I know the title of this article might seem like a slam, I want to start by saying I am a fan of fun. The band. They will be referred to as “Fun” from now on because that period makes things confusing and I don’t want people to think I’m talking about the idea of fun. I like fun as an idea. I have no issues with fun. Fun the band, though, I have a few bones to pick. So if you don’t mind I’m gonna pick the heck out of those bones. I’m gonna really get in there and pick those bones now.
While I’m a pretty unabashed admirer of the band, I’ll admit that their newest album, Some Nights was disappointing given their debut, Aim and Ignite. This isn’t a reaction to their new-found popularity, mind you. The song “Some Nights” is my favorite off that album, and that is their biggest hit. I’m happy that the members (especially Nate Ruess) have finally found commercial success after many years of relative obscurity, despite putting out pretty consistently interesting music. But, for every risk they took on Some Nights that paid off, they took other risks that ended up making for some bizarrely bad songs. It’s undeniable, however, that their risk taking paid off on a grander scale. Fun has gone from a moderately successful indie band to being the most successful rock band since Nickelback. Seriously. Nickelback’s 2001 single “This is How You Remind Me” was the last single by a multi-member band to reach the top of the charts before Fun came along with “We Are Young.” (Edit: Nickelback was the last band to have their debut single reach #1. My mistake.) But anyway, I don’t want to get too muddled in the numbers here. This article is less about their popularly and more about the reason behind their sudden change in style.
One of the things I appreciate about Fun and their singer Nate Ruess’ songwriting, is that the lyrics he writes are extremely personal. He’s not afraid to talk about his thoughts and relationships openly. Nothing is dressed up in metaphor or any kind of poetics. He lays his personal life on the line. Sometimes to the point of actually naming people he knows and criticizing them. This is especially prevalent in his previous band The Format’s album Dog Problems. Ruess had recently broken up with a longtime girlfriend, and this album was written as he was processing the emotions. It’s a fascinating and honest look into a volatile time in a person’s life that I’m sure most people can relate to.
Some Nights is no different at the start. While some of the later songs on the album are a bit less specific than I’ve come to know Ruess for, for the most part, his lyric writing continues along the same line as his other output. This is where things get interesting. On the song “Some Nights,” Ruess’ autobiographical lyrics provide more than just emotional grounding and insight into his personal life, they outline the reasons behind Fun’s drastic change in sound on Some Nights.
“Some Nights,” is all all about Ruess struggling with the idea of either continuing down the band’s previous path of relative obscurity, or taking a risk and trying something new, which will hopefully allow the band to find a new, larger audience. This idea is outlined in the song’s chorus where Ruess sings: “Some nights I wish that my lips could build a castle / some nights I wish they’d just fall off,” and then later questions “what do I stand for?” The first half of the song is him wrestling with the idea of continuing to make indie music for a small audience, or reaching more people with his art by taking risks. He wants to use his voice (lips) to build something substantial (a castle). But at the same time, is he all about artistic expression, or does he make concessions in order to have his work heard and enjoyed by a larger audience? What does his art really stand for? It’s something all creative people have to think about and wrestle with.
The song then outlines his thought process then slowly convinces himself throughout the song to try a new avenue. He tells himself that he “tries twice as hard” yet he feels “half as liked,” showing just how unsatisfied he is with his musical path. Halfway through the song, during the bridge, he says that when he “hears songs, they sound like a swan.” I believe this refers to the songs he had written post-Aim and Ignite, but before he decided to change the band’s sound for Some Nights. Some of these can be heard from concert bootlegs, including the song “What the Fuck Happened to Us?” which has a very similar feel to the band’s earlier output. This portion in “Some Nights” represents him listening to those songs and realizing that his heart was no longer in it, and that he could no longer continue writing music in the same way.
UPDATE: Some people hear the lyrics “When I hear songs, they sound like this one / So come on” in this particular instance, which may have a slightly different meaning, but still works towards my interpretation. The lyric seems to be saying that mainstream songs sound like “Some Nights” to Ruess. Which goes right along with my theory that the song is all about him accepting the mainstream music scene and choosing to be a part of it in order to reach a wider audience.
Then, in the second verse, he finally makes his decision. This portion of the song could either be directed at his bandmates, or towards his fans that expect more of the same. But either way, his decision is clear: “that is it boys, that is all / five minutes in and I’m bored again / ten years of this, I’m not sure if anybody understands.” Like mentioned before, his heart isn’t in this type of music anymore, and he’s made up his mind, he’s going to make a change. After ten years of making the same kind of music, he still doesn’t feel like he’s made a connection with his audience. I’m sure that’s a difficult realization for an artist to make, but he uses it to grow and move forward. He then relates this to leaving home, saying “This one is not for the folks at home / I’m sorry to leave Mom, I had to go / who the fuck wants to die alone, all dried up in the desert sun?” “Folks at home” in this case both referring to his parents, but also all of the fans of Fun’s previous style of music. This harkens back to earlier songs he has written with Fun where he talks about earlier disenfranchisement with the music business after the breakup of The Format. He left LA and moved back to Arizona to be closer with his parents. But he decided to give it another shot after forming Fun, so he left Arizona and continued his songwriting and performing in California. A lot of his thoughts on this transition can be heard in Aim and Ignite. Ruess relates continuing to make music for a small audience that may not appreciate it as “dying alone” in the Arizona desert sun. He’s comparing this transitional portion in his life to his decision to change Fun’s sound. At this point in the song, he’s in a zone of comfort, but he realizes has to take a risk in order to prevent creative stagnation.
And like he related this experience to his family, he relates it again to his sister. She took a chance on a person she loved, only to later be “conned” by him. While Ruess feels sorry for her, at the same time, he looks at what that experience created–his nephew–and realizes that positive things can still come from “the most terrible nights.*” That seals the deal for him. He’s decided to try something new with the band. Right when he lands on that decision, the music changes. As he hits the word “nights” at around the 2:30 mark, suddenly Ruess’ voice is heavily autotuned. An effect the band had never used before, and it’s an effect that is a sharp contrast to the band’s previous indie-pop kind of sound and much more in line with the music more commonly heard on the radio. The autotune is a very clear marker of the moment the band fully embraces his decision.
And not only that, but the album’s music follows this mental progression exactly. Some Nights starts out extremely similar to Ruess’ other output. “Some Nights Intro” has the exact same 3/4 time signature and very similar keyboard intro as “Matches,” the opening track off Dog Problems. Both songs even have similar themes of spending a contemplative night alone.
“Some Nights” the song starts out another earlier song as well: Fun’s “Benson Hedges” from their first album. Both have similar a capella, almost gospel sounding intros. The band’s sound only changes after they ultimately decide to change their sound in the hopes of reaching more people, with the autotuned section representing the band’s turning point.
Unfortunately, as Kurt Vonnegut says, “Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.” When Fun decided to reach a wider audience with their music, they ended up making a few decisions that didn’t work. The lyrics from the autotune portion of “Some Nights” on get slightly less personal, and the music slightly more radio-friendly.
There are some risks taken that pay off, like the R&B and vocoder portions of the album’s closer “Stars.” But there are songs that don’t work, like the bizarre “One Foot.” The band members have mentioned in interviews that they were highly influenced in this album by modern hip-hop, and even chose to have a hip-hop producer involved in the production of the album. “One Step’s” looping horns might make sense on a hip-hop track, but they are just too big and brassy to gel with Ruess’ indie-pop vocal stylings and relationship-focused lyrics. The band’s discussion of being influenced by hip-hop seems to gel with the lyrics of “Some Nights,” as hip-hop has by far the biggest audience in popular music. If you’re trying to reach a lot of people musically, hip-hop is how you do it.
Regardless of my opinion or anyone else’s, it’s interesting looking back on this song when knowing the risk the band took paid off. They got the wider audience and success they were hoping for when starting their endeavor, as described at the beginning of “Some Nights.”
Which then relates to the bigger issue: Is this “selling out?” Does selling out really even exist?
In pretty much every case, I’d say no. I don’t necessarily believe in selling out. For one thing, the discussion often gets into the realm of “this band got more popular, and their sound changed, and I don’t like it.” People are quick to claim “selling out,” when the culprit most likely is the band alienating a portion of their fans when altering their sound. It just gets too far into opinion for any real discussion to be had. And beyond that, how do you know for sure an artist really is only creating music for the money? The decision to change their sound is ultimately up to the band, and even if they really do decide to change their sound solely for money, that is still an artistic decision.
That’s what “Some Nights” is all about. Even though the song pretty much states that the band has decided to steer their music in a more audience-friendly way, they do their best to explain the thought process. Ruess doesn’t mention money or celebrity or anything like that in the song. He’s interesting in people understanding what he’s trying to get across. Isn’t that what all art is about? Relating your emotions to others? After a number of years of feeling like his artistic effort was in vain, yeah, he decided to appeal to a wider audience. Is that really a bad thing? I’m sure at a point, conscious or not, a lot of artists make the same decision.
Art is all about finding that line between your personal expression, and appealing to your audience. I think when people accuse bands of “selling out,” they are really accusing the band of what they believe is too far of a step over that line. Still though, I think it’s a shallow criticism that doesn’t necessarily relate to what connects music to its listeners. Like I’ve mentioned in other articles, much of the most timeless and moving music humans ever have created was made explicitly for money. Commissioned by dignitaries or written by professional songwriters, hired for their expertise in reaching the masses. If Fun really is a sell-out, then they’re in pretty fantastic company.
While I don’t think Fun as a band has quite found that line between expression and audience, I appreciate hearing them being so open and thoughtful with their process. I can only hope they continue on in the spirit of “Some Nights,” taking risks and pushing their music forward in whatever way they see fit.
Yes I know this picture is awful but I love that lil swan so I’m putting him here. Keep singing swan! I like your hair.
* Some of these lyrics are disputed from what I’ve seen online. Some people hear “some terrible lies” in this part of the song. See above for . The autotune kind of obscures the word a bit so I can’t really say either way for the “nights/lies” debate, other than that the New York Times agrees with me, and that I think that line relates to the album’s overarching concept of being about things happening at night. But yeah, take a listen and make up your own mind ya dope!
Thanks for reading ya dope! You’re not a dope, you’re cool. Bye.
PS if you enjoyed this article, or you just enjoy clip art animals feel free to check out my other articles in this series. They are free to click on! Everybody wins.