Something we always talk about in my production classes is where the climax of the song is, how we get to the climax, and what happens after the climax. Some songs hit you like a Mack truck from beat one. “We Are Young” does not. One of the things that are so great about this song is the buildup. The song starts out with – say what?? – toms playing the same single-bar pattern over & over?? Imagine a scale from one to ten, with one being the least climactic thing you could do in a song and 10 being over-the-top meters-in-the-red guitars-to-eleven in-your-face production. The beginning of “We Are Young” starts at what, 1.5, maybe?
The introduction of the vocals is followed by the most simplistic piano performance possible – two-measure chords. The song builds with a more complicated drum pattern by using the snare and more piano.
The interesting thing with the piano is that, while the drums are playing a VERY straight 4|4 time, the piano is playing triplet patterns. These are all things that a first-year music student can do the middle of their first year playing, but there’s already a tension being set up in the music, between the eighth-note percussion and triplet piano. All that tension’s got to go somewhere…
Almost a minute into the song, and all we hear is drums, piano, and vocals. And to make it worse, the pre-chorus is in a much slower tempo. This is about the time people go mad wanting SOMETHING to HAPPEN!!!
Well, at 0:48 in the track, it does. The chorus relieves all the previously built-up tension in a wonderful way. It’s almost the song actually STARTS at the chorus. Drums, bass, piano and a whole bunch of vocals, but we’re not at the climax yet.
All instrumentation follows a strict eighth-note feel from here on out. And if you haven’t consciously heard the snare drum, your subconscious sure has. The snare drum drives the song from here until the outro. The snare drum is HUGE. Monstorous.
This is a production technique that serves the purpose of making the song something you can lock on to and keep the beat with. Your subconscious picks up on this and you find yourself waving your arms in the air like you’re the love child of Travis Barker & John Bonham. The snare plays such a large part of the song from here on out, the end of the snare sound contributes to the rhythm too. The snare is way more than just a snare for the remainder of the song.
Even more interestingly, the snare (as a percussion instrument) is in almost complete contrast to the bass synth in the chorus. The snare is hard, with sharp edges, the bass is soft & fuzzy. Contrast builds a song.
The many vocals in the chorus also contrast to the first verse. Another subconscious element of this song is that when one person sings, you listen. When many people sing, you sing along too. The vocals in the last line of the chorus “than the sun” from 1:25 to about 1:30 beg the listener to scream along with them. And they do. Background vocals tell listeners what to sing along with, and people remember what they sing along with.
However, we’re not finished yet. Through the second verse and chorus, we’re still reaching the climax of the entire song. The climax of the song happens at 2:32, when Janelle Monáe’s vocal comes in. Not only is the listener singing along with the chorus (and screaming out the last line like it’s their lifeline), but the bridge invited the listener participation with an entire chorus of “na na na na” vocals to sing along with! You can even go falsetto and sing in the same register the children that make up this chorus sing.
The climax happens at the middle of the song, and then proceeds to decline back to the original intensity.
The song ends very similar to how it starts, with a simple piano and vocal.