There are some nights I wait for someone to save us
But I never look inward, try not to look upward
And some nights I pray a sign is gonna come to me
But usually, I’m just trying to get some sleep…
Perhaps it’s just my angst-ridden, directionless millennial self, but I believe no band captures the spirit of my generation better than Fun.
When We Are Young and Some Nights ruled the charts last year with their anthemic celebration of youth and the uncertainty of life, it was clear the band had struck a chord. All of my friends loved them. I heard them on the radio. Glee covered We Are Young. In short, they became a staple of pop culture, and rightfully so. Unlike any song I’d ever heard, Some Nights made me feel. It still does.
So when Fun. Came to the Merriweather Post Pavilion on tour with Tegan and Sara, I knew I had to go. If I passed up the opportunity to see them at this point in life – a year out of college, still chock-full of anxiety, optimism, happiness, doubt, and hope – I would regret it the rest of my life.
Concerts have a unique value in that they take the audience to a new level of reality. In the age of the internet, much of my experience of the world comes and goes through a screen and speakers. This leaves a certain gloss of unreality over almost everything I watch and read about. When I see a band live that I had only previously experience through album covers and music videos, it feels alien, yet wonderful, because it brings a fresh sense of reality and vitality to the music.
Fun.’s show was no exception. Lead singer Nate Ruess brought the same animating tension to his live performance that made Some Nights a chart-topping album. He looked exhilarated, high not so much on the adoration of thousands of fans as on the raw rush of performing, that sensation of making music and experiencing life with people. When a performer does this well, playing and singing out of sheer delight in the opportunity to share his creation with the world, it justifies the cost of time and money to experience it. And when the audience reciprocates that love, it creates moments together in the here and now because that’s all we have, and we’re young and crazy and probably in love. We agree it’s a great time to be alive, so why the hell not light the world on fire?
But I think there’s something else there too. Several years ago, 60 minutes interviewed Tom Brady, the multi-superbowl-winning quarterback of the New England Patriots. As the segment showcased what appeared to be the pinnacle of his life both on and off the field—he just signed a $60 million contract and was dating a Victoria’s Secret model—Brady said this:
“Why do I have three super-bowl rings and still think there’s something greater out there for me? I mean, maybe a lot of people would say ‘Hey man this is what it is, I reached my goal, my dream, my life is…’ Me? I think god, it’s gotta be more than this.”
“What’s the answer?” The interviewer asked.
“I wish I knew…I wish I knew.”
Like Brady to football, I have no doubt Ruess loves getting up on stage with a vigor that even few professional performers have, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he would like nothing better than to do that for the rest of his life.
However, I suspect deeper, darker sentiments underneath his elation – perhaps a rage born out of a longing to be complete and whole and to find purpose. If Ruess throws as much of himself as he can into his shows, then surely he expects the world out of them, and I can’t help but wonder if they don’t quite satisfy the longing.
If they don’t, surely he feels cheated by life.
And if cheated, where else does one go? In Fun.’s universe, where one lives in the passion of moment, neglecting to look inward or upward for salvation, music in the moment becomes the pinnacle of life. Everything has to be about the song we’re singing right now with those around us (and especially the lover with us). How could it be otherwise?
This desperate passion for the moment fuels the creative process, and hearing Fun. live impressed on me the beautiful artistry of their music. Guitarist Jack Antonoff’s guitar riffs and solos and melodies gave the sense that each song is its own unique creation, not the product of some cookie-cutter pop producer but a terrible labor – stories and feelings wrought out of unrequited love, nostalgia, disillusionment, escapism, and dark nights of soul searching. All are then packaged in a conceptually abstract but fiercely present hope. How else could one start the song Carry On with a quiet piano and a lyric like “We are not shining stars” and then build up to a rousing exhortation: “If you’re lost and alone, and you’re sinking like a stone, carry on. May your past be the sound of your feet upon the ground, and carry on.”
Indeed, the music takes you places with its abrupt shifts in style, timbre, and sentiment mid-song and refusal to consistently adhere to the standard verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus-chorus formula. To my untrained ear, it often sounds almost as if they embrace asymmetry at times without compromising the overall composition and unity of their art. Regardless of the explanation or phenomenon, it takes talent (and probably a good bit of angst, alcohol, and/or drugs), and it is delightful.
I’m amazed at the ruthless optimism in music these days, rampant in everything from obscure, self-conscious indie bands to overproduced, sentimentalized mainstream pop. Live music – even that of the stereotypical “band you probably haven’t heard of,” brings people together in a bond of hope almost impossible to replicate or surpass. If we have each other, everything is going to be okay, right? Or as music artist Kyle Andrews sums it up: “It’s not a sad song if everybody sings along.”
Mr. Andrews, meet exhibit A.
Ruess has his own paradoxical term for this phenomenon in his lyrics: “pessimistic optimism.”
“The We Are Young thing is puzzling to me,” he said in an interview, “That’s not a happy song. That’s not how it was intended. There’s a hole in my heart when I think about it.”
I have a guess why. I love singing We Are Young as much as anyone, but one unspoken question haunts it: What happens when you wake up and you’re old? Of course we can celebrate youth—it’s a wonderful season of life—but it cannot be the pinnacle of life itself because it will not last. Tonight you are young, but you might not be tomorrow, and what will life mean to you then?
Fun. ended the show with the last track on their newest record, Stars: a long, rambling song which in substance tragically embraces the ultimate hopelessness of life yet somehow manages to feel comforting. Much like Some Nights confesses to a vast void of purpose while lifting the hearer up in a rousing anthem, the tension between an absurd reality and feelings of hope stretched my heart as only art can.
You’re always holding onto stars, cause no one’s gonna save us.
But we need saving, don’t we?
When Fun. came back on the stage for the two-song encore to belt out Some Nights, I sang it out with everything my horse voice could handle, but inside my heart pulled away from the tension:
No…no this can’t be it, I thought. I do stand for something. Yes, sometimes I don’t know, and on some nights I’m less convinced than on others, but there is a hill out there that I’m ready to die on.
I expected the live performance of Some Nights to carry me into its existential moment. To a point it did, but I also believe it showed me a glimpse of my true self. I’d like to think it revealed that underneath all the questions and doubts about life and truth that have plagued me over the past several years and continue to haunt me, my soul is grounded on something steadfast and resolute because someone has saved it. And if that salvation comes from beyond this broken and temporal world, I no longer have to worry about dying alone, all dried up in the desert sun.