If you're the sort of pop music fan who differentiates between the appeal of the transitory — the hits of the day — and the lasting influence of music that doesn't win any awards when it first appears, then you may not be a pop fan at all. After all, one of pop's virtues is its ability to sum up the fleeting mood of an era with blatantly commercial music that lasts forever. Some serious music fans dismiss the Grammy Awards, and that's a consequence of the Grammy voters' unique ability to miss most of the significant recordings made in any given year — a glance at past Grammy winners will give you a deliciously skewed version of pop history. Those fans should examine the case of the multiple-Grammy-nominated New York band fun., whose music epitomizes the meaningful ephemera that the Recording Academy adores.
Nominated for six Grammys for last year's full-length Some Nights — they won in the New Artist and Song of the Year categories — fun. specializes in intricately constructed and meticulously produced pop, as befits a group composed of members of previously successful bands. Fun.'s lead singer, Nate Ruess, came from The Format, perhaps best known for their 2006 full-length Dog Problems. Songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Andrew Dost once played in Michigan band Anathallo, while guitarist Jack Antonoff had done time in Steel Train.
After The Format broke up in 2008, Ruess began working with Dost and Antonoff. Fun. released their first full-length, Aim and Ignite, the following year. It remains a fascinating debut — in fact, it may be a better record than Some Nights. Pop rock 'n' roll at a high level of manic formalism, Aim is the work of musicians for whom artifice is all.
Neither a masterpiece nor a piece of junk, Aim and Ignite sums up 40 years of pop and rock 'n' roll history. It plays with musical and thematic conventions that go back to The Beatles, Queen, 10cc, power pop, boy bands and post-punk. On "Stitch Me Up," the vocal harmonies hark back to those of The Tokens. Anchored by a loping bass line, the tune is decorated with Tom Verlaine-style guitar licks, ending with a mock-gospel section in 12/8 time that recalls The Beatles' "I Want You (She's So Heavy)," from the Mersey moptops' Grammy-winning 1969 full-length Abbey Road.
Actually, Abbey Road won its Grammy for Best Engineered Non-Classical Recording in the year of David Bowie's "Space Oddity" — the Grammy voters deemed Blood, Sweat and Tears' Blood, Sweat and Tears 1969's Album of the Year. Blood, Sweat and Tears live on through one of their hits, "Spinning Wheel." Abbey Road's fragmented approach has proven massively influential, as fun.'s "I Want You" reference testifies.
Aim and Ignite and Some Nights prove that innovation isn't crucial for making great pop — the records simply reference various past innovations. Fun. may have gained part of its audience due to its boy band-meets-Beach Boys vocal approach, which helps give their music its Broadway musical-comedy sheen. Their rich vocal harmonies, quasi-funk guitar licks and expertly deployed keyboards ground fun. in a tradition that includes both Prince and Brian Wilson — they're proudly syncretic.
Fun.'s music is the culmination of years of pop history, so it's not surprising the Grammy voters took to it — the band sings about such essential subjects as eating cake on the Upper East Side, the vagaries of fame and pretty girls on Saturday night. Musically, Some Nights is relentlessly self-mocking, and songs such as "It Gets Better" and "All Alright" combine strange drum patterns, noisy guitars and interludes of swooning lyricism, pulsing with suppressed angst and passages of Auto-Tuned vocals. It's not a put-down to say that it often sounds like Vampire Weekend attempting to integrate Queen-style vocals into a song cycle about the ennui brought on by fame and fortune.
Some Nights works best as a toy with many interlocking parts, unless you're in the market for sententious lyrics about the anguish of being a pop star. I like the first record's "Benson Hedges" and "I Wanna Be the One," and can do without the second collection's big hit, "We Are Young." But the popularity of "We Are Young" is part of the reason the Grammy voters went for Some Nights — many people listened to it. For that matter, perhaps some of the voters reasoned that the record's jumpiness and, shall we say, inability to musically commit reflected the way the world felt last year. On the other hand, maybe the Grammy voters simply admired the impeccable way Some Nights displays its myriad influences.
And herein lies one possible lesson to be drawn from fun. and this year's Grammys: The sea of influences that fun. floats upon has given buoyancy to music that will likely influence almost no one in the foreseeable pop music future. Some Nights is good pop music, but it's arty, self-involved and involuted — probably not the most profound, life-affirming record of 2012. Living in one's own time, without self-consciousness, has been difficult ever since The Beatles won the 1967 Album of the Year Grammy for Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Even at their artiest, the Fab Four kept things loose, with a feel for the kind of ephemera that never goes out of style.
Nice piece, Jim.
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