If you’ve been tuning into radio at any point this year (pick a dead or dying format: Top 40! Modern rock! “Hits”!), you’ve almost definitely heard songs from New York indie pop band fun.’s album Some Nights. A few elements have probably stood out: frontman Nate Ruess’s croon reminiscent of Freddie Mercury, the lyrics’ focus on teenage abandon, and the odd, fragmented song structures. What’s not so apparent on the surface is what went into making the new soundtrack of choice for the hip and young. That primary ingredient is the influence of Kanye West.
This isn’t mere speculation, either. Ruess acknowledged in interviews around the time of Some Night’s release that he was listening to nothing but hip-hop during the album’s conception and that he was pursuing a vision for a hip-hop/rock fusion. He singled out producer Jeff Bhasker specifically for his work on West’s critically acclaimed 2010 album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. That record’s powerful, symphonic take on hip-hop still sounds like nothing else in popular music, so it’s only logical that a rock band searching for a new way to do “anthemic” would look to it instead of the usual U2-derived Brit-rock posturing that’s been played out for about a decade.
So while Ruess is in some ways using “lowest common denominator” pop songwriting (“We’re young and drunk!” is Some Nights’ grand overarching theme) that’s not far removed from, say, LMFAO; his band’s allegiance to West’s innovations makes them very, very modern. Of today’s rock bands, fun. is just the most open about their debt to West.
West’s sonic signatures—pounding, almost tribal drums, distorted melody lines, vocal manipulation, and overloaded arrangements—have now germinated throughout much of contemporary popular music. Consider that, other than Florence Welch’s now-ubiquitous wail, Florence + the Machine’s primary musical trademark is their thunderous percussion. Lana Del Rey pretty much raps most of her catalogue. Passion Pit had a slow jam on this year’s Gossamer. All of these artists nominally make “rock” music. It’s a reflection of quickly changing tastes, too. When Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon (himself now an associate of Kanye) made an AutoTune-heavy a capella number called “Woods” back in 2009, fans of his raw folk style were up in arms. Nevertheless, Bon Iver’s self-titled album from last year featured stacks upon stacks of electro-angelic harmonies festooned with horns. He sang the word “I’mma” in the middle of one song. The album was a massive hit as far as indie releases go and won the band two Grammys. This is not insignificant.
A lot of this goes back to West’s 2008 therapy session, 808s & Heartbreak. With its icy bleeps and confessional lyrics, 808s allowed the normally extroverted genres of hip-hop and R&B to be incorporated into the vocabulary of the perpetually navel-gazing indie musician along with minimalist electronic music. The xx, James Blake, How to Dress Well, Frank Ocean, and the Weeknd have all been adopted as “underground music”—even though competition-friendly singing, odes to coitus, and the occasional familiar flutter of AutoTune were prevalent in almost all of their recordings.
The larger result? Rock is no longer the backbone of popular music. James Murphy’s predictions of bands trading their guitars for turntables came true. If you want to do some soul-searching, learn to rap or make a synth-pop album, because that lo-fi, earnest indie rock EP you put up on your Bandcamp is no longer as relevant as it was. The ongoing rise of indie hip-hop speaks to this; Odd Future, Lil B, and Danny Brown all exhibit the mixture of introspection and braggadocio that characterizes West’s writing. They have been rewarded with surprisingly big and devoted fanbases composed in large part of middle-class white kids who would normally be listening to rock. Not fair? Go talk to Kanye, because it’s his fault for introducing the trend
Any music that can call itself modern must at least acknowledge the presence of West, even if no direct influence is obvious. Grizzly Bear is modern. Purity Ring is modern. Coldplay’s last album was modern, if mediocre. Drake is more modern than most other artists right now because he practically is West, or at least a more feminine version of him. Kanye West, through sheer audacity and the power of an all-consuming ego, has done the near-impossible: he bridged the gap between indie and mainstream. A dark, twisted, beautiful fantasy indeed.