ten years of this; I’m not sure if anybody understands

I’m sitting here at my favorite Jittery Joe’s on a bright Sunday morning, and my face is reflected in the screen of my laptop. I’m almost 30, and I look like it. I’m not the bright-eyed youth I was a decade ago, and I’m fine with that. Sometimes, I’m happier that I’m not. Other times, I want to be, if only for a moment. I know not everyone understands the appeal that the now mega-popular band fun. has to me, and I don’t fully understand it, either. But I think it’s that desire to feel younger without actually being younger that nags at me and many of us.

My fiancée and I saw fun. at The Tabernacle this past Friday night as part of a Valentine’s Day weekend in Atlanta. Between them and The Format, it was my tenth or fifteenth time at one of their shows…I’ve lost count. The reason I go back again and again is because they’ve never been on a slump. Each time I’ve seen them, it always seems like they’re preparing for another “big thing.” And they’ve always made me feel like I’m a part of it, too.

The first time I saw The Format, in 2004 (just before I went off to college), things were looking shaky with their record label, Elektra, as they were dropping bands left and right–another long-time favorite of mine, Third Eye Blind, was also among these bands. A decade ago, the aptly-named “The First Single” was supposed to be The Format’s breakthrough tune, the “We Are Young” of 2003, but without label support, it failed to go mainstream. However, their energy on stage was not at all fazed by any of these possible career-killers, because all of us in the crowd knew how good this band was. They were perfectly accessible to mainstream audiences (if they would only listen), but Sam Means’ musicianship, songwriting, and Nate Ruess’ incredible vocal prowess and lyrics took the music to a level that top 40 acts rarely reach. It was too damn fun to dislike without dumbing anything down. When I spoke to Nate after the show, he was genuinely gracious, and this attitude toward fans that would carry the band through tough times. Knowing how much those who had heard their music fell in love with it, The Format continued on, with a healthy dose of skepticism towards the music industry and labels.

I spoke with Nate again briefly after a show a couple of years later, just before the release of Dog Problems. Once again, this band seemed to be on the verge of something big. They were playing new tunes, many of which were leagues better than anything on Interventions + Lullabies. Nate was excited for us to hear the results–the results of this band moving away from major labels to create their own “Vanity Label,” working with Roger Manning (Jellyfish) and producer Steve McDonald (Redd Kross), and above all, overcoming the anxiety that preceded the release of this album: what if they couldn’t do it on their own?

But their fears were unfounded. Dog Problems was released independently (with some help from distributor Nettwerk, who ensured that the album would be placed in as many stores as possible), and as with Radiohead’s In Rainbows and other post-Napster experiments in the last decade, it proved that major labels are irrelevant if the music is good enough. Dog Problems is The Format’s masterwork–a result of the depression that came with being dropped from a label, Nate’s relationship problems, relentless touring and traveling, and overcoming all of those things to be able to scream, “I’m doing alright; I’m doing just fine.”

In 2007, a year after Dog Problems, The Format was at the height of their career, and also nearing the end. I saw them at The Masquerade that year, as I had the very first time and countless other times, and the crowd was more enthusiastic than ever. And so were they. Each time since that first time three years ago, the show got bigger in every way. As they covered Van Morrison’s “Caravan” to close out their set, it seemed clear to me that they loved where they were, their company, and their fans. What could go wrong?

The circumstances still aren’t clear to the public, but The Format split in early 2008. Nate wrote a letter informing fans on their website that things were fine between Sam and himself, but that there was no future for The Format. I was heartbroken. This was a band whose music saw me through college, some major relationships, and through which I can say my sister and I bonded in our mutual love for the music. What would I do without them? It just seems like silly pop music, doesn’t it? It was more than that to me. I can’t fully explain why, but the songs and the memories they touched still mean so much to me.

Fun formed shortly after, in the fall of 2008. Yes: they were once Fun, capitalized, no period. (The change only came after Finnish noise rock band, also named Fun, sought exclusive rights to the name. Don’t worry–they’re reaping all the benefits though mistaken Spotify plays.) This was my first year teaching, and my first year out of college. I was lost in so many ways. I hated my life, I hated my town, I hated my job, and I was anxious and miserable on a daily basis. I don’t think I was being melodramatic at the time, because I still compare the shittier times of now to the nightmare that that year was to make myself feel better.

Fun’s music made that year better. Before Aim & Ignite, I could only know a few songs, including “Benson Hedges” and “Be Calm,” but they seemed all too anthemic for me at the time. I was once again excited and enthusiastic for the next “big thing” that this band had on the way. Also, as a fan of both Steel Train and Anathallo (I had bought Floating World at a Format show in Birmingham, and Trampoline was often paired with Dog Problems in my CD changer), I knew how talented Jack Antonoff and Andrew Dost were, so I was not at all afraid that this project would let me down.

Aim & Ignite sounds simultaneously like starting over and picking up where you left off. I couldn’t help thinking that it mirrored my life. In 2009, I quit my first post-college job and moved to Athens, not really knowing what I was doing or where I was going. I was supposed to start a social work program at UGA, but my application was completed too late. I tried to “pick up where I left off,” but jobs were scarce, so I ended up substitute teaching and doing what I could to make ends meet for myself. I broke off an engagement in 2010; I had and have no regrets about that; I don’t want to be forgiven for all my big mistakes, I only want to be forgotten. I didn’t intend for those years to go the way that they did, but so many of those accidents and mistakes shaped my life as it is now, and I’m happier now than I’ve ever been. It was quite soon after that when I began a new relationship with my current fiancée, and things ignited from there.

I began the struggle that many mid-20s college graduates face. I was often unemployed or underemployed, making my way through unsatisfying jobs and trying to find who I am. However, the most important thing was that I loved my surroundings, and I loved the handful of people I spent my time with when I did spend time with people.

I can’t say I loved Some Nights at first; in fact, I didn’t like it very much at all. I began to feel that this may be it for me…while the songs themselves are quite honestly some of the best Nate Ruess and crew have written, the production felt targeted to the Fueled by Ramen crowd, whom the band signed with about a year after Aim & Ignite‘s release. My frustration with this album stems from the fact that I know how talented this band is, and I know how much they can accomplish with so little, so why do so much to the songs? On this record, producer Jeff Bhasker is essentially a member of the band, and his loud contributions often overshadow those of of Nate, Jack, Andrew, and other talented personnel on Some Nights. Still, the mainstream didn’t seem to care, and I don’t have to share anything about this band in 2013 that you don’t already love or hate. They are no longer anyone’s “best kept secret.” To those of you hearing fun. for the first time in 2012, it certainly seems at face value that they are another manufactured product of the industry, a band that couldn’t do what they do without the kind of production that exists on Some Nights, and again, that’s what’s so frustrating.

This weekend, the band was on the heels of two Grammy wins and a few other Grammy nominations. This time, then, there isn’t so much an anticipated “big thing,” but the feeling that this is the “big thing.” The Tabernacle is considered intimate in comparison to venues that they could have sold out right now. The show sold out in days, and ticket scalpers were outside the venue–not selling tickets, but essentially panhandling for extras. “I heard they were going for over $100 on Craigslist,” I overheard one of the scalpers say as we walked away. They followed us for a few seconds as we approached the line to enter The Tabernacle, “Hey, hey, any extra tickets? You got any extra tickets?”

Each time I’ve seen this band, the crowd has always been more enthusiastic. This time was no exception, but it was exponentially different. Everyone in attendance this time knew they were lucky to be there, with the cheering and screams between songs many decibles louder than the songs themselves. I was happy to see a little more diversity than I saw at Center Stage last year–I didn’t feel like the oldest person there; their demographic post-Grammy win has extended beyond the high school and college crowd, with no clear gender preference.

Next to us in the balcony was a young high school aged girl. She was singing at the top of her lungs, and I’m not ashamed to say that I was, too–more enthusiastically than her. Stephanie couldn’t stop laughing at how silly I must have looked. The key to enjoying this band is (and always has been) letting go of any pretentious attitude that may prevent you from enjoying the music, and to just have fun. (I’m trying to avoid this inevitable pun wherever possible.) When Nate sings, “tonight, we are young,” we are all young; tomorrow, we go back to being whoever we are…unless you really are young, in which case, I genuinely hope that this music affects your youth in the same way it did mine.

After the show, Stephanie told me, “I had a great time, but I still think they’re kinda lame.” Honestly–I couldn’t argue. I totally understand that opinion. But what does it matter? Like a good Disney movie, the appeal is universal if you allow it to be. And yes, there’s much about this music that sounds childish. But ignore your initial impression of Some Nights, as I have, because there is real substance and talent in this band. Allow yourself to indulge. Not everything sweet is bad for you.

Finally, enjoy this Some Nights-era set from DC’s 9:30 Club, originally broadcasted by NPR. Put aside your cynicism and see if you can’t have some fun.

fun. – Live at 9:30 Club – Washington, DC – 5/3/12
Download ZIP Archive

1. One Foot
2. Walking the Dog
3. Why Am I the One
4. All the Pretty Girls (Intro)
5. All the Pretty Girls
6. All Alone
7. Barlights
8. Carry On
9. The Gambler (Intro)
10. The Gambler
11. Be Calm
12. At Least I’m Not as Sad (As I Used to Be) (Intro)
13. At Least I’m Not as Sad (As I Used to Be)
14. We Are Young
15. You Can’t Always Get What You Want
16. Smooth (Intro)
17. Smooth
18. Some Nights
19. Take Your Time (Coming Home) (Intro)
20. Take Your Time (Coming Home)