Sometimes, friends (nemeses, infidels, fiances) reprimand me for being a sports fan. Their argument is that sports time, spent instead on music, would make me a better artist*. In a sense, they’re right. If I spent every Alabama football game or Grizzlies basketball game instead writing new songs, I’d obviously have more songs.
But then, I wouldn’t see the same Southwest commercial 10,000 times during March Madness and start thinking about the Great PanEthnic Singalong.
Song Of The Week: fun. “Some Nights“
I’m not sure when or how it started, but in the last few years the White Stripes’ hit “Seven Nation Army” became a jock jam standard. I heard its riff chanted during NFL games. I heard it during international soccer matches. I heard it during college football games. As I’m typing the second draft of this post, the song is playing at Madison Square Garden before the Grizz-Knicks tip off. Its popularity among sports fans isn’t surprising: it’s a muscular, memorable riff. Its recent popularity at sporting events is surprising, since the song came out in 2003. “Seven Nation Army,” ten years after its release, has experienced a second life as a global, go-to sports cheer.
During the same stretch, fun.’s second record Some Nights came out. The album, and its title track, are filled to the brim with wordless, hooky singalongs. On record, other things help define fun.’s sound: a sonic amusement park of ringing, whirring, mad-dashing whimsy, with swirling autotune, jarring synthesizers, bells and whistles clamoring in every pocket of every song. They sound like neon.
But one element dominates the mix of every song, both live and on their most popular singles: the massive vocal hook. Nothing is bigger and nothing comes close. Take this moment in “Some Nights.” Or this one in “We Are Young.” Or this one in “Carry On.” Of course, aggressively hooky hits aren’t new: pop songs have long been guided by melody and the strength of their chorus. And fun. is a band that is very, very good at hooks.
But a few things about this seem new to me:
1) The mix is fearlessly unbalanced, especially on “Some Nights.” If the rest of the song lifts weights, the hook takes every steroid on earth. I’d find it off-putting if I didn’t also admire its relentlessness. I’ve heard “Some Nights” (and seen that commercial) probably 250-300 times now. Sonically, it’s still jarring**. But it’s also deeply memorable. And, whether I like it or not, that’s the point. It’s working.
2) The advent of the Great PanEthnic Singalong.
When the internet met music (and took it out for drinks, and had its way with it, and dropped it off in an alley across-town from its house), the artist’s world got smaller and a song’s initial audience got bigger. American hits have long become international hits, because the American music industry had the resources (radio, distribution, marketing) to get a song to everyone. In many ways, the same could be said of British records. But now, obviously, no one needs major label distribution to get a kid in Baltimore or Helsinki or Mumbai to hear their song. They can simply post it on YouTube. And if a song’s good, it’s not just more quickly popular; it’s more quickly global.
I wonder if the prospect of a global audience has influenced pop songwriting to include oft-repeated, choir-backed, and (crucially) wordless singalongs. To be clear: pop artists of yesteryear did this also. SOTW favorites Simon & Garfunkel tailored some hits “The Only Living Boy In New York,” “The Boxer“) around this device. It just seems like a more common trait among contemporary singles. For example, Mumford & Sons’ international smash (and soccer commercial favorite) “Little Lion Man” features a wordless singalong. The entire Lumineers hit “Ho Hey” is punctuated by an essentially wordless fan-chant. Icelandic popsters Of Monsters and Men employ the Great PanEthnic Singalong often. Friends, fellow Memphians, and band-I-admire Star & Micey have also done this well on their single, “I Can’t Wait.”
And every fun. single ends with this device. Without exception. To overwhelming success. On the Grammy’s. On SNL. On Top 40 radio. On TV commercials. For Southwest. About reaching faraway places.
Meanwhile, the riff from “Seven Nation Army”–a layered, singable, wordless chant from 2003–becomes a hit for a second time among an international sports audience.
Meanwhile, Mumford & Sons released one cover as a bonus track from last year’s album Babel. And what was that cover? “The Boxer” by Simon & Garfunkel. And the Great PanEthnic Singalong comes full circle.
Maybe I’m making too much of this. I probably am. But it’s fun to think about when I’m wasting time watching sports.
(*To be fair, these friends would also say that I often spend too much time working. The lesson, I think, is that I’m always doing the wrong thing. Or that I should never listen to anybody.)
(**After a few revisions, I’m still hoping this post isn’t unfairly critical toward fun. I’d invite everyone still reading to watch these two performances of “Some Nights” and “Carry On” and hopefully hear what I admire about this band. Maybe tell me in the comments what you’re liking or responding to as well.)