The ’90s were rife with new labels presenting themselves as aspirational brands: Ca$h Money, No Limit, even Kill Rock Stars aspired to anti-aspiration. Meanwhile, in John Janick’s University of Florida dorm room, he and Less Than Jake drummer/lyricist Vinnie Fiorello created a label whose moniker honestly reflected their current reality: Fueled By Ramen. The name referenced both the pair’s small bank accounts after funding their label, and the meager meal the money left over could buy.
Of course, 15 years later, the name Fueled By Ramen feels like a guiding principle for the type of music they’ve brought to the forefront of pop culture: self-deprecating, brashly youthful and confrontational about both of those aspects. Whether it’s the celebrity metacommentary of Fall Out Boy, the multimedia theatricality of Panic! At The Disco, the post-cred hip-hop of Gym Class Heroes, or Paramore’s weapons-grade emo, their sound is unconcerned with honoring the past. They reflect the present, and Fueled By Ramen’s ability to be in and of its moment is a huge part of the reason they’re celebrating a decade and a half in the game.
Started in 1996, Fueled By Ramen’s first real commercial score as a label would be the release of Jimmy Eat World’s self-titled EP in 1998. It was an indication of the leap Jimmy Eat World would make from Static Prevails, a promising record anchored by ill-fitting Sunny Day Real Estate ambitions, to Clarity, quite possibly the best emo album ever made. Certainly it’s one of the most influential. But in a few years, the band would find themselves toppled by the revolution they helped start. Blame the malleability of the term “emo.” In 2001 it may have been completely divorced from its roots as an offshoot of D.C. hardcore, but it was every bit as earnest: on one side, JEW, Dashboard Confessional and even Weezer’s The Green Album were cuddly, girl-crazy and pure pop. On the other side, stone serious and aggressive Long Island groups like Brand New and Thursday dominated.
Common themes arose on both sides: distance, geography, the futility of language, if they only knew how I feel. All of those barriers were imploded by the mid ‘00s. Fueled By Ramen’s confluence with the glory days of MySpace cannot be understated. By the time Fall Out Boy released Take This To Your Grave in 2003, “emo” encompassed all alternative rock that wasn’t nu-metal or Coldplay; it was not what the unpopular kids were listening to anymore. The internet’s democratization of social interaction meant that while “emo” had certain characteristics — high-pitched melodies, pining lyrics and a certain archness of attitude — it was more of a lifestyle, an adjective. Introversion was flipped into equal parts self-expression and self-presentation. Fall Out Boy and Panic! At The Disco embodied that, their lyrics, dense, full of sarcasm, the sound and image unapologetically polished with eyeliner and styled hair usurping the more unassuming Midwestern T-shirt and jeans look of the past. Fall Out Boy were the best reflection of MTV culture ca. 2007: an appearance by Jay-Z on “The Take Over, The Break’s Over” and the mere title of Infinity On High’s “This Ain’t A Scene It’s An Arms Race” indicative of the rabid genre cross-pollination and the effects of pop as a 24-hour news cycle. Pete Wentz and Hayley Williams’ bouts of sexting were par for the course by now.
Indeed, from the very first words on A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out, the debut from Panic! At The Disco, as well as the Decaydance label started by Janick and Wentz, Brandon Urie is addressing you, the listener, the lesson being “we’re all in this together.” It’s easy to sense a generation gap: critics heard next-level solipsism, but it was really a much-needed acknowledgement that no one really existed in a vacuum — not the performer, not the listener. Whether it was the lavish video concepts or the participatory lyrics, truth is, this music was a codification of a way of life. Following in their path were the likes of the Academy Is…, Cobra Starship and Cute Is What We Aim For, bands whose overstimulated and hyperaware sound and image were the equivalent of those browser-crashing, Blingee’d out MySpace profiles blasting their music. They’d take it as a compliment that they’d be inconceivable before 2003.
The same can be said of Paramore, in large part because they distinctly identify as post-Jimmy Eat World. Or because Hayley Williams, an all-too-rare female voice in a milieu that’s rarely as gender-balanced as its audience, was born in 1988. Yet 2007’s Riot! was classic alt-rock with a distinctly Fueled By Ramen edge: lyrics that were alternately conversational and biting, a massive leap from their tentative debut and possibly the most consistently radio-ready LP of its type since Jimmy Eat World’s Bleed American. Riot! spawned four singles and was followed in 2009 by Brand New Eyes, which became the fastest-selling record in Fueled By Ramen’s history. It’s a tribute not only to the instantaneous appeal of Paramore, but to the label’s constant renewal that there are already bands that can clearly be defined as post-Paramore, such as Decaydance artist Hey Monday.
Of course, problems come with such extroverted, visible personalities, and Fueled By Ramen is staring down the uncertainty facing some of their flagship acts: Fall Out Boy’s indefinite hiatus, Panic! At The Disco and Paramore’s personnel upheavals. And yet it’s hard to imagine Fueled By Ramen falling out of fashion when it’s debatable if they were ever fashionable in the first place: even after a deal with Warner Brothers and a move to the tony confines of Manhattan, there’s still an indigenous, Floridian sense of being on the outskirts of what’s considered cool and popular. After all, these are guys who thought they went legit when they set up an office in Tampa. It makes sense that many of Fueled By Ramen’s bands come from what are considered outposts of hip: Panic! At The Disco from Las Vegas, Fall Out Boy from the exurbs of Chicago, Paramore from Franklin, Tennessee. In fact, many of them appropriately feel like they come from the some vague online home as opposed to a physical location. Maybe that’s the real testament to the label’s longevity, that they’ve managed to tap into that very same feeling pervading the Internet-addled teenhood of the 21st century. They flip being overstimulated and underwhelmed into relatable, fascinating art.