Friday, March 09, 2012
If you like Fun., thank ELO
So, you've heard this hit single from the indie-pop band Fun. I promise you have. It's everywhere, even in a Chevy superbowl ad. It's called "We are Young" and it features Janelle Monae, a revered R&B artist in her own right. It combines Fun.'s (yes, the period is part of the band name) clever pop songwriting prowess with one of hip-hop's top producers to create a sound similar to that of the smash Alicia Keys/Jay-Z collab, "Empire State of Mind," but more theatrical, more intricately melodic. (For more on how this sound came about, check out this feature from the New York Times.)
Hear the right-hand piano chords keeping time with quarter notes on the chorus? Hear those dramatic tempo changes? Hear the complex production, the multi-tracked vocals, the choir? The way the song ends, on a slower, quieter note than anything before it? If this sounds familiar, it's because all of these elements are an homage to 70s prog-rock pioneers Electric Light Orchestra, or ELO.
British band ELO mostly flies under the radar today, only occasionally getting airplay on classic rock stations. But in the 1970s, they were HUGE. Their 1977 double-LP Out of the Blue went platinum, meaning it sold one million copies. They had numerous top-10 singles, all of which combined their symphonic-yet-experimental arrangements and solid pop songwriting to create a sound that defied categorization and predicted by almost a decade the lush production that would become so prevalent in the 1980s (when the new portability of the Moog synthesizer would revolutionize the sound of pop music.) Out of the Blue also produced the hit "Mr. Blue Sky," (itself the soundtrack for a car commercial from the early 2000s) which seems to serve as the source material for "We Are Young."
Hear it? The way the song opens with piano chords keeping a steady marching beat, and how the synthesizer picks that up again during the chorus. The way the tempo shifts. The way the instrumentation drops out significantly during the chorus, to emphasize the multi-tracked vocals. There's a choir. The song even ends on a slow, quiet note.
So remember, if you like Fun., thank ELO.