun have been on hiatus since 2015, yet the band’s impact is still felt. Some Nights was “definitely a game-changer” for stadium-sized pop-rock, Easterlin says. “You can point to lots of bands from the years on after that album that went in similar directions.” Fun’s boundary-pushing sound kickstarted a shift toward room-filling, chant-ready offerings from groups like Misterwives, Neon Trees, Grouplove, and Walk the Moon.
The album’s success is also a testament to each Fun member’s strengths as songwriters and recording artists. Today, record labels often pair younger or emerging signees with external songwriters and producers. That wasn’t the case 10 years ago, Easterlin explains. “Certainly with Some Nights, there were outside writers, but there were only a couple, and they were very much following the band’s lead.”
Antonoff in particular has become a prolific pop songwriter and producer, amassing a veritable cinematic universe of A-list collaborators. Still, a trained ear can easily identify an Antonoff-produced album. His trademark style harkens back to the characteristics that made Some Nights stand out sonically, marrying bold, ‘80s-inspired synths and playful percussion with spirited hooks. Fun’s success gave him proof of concept and allowed him to lean into his natural strengths.
“Jack has probably thrived in his ability to really engage with a lot of different people, which is ultimately why he was able to work with Taylor Swift or anybody like that,” Easterlin adds. “He could have been in awe of these people, but he's just such a confident guy in his ability and his way of being around people whether he knows them really well or not. I think that's what made Jack kind of unique to the band.”
Although Antonoff is arguably Fun’s most recognizable alum, Ruess has his moments. He has recorded with P!nk, possibly ghostwritten a song for Zedd and Hayley Williams, released his own solo album and even reunited The Format in early 2020. Bhasker calls him “one of my best friends.” They write together every Monday.
“It's such a segregated world between indie rock and hip-hop and R&B,” Bhasker adds. “[‘We Are Young'] in particular, I think, has gone to penetrate both of those worlds equally. So seeing that play out 10 years later is very satisfying, and a great legacy for [Some Nights] to have.”
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