To call “We Are Young” the most surprising chart-topper of the year would, of course, be a dramatic understatement. Four months ago, Fun. were little more to the pop/rock world than an opening act, the band that goes on before the band, a group whose name you’ve maybe heard before, but probably couldn’t name a member of or song by. Now, thanks in large part to two very well-timed pop-culture endorsements—first in the final number of a Glee episode, then in a memorably stunty Chevy Sonic commercial—the band is on top of the pop universe, with the least-likely #1 hit in a long time.
Why is the song such an unlikely chart-topper? Well, first off, it’s a rock song—unless you count Maroon 5′s “Moves Like Jagger” (which for any number of reasons you probably shouldn’t), it’s the first rock song to reach the top of the Hot 100 since Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida” did it nearly four years ago. It’s also a weird rock song—a power ballad that completely changes tempo mid-stream, whose verses have little to do with each other structurally, and which most unusually for a power ballad, doesn’t even seem to feature any guitar. But perhaps the most challenging aspect of the song is the lyrics, which, like Foster the People’s “Pumped Up Kicks” last year, uses a catchy chorus as a decoy for a song that is at heart dark, odd, and fundamentally un-Top 40.
“Give me a second, I need to get my story straight,” Fun. singer Nate Ruess proclaims in the first line of “We Are Young.” It’s a line that basically summarizes the entire song—a disjointed, semi-coherent tale of an eventful night out with friends at the bar that scampers through its scattered verses to get to its drunk sing-along of the chorus. Musically, the song begins manically, with a drum pounding a pulse-racing beat as Ruess sets the scene—his friends in the bathroom “getting higher than the Empire State,” while his lover waits for him “just across the bar.” The beat picks up even more frenetically as Ruess sings about his lover’s scar, admitting that “I know I gave it to you months ago / I know you’re trying to forget.”
The first verse isn’t even over, and we already have lies, drinking, drugging and domestic abuse—heady stuff for any song, and Ruess races through the verse as if he’s hoping you won’t actually pick up on the words he’s saying. It’s not a bad strategy, since you could hear the song 100 times before picking up on exactly what Ruess is talking about, largely because you’re just waiting for him to get to the chorus. Indeed, the chorus of “We Are Young” is so momentous that the song winds down at the end of the first verse, the drums disappearing, the piano slowing, and the singing getting more dramatic for that fantastic pre-chorus: “So if by the time the bar closes / And you feel like falling down / I’ll carry you home…” Suddenly, all the chaos of the first verse vanishes in favor of straightforward romance, as everyone gears up for the big sing-along.
The chorus of “We Are Young”—”Tonight / We are young / So let’s set the world on fire / We can burn brighter / Than the sun”—is fascinating for any number of reasons. Taken completely out of context, it would remain a brilliant piece of youthful (duh) anthem-ery, harking back with its title phrase to many other classic under-30 rallying cries in pop music, from Pat Benatar’s “Love is a Battlefield” to Supergrass’ “Alright,” and imbuing nearly every word with maximum passion and importance. (The “i” in “tonight” alone lasts for about a dozen syllables.) It’s this chorus that obviously attracted Glee to the song, as the students of McKinley are just like any other high schoolers—especially outsider ones—whose greatest wish is to one day set the world on fire, and burn brighter than the sun. (Tellingly, the chorus to aging punks Against Me’s recent modern rock hit “I Was a Teenage Anarchist” is the nostalgic, heartbreaking and slightly rueful question: “Do you remember / When you were young and you wanted to set the world on fire?”)
In proper context, though, the chorus is actually something of a red herring. Nothing about the rest of “We Are Young” actually feels like it comes from a teen anthem—you’d expect a song with a chorus like this to be populated with verses about oppressive teachers and parents, about romance and young love and rebellion, or at least about something sincere and passionate. The closest thing comes in the second verse, where Ruess briefly asks his lover if they could “find new ways to fall apart.” But even that is quickly interrupted by the return of the couple’s friends—presumably done getting higher than 1,454 feet in the bathroom—with the conclusion “So let’s raise a cup / ‘Coz I found someone to carry me home tonight.”
And really, that’s what the chorus to “We Are Young” is. It’s Ruess trying at first to get his story straight, and instead deciding to junk the whole thing in favor of a much-less-objectionable bar singalong, where all your friends raise their cup (“Raise your glass” must have already been taken) and toast the fact that they’ve got someone to carry them home tonight. Let’s forget all the personal drama between us—which is apparently extensive enough to result in a physical (or metaphorical) scar—and drown our sorrows in a clichéd sinaglong. And again, it’s an effective enough strategy—the chorus, while thoroughly unoriginal, is still spellbinding in its dramatic delivery and widescreen production—that you could very well have loved the song for months without noticing the chorus’s decoy nature.
So yeah, this is the number one song in the country right now—for a second-straight week, in fact. Improbable, to be sure—moreso, we figure, than any other chart-topper since Owl City’s bleep-bloopy insomniac anthem “Fireflies,” if not far, far longer before. It shows you the indomitable power of an undeniable chorus, a well-placed pop-culture spot or two and a key contribution from a talented guest star like Janelle Monae (just kidding, she’s barely even in the song), that they can get such a warped, disturbing, and just generally not normal song such as this to pop’s highest peak. Frankly, we hope it stays there for a while—after a year or two of seemingly nobody but Katy Perry and Adele occupying the top spot, the charts could really use the shake-up.