They Aren't So Young: How Fun.'s Rise Explains the Fall of Suburban Emo

This weekend's Grammys may coronate a band whose members adapted from the more-angsty teen zeitgeist of 10 years ago to the Glee-ified one of today.

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Fun. shot to fame on their hit single "We Are Young," but when they show up at the Grammys on Sunday to compete in the Best New Artist category, they'll be the old guys in the room. Frontman Nate Ruess, Jack Antonoff, and Andrew Dost—and their former bands The Format, Steel Train, and Anathallo, respectively—made their names a decade ago playing to audiences that were as young as they were. In the past year or so, ever since a Glee cover of "We Are Young" went viral in December 2011, they've successfully wooed a new generation. That fact isn't just a mark of their adaptability. It's also a measure of what's changed in music and pop culture between the Napster era and the age of Twitter and TV musicals—how rock geared toward bored teens has gone from peddling relatable angst to conjuring emotional uplift.

Pop culture has always found inventive ways to animate the banalities of suburban life (isn't "Thriller" really just a song about a movie date?), but in the early 2000s they were trading at an especially high value. The prevailing winds blowing out of California lent a punk-rock mystique to No-Place-in-Particular, USA. The cover of Fenix*TX's popular album Lechuza summed up that spirit, and acts like The Offspring and Blink-182 were re-mythologizing suburbia on a wider scale. If there was an awkward contradiction in an anti-establishment movement going mainstream, it was a familiar one by then, and many younger artists embraced it with pop melodies and a quieter sort of desperation.

Into this milieu entered Ruess in 2001 with The Format, the band he started with Sam Means, a school buddy from his hometown of Peoria, Arizona, a Phoenix suburb. Their debut Interventions + Lullabies catalogs average-kid experiences like the thrill of surprise parties, anxieties about moving away to college, idling in traffic, and smoking on the porch. However modest their subjects, the songs were delivered with a plainspoken wistfulness that was intensely earnest but rarely impassioned.

When Ruess groused in The Format's "The First Single," "I've been waiting all this time to be something I can't define," and "I've just gotta get myself over me," I, at age 13, was right there with him. So were plenty of other high school- and college-age fans who were too cool for Top 40 but too timid to mount countercultural rebellions. For a time, Drive-Thru Records, Vagrant, and Fueled by Ramen, Fun.'s current label, offered a comfortable place in the middle. Founded in Sherman Oaks, California in 1996 and later overtaken by Geffen, Drive-Thru in particular was a mainstay of pop-punk and emo music for young crowds. Antonoff's Steel Train signed in 2003, adding a folk dimension to a lineup that included a little ska (Rx Bandits), piano rock (Something Corporate), and post-hardcore (The Movielife) alongside its bread-and-butter pop-punk acts (New Found Glory). Vagrant, now a prominent indie rock label, was originally home to Alkaline Trio, Dashboard Confessional, and The Get Up Kids. Whatever their aesthetic bent, these artists noticeably reduced the stakes set by the previous generation's punk-rockers, preferring a forthright, irony-free melancholy.

If The Format was a surprise party, Fun. is the Instagrammed record of it—more glamorous than the real thing, and better attended.

In its way, no less sentimental than those forebears. "I'm still not sure what I stand for," Ruess sings on the new album's title track, "most nights I don't know anymore." But the showiness of that sentiment has changed. On the band's sophomore album Some Nights, his big, elastic voice slices through the lush instrumentation, which was overseen by Jeff Bhasker, the hot-shot producer Kanye West recruited for 808s & Heartbreak and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Bhasker's ear for dramatic contrasts—and expertise with vocoder—isn't wasted here. Thumping beats and military drums turn nearly every song into a sort of loser's anthem, making Some Nights a grandiose power-pop album as well as a commercially savvy piece of work.

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Rich Bellis is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. His music reviews have appeared in BUST.

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