Let me preface this by saying that “Fun.” is an awesome band. Their music is a fascinating blend of irregularly cadenced lyrical story-telling set to unique instrumentation. Be Calm somehow feels both campy and peaceful, and Carry On has a powerful Celtic pep to it that stirs me, but in a lovely, halcyon way. I still maintain that On Your Porch is one of the best and most personal songs that Nate Ruess has ever written, albeit he was operating as The Format at the time.
None of these songs, however, are more popular than 2012’s We Are Young, which in many ways threw Nate’s band into the spotlight, skyrocketing them from an eccentric group with a cult following to a nationally recognized powerhouse. It is by far their most listened-to song, with almost 150 million more listens on Spotify than the next song on the list.
However, there’s something that has always made me deeply uncomfortable about how the song makes me feel. I simultaneously feel myself being pulled in by its convicted, urgent optimism while also acknowledging the story that drives the song isn’t one that deserves this idealism. It’s a strange, dark cognitive dissonance.
Just look at the lyrics. While the song is admittedly inspired by a moment in Nate Ruess’s life that he isn’t proud of, hence the let’s-do-better-as-a-generation vibe, it couches that humanizing self-criticism within the story of a person who seems to be just…straight-up physically abusive, which is not at all what Nate’s inspiration for the song was.
The song begins with the line: “Give me a second I, I need to get my story straight.” It is unclear whether this phrase is directed at the listener or the narrator’s lover, who is waiting for him “just across the bar.” Either way, it seems a strange beginning to the song until you look closer at what comes next.
The song continues to swim in jealousy and guilt. The singer explains that his seat by his lover has “been taken by some sunglasses asking ‘bout a scar, and I know I gave it to you months ago. I know you’re trying to forget.”
Wait. Full stop. It’s clear here that he hurt her physically, and bad enough to leave a scar. It wasn’t an accident either, or else she wouldn’t still be struggling trying to forgive and forget months later. He’s also exhibiting some jealousy here, probably stemming from his insecurity that she might run off with the person in the sunglasses who, rightly so, asks about her scar to see if she’s alright. That’s classic abuser. The implication seems to be that this guy assaulted her in some way. Maybe I’m misinterpreting here but…the signs are all there, so why does the song want me to root for this guy?
It doesn’t get any better either. The guy admits, in the next few lines, that there are “holes” in his apologies, meaning either he’s not really sorry for what he did, or he has continued the behavior. Both are bad. It really seems like this guy has all the earmarks of having physically assaulted this woman sitting at the bar, who is now trying to have a good time without everyone asking about her scar, which he is expecting her to forget, eventually. Is he trying to use the rhetoric of setting the world on fire to help her forget and be happy with him again?
The story would make sense for a dark, gritty look at the pain that abuse causes, but the sentiment of the song is one of optimism, a kind of rebirth set in the language of the generational “we” common for pop anthems. That’s the thing. I like optimism. I’m totally on board with the desire to set the world on fire. I’m not as young as I used to be, but I certainly try to find little ways to better myself within my little circle of family and friends. I also believe that forgiveness and second chances are really important.
There’s a line though. Someone who acts with physical violence within a relationship is not an emotionally healthy person, nor is that acceptable behavior in any regard. I also don’t think it’s something you should forget, much less expect someone else to forget. Once you do it once, there’s really no going back to a world where that won’t always be a fear or concern. This song shouldn’t be as optimistic as it is unless I’m totally off about how she got that scar and why this guy is so jealous and trying to get his story straight. Ambitious optimism is a great message, but why use the pallette of abuse to paint that particular picture? That’s all I’m saying.
I’m not bringing this up to be negative about Nate Ruess either, as a person. It’s a song, this part isn’t autobiographical. Nate seems like a thoughtful person with a genius for lyrical intricacy and story-telling. I just struggle listening to this particular song the way it is presented. I’m uncomfortable not because it makes me feel gross, but because the song succeeds in what it’s meant to do and I don’t feel gross. I feel encouraged, as if I — the listener — have heeded his call to try to forget what came before. The man doesn’t merit the platitude. I don’t like this song because it tries to make me feel for this guy and I don’t want to.
And honestly, the rest of the song is great and lines up perfectly with Nate’s backstory about getting drunk and vomiting and regretting it later and wanting to be better. The first part just seems like it was tacked on to add a story that is a total tone shift. It’s also really dark and problematic. In a way, the two sides of the song itself seem to embody the attitude of an abuser: The darkness, saying they’re sorry, saying they’ll be better, and all the while distracting from the threshold issue with a disingenuous positivism.