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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.
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.