In this series, we take the world’s most popular songs, hit by hit, and deconstruct them, bit by bit, to learn what makes them popular, memorable, and interesting. We look at the compositional techniques used in the song, such as chord progressions, tempo, and meter, as well as the instrumentation used to make this song a hit. We also discuss what makes the song such a memorable “earworm”.
“We Are Young”
Written by Jack Antonoff, Jeff Bhasker, Andrew Dost, & Nathaniel Ruess
Performed by Fun.
YouTube Link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sv6dMFF_yts
This song is the result of a meeting between the lead singer for fun., Nathaniel Ruess, and the eventual producer of the track, Jeff Bhasker. Before this, fun. had released one previous album titles Aim & Ignite, on the Nettwerk Label. None of the previous singles released had made it onto the major charts, but the album climed as high as 71 on the Billboard charts. The single released before “We Are Young” was a single entitled “C’Mon”, as a joint single with Panic! At the Disco, whom they toured with in 2011.
Jeff Bhasker had been known for producing and writing hip-hip and R&B records, working with the likes of Kanye West, Alicia Keys, Kid Cudi, and Beyonce.
The entire song is in the key of F major, with no deviations, which is part of the reason why this song is so accessible. F major resides right next to C Major in the circle of fifths, so, with C being the 5th (dominant, V chord) in the key of F, using that “home base” of a C major chord in relation to the key of the song adds a lot of familiarity and stability.
F – Dm – Gm – Bb – C
I – vi – ii – IV – V
Look familiar? Unless you’re in a doo-wop group, this progression may not seem like anything special. If you ARE in a doo-wop group, you’ll recognize that this is a variation on a classic chord progression, sometimes called the 50s Progression, the Ice Cream Changes, of the Stand By Me Changes. The 50s Progression removes the ii chord, to make it I – vi – IV – V, and is the bases for many popular music hits of the 50s & 60s, from Gene Chandler’s “Duke of Earl” to Dion & the Belmonts “Why Must I Be a Teenager in Love?” to more modern-day hits such as Justin Bieber’s “Baby”.
The addition of the Gm (ii) chord is placed there to prolong the subdued feel of the verses, which coincides with the lyrical content.
F – Dm – Gm – F – C
I – vi – ii – I – V
As a slight modification of the I – vi – ii- IV – V progression used in the verses, this chord progression also brings about memories of songs that make “We Are Young” such a easy song to remember. The chord progression I – vi – ii – V was a very common chord progression used in songs during the 1930s and 1940s. Remember that one song that everybody played on the piano at school/camp/church/wherever, “Heart & Soul”? Yeah, that earworm is nothing but I – vi – ii- V over and over and over again. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “I Got Rhythm” also fit the bill.
The use of these common chord progressions add up to make “We Are Young” almost seem like a song we already know. We’ve heard these chord changes a million times, so it’s very easy to wrap our head around the structure of the song.