Though Fun. is, in arrangement and sound, a rock band — live drums, soaring vocals, white dudes — their pleasures are those of pop, and their appeal is rooted in the shock of the new. They excel at combining sounds that generally have no business together. From afar, they’re Queen — slightly camp and operatic but always on the verge of a guitar solo. Zoom in on Nate Ruess’s vocals when he’s turned on the Auto-Tune and you get Ke$ha, especially given the centrality that dissolution and nighttime pleasures have in his lyrics. Limit yourself to the guitars and stage presence and you get the soaring genre explorations of post-emo acts like My Chemical Romance. Concentrate on the drums, piano, and Civil War–themed video for “Some Nights” and you might get folk-poppers like Mumford & Sons, or round it all off into Coldplay.
Taken together, though, it’s both all and none of that. Featuring Janelle Monae on their breakout hit “We Are Young” seems, in this light, less a cosign than a Rosetta Stone, a simple key to translate their whole project. Like Monae, they keep their feet planted in one genre but reach out to bring in anything else that resonates, and this exploration is far more important to them than ideological fidelity.
What ultimately brings all that together into a winning combination is — again, just as with Monae — their attitude. Ruess’s mug does a lot of work in this regard. Cartoony and rubbery in a Buster Poindexter kind of way, it lets him throw out the outsize emotions that Fun.’s songs demand while providing a kind of disclaimer; his voice shouts self-pity while his gigantic mouth smiles it away. We’re in on the joke.
Compare, for instance, the way their formal wear works in the “Young” video versus Nirvana’s suits in the video for “In Bloom.” Nirvana is either in the formal wear, behaving and acting normal for the TV audience, or out of it, wearing dresses and trashing the set. Straight clothes and destruction don’t coexist for them, nor does the audience get to participate in the mayhem; Nirvana will perform destruction for us who are bound by propriety. But Fun. doesn’t even have to loosen their bow ties for a riot to start. Anarchy is something they coexist with, not perform. All they’re doing is singing. It’s we, the audience, who have to fuck shit up.
Despite Fun.’s commercial success, they’ve been largely ignored by the kind of people who go in for inventive rock bands, and when they performed on Saturday Night Live a few weeks back, the Twitter consensus seemed to be almost entirely negative. Maybe this is just another instance of indie fans’ weird distrust of emo, but it’s more precisely an outgrowth of that demographic’s cultural conservatism. We now accept the new sounds and ahistorical positioning of pop acts, because pop acts are still the Other, primitives whose lack of citations can be benevolently tolerated. But we want our rock bands to sound like other rock bands. It makes them easier to understand. When they don’t, we lump them in with something we’ve already decided to dislike.
It’s too bad. Sure, the pennywhistle hook of “Carry On” makes it hard not to think of “My Heart Will Go On” (or, depending on your experience of the ’90s, “Fly on the Wings of Love”), but hating a megahit from 1997 is hard to regard at this point as anything other than sour nostalgia. Writing a post-millennial anthem without descending into classic rock mimicry or grungy mopiness is something many have tried, but Fun.’s ability to camp up their malaise makes it all work. Their performance of the song on SNL — an “emotional moment” for them — makes the case perfectly. In place of the forced affectations such self-consciously theatrical turns can elicit in rock bands schooled in the ideology of small stakes, Fun. gives off a gigantic, heartfelt irony, honest in its distance, but direct in its misdirection. We are embraced in their majesty and elevated, lifted up into something new.
Mike Barthel is a PhD student in the communication department at the University of Washington, and a writer for Salon, The Awl, and The Atlantic.