On a conference call, the morning after the Met Gala, Nick Jonas divides his and his brothers' career in two: before and after Disney Channel first aired the "Year 3000" music video in 2007. Before "things weren't working," afterwards "it all came together." In the infamous clip, a 15-year-old Nick, 18-year-old Joe and 20-year-old Kevin, dressed in Converse and graphic tees (Joe in camouflage, Nick and Kevin in Ed Hardy) fall into a portal in a suburban living room, shimmering with CGI sparkles like an Instagram filter. They emerge enthused to find that, among other developments, in the future they are rock stars wearing matching suits, with a pile of magazine covers and a new album that outsold Kelly Clarkson.
We are on the phone, along with Joe and Kevin, to talk about the Jonas Brothers' surprise reunion and their first album in six years, Happiness Begins. Much like the rest of the world, however, I am fascinated by their past.
Like the Jonas Brothers' second coming, "Year 3000" is an intoxicating orgy of nostalgia for anyone who lived through their genesis: malls were in their heyday, technology was magical, not terrifying, Instagram was a prototype on a jewel-colored Mac desktop in Silicon Valley, and Kelly Clarkson was the gold standard for album sales. The prophetic song feels self-congratulatory now, but at the time, it represented a fantasy. The Jonas Brothers didn't know that they'd spend much of their adolescence in matching suits, or that their next album would, indeed, crush Clarkson's corresponding My December in sales that year.
On Kevin: Jacket by Fendi; On Joe: Polo by Fendi; On Nick: Jacket & Belt (Worn as Tie) by Fendi
Without that video — a cover of British pop-punk band Busted, whose original lyrics envisioned a future full of triple-breasted women, instead of cute space girls with Star Wars buns — we might never have met the Jonas Brothers. Their debut album It's About Time had middled out on Columbia (it would later become a fan favorite), while they spent a couple years opening for their teen idol forbearers: Jesse McCartney, the Backstreet Boys, Jump5 and The Cheetah Girls. It was only after "Year 3000" went "viral" (in the way things did in 2007, conducted via hallway chatter and YouTube-binging sleepovers, alongside clips like "Salad Fingers," Shoes" and "Charlie Bit Me") that Disney realized Nick, Joe and Kevin, with their unthreatening good looks, nuclear New Jersey normalness, and formidable skills with guitars and microphones, were the perfect raw material for their cottage industry of boys and girls next door.
They released their breakout second album The Jonas Brothers on Disney's label, Hollywood Records later that year. Quickly, they saturated the Disney multiverse and the lives of early-to-mid 2000's suburban youth. They made a guest appearance on Hannah Montana that broke cable records. Their songs could be heard in Aquamarine, Zoey 101, on Cartoon Network's Friday program, and leaking out of iPod minis, mall speakers, high school gyms and 100,000-seat stadiums. The Camp Rock series, entanglements with other famous teenagers, various concert films and their sitcom, Jonas, followed.
On Kevin: Jacket by Double Rainbouu, Shirt by The Elder Statesman; On Nick: Jacket by Acne; On Joe: Jacket by Acne
Nostalgia is an inescapable fog hanging around Nick, Joe and Kevin, as the world watches them tease each other on TV hosts' couches and jump around in matching suits again, for the first time in six years. It's not just about them. That bedazzled, low-rise moment is on everyone's minds. An avalanche of blog posts about their reunion begin with some iteration of the pseudo-incredulous question: "Avril Lavigne, JoJo and Ashley Tisdale are dropping albums, Amanda Bynes is back, Lindsay Lohan is making TV and the Jonas Brothers are getting back together. Is it 2019 or 2009?" PAPER recently debuted a column, called "This Week In 2009," to feed our appetite for photos of Rihanna with a momager haircut, and Spencer Pratt and Heidi Montag making out in surgical masks during the swine flu panic. The Jonas Brothers have already made it into several installments. The guys confirm they did not engineer their reunion to sync up with our cultural nostalgia cycle, but due to it, talking about the good old days will be an extra compulsory aspect of their press tour. At 26, 29 and 31, the Jonas Brothers aren't unwilling, but a bit ambivalent about rehashing their adolescence.
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"We're not really defined by those years," Nick claims, when I ask the trio about how they look back on the fever pitch of the JoBro craze. But when I nudge, he admits the period was undeniably influential. "We had a lot of fun... you know, it was sort of a rocket ship to the moon during that time. When Disney played our video for 'Year 3000,' everything changed. It all started to happen when Disney got on board. Our years doing Camp Rock and TV shows were really formative."
It's not that the Jonas Brothers are at odds with their origin story. They'll soon release a glossy Amazon documentary reliving it, and this past weekend, gave a euphoric rendition of their oldie "Burnin' Up" on SNL. But they've previously indicated otherwise. "I don't feel as frustrated now as I did then," Joe says of a candid as-told-to essay he gave New York Magazine in 2013, a few months after the band's break-up. He wrote then, "Being a part of the Disney thing for so long will make you not want to be this perfect little puppet forever." He detailed an authoritarian, image-obsessed company culture (recalling that High School Musical's Vanessa Hudgens was put on lockdown in the Disney offices after her nude photos were leaked), and how the band became stifled under Disney's tutelage, forced to maintain an increasingly awkward and false teen marketability as they grew eager to sing about more complex topics than crushes and homework. Joe and Kevin were required to shave every day, and allusions to anything sexier than a kiss or darker than a minor bummer were "sugar-coated." The essay is emotional, but not scornful, simply trying to make people understand the many factors that led up to 2013, when the Jonas Brothers cancelled their tour, scrapped their fifth album, and stopped being a band.
Joe doesn't walk back anything he wrote. But with the anxiety he faced back then as a newly unemployed solo act now largely evaporated, he speaks to the same topics with adult, big picture complexity. "We were having to censor ourselves, I think any artist could relate. That's not fun. We were at a standstill with our TV show and the movies. We were young adults, having to pretend like we're young teenagers," he reiterates, but explains that to be frustrated with the company was "such a weird mindset to get into, because we have Disney to thank for so much, they got us started in our career."
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Nick bristles at the cartoonish idea that he and his brothers were victims of Big Bad Disney, or anything besides mutual investors in their image and success. "Before this becomes an indictment of Disney and Disney culture, I think it's important to say that, though we felt limited at times, bottom line, Disney was really good for us; really good training wheels for anybody that wants to become a musician or entertainer, as far as work ethic and all the rest. There was a balance to it all, and we could have had it a lot worse." They seem acutely aware there was no cost to their relationship with Disney more valuable than what they gained: "[Those years] are a major part of our story and a big way that our fans connect with us and continue to today." If it were the case that the world couldn't move on from their childhood, Nick says, "It might be tougher to accept... But we have to continue to make new statements and push ourselves to create who we are, every day."
"We were young adults, having to pretend like we're young teenagers." — Joe Jonas
Why would they be inclined to dwell on the past? Since their break-up — when Nick was 21, Joe was 24 and Kevin was 26 — each Jonas has transitioned into an entirely new life. Following his Married To Jonas reality TV show, Kevin retreated into his family and pursued real estate development, satisfied to spend his days as a non-famous. Joe and Nick each rebelled, a little. Joe, "the bad boy," experimented with the archetype he'd been cast in as a teen by dating famous models and growing a beard. Seeming to find the role ill-fitting, he then opted to become the frontman of fun dance-pop band DNCE, of "Cake By The Ocean" fame. Baby Nick tripled in size, made a vulnerable, sexy R&B record, landed a few underwear billboards, and emerged as a Hollywood heartthrob following his effective performance in blockbuster Jumanji. As you might have heard, the latter two have also recently gotten married, attaching themselves to famous and successful women who, aside from appearing to make them genuinely very happy, also brought them back into the fold of A-list celebrity even before the reunion was announced.
On Kevin: Jacket by Louis Vuitton; On Joe: Vest by Louis Vuitton; On Nick: Jersey by Acne, Shirt by Versace, Watches by Rolex
Instead of reminiscing about the highs and lows of their days sketching Mickey Mouse's ears with a CGI wand or picking at scabbed-over angst at the behest of a pesky writer, the Jonas Brothers would rather talk about all the good things in their lives, now. For instance, how sublime it feels to be the Jonas Brothers, again.
"It's been incredible, being back together after the longest time apart and spending this amount of time together in the studio, not to mention actually announcing this stuff and the response to the music," gushes Kevin. "It's been so overwhelming and so exciting. It means so much to us to be able to do this again as brothers. It's just beyond..." The words "incredible," "exciting," "amazing," "overwhelming," as well as "crazy" and "surreal" are repeated over and over in our conversation, as they describe getting to know each other as brothers and musicians again. "It had been four or five years since we spent any time by ourselves, you know, just hanging out."
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Today, the Jonas Brothers are poised to become a bigger force in music than they ever were in their Disney days. They've achieved this — despite re-entering a radically different pop landscape than the one they departed, now ruled by rappers making country, bearded scumbros making rap, and teen girls making ASMR — by doing exactly what first made them a sensation: clean, universal, good vibes pop songs.
"We take what we do seriously, but we don't take ourselves seriously." — Nick Jonas
Both of their new singles, "Cool" and "Sucker," radiate an unforced joy and playful confidence that seems to be the defining quality of the Jonas Brothers' second coming. "It's all about having fun," says Nick. "We take what we do seriously, but we don't take ourselves seriously."
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The sound of the Jonas Brothers not taking themselves seriously is so pleasant that "Sucker" — a carbonated love song that sounds the way Pop Rocks fizzling on your tongue feel — has become their first ever No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. It doesn't sound like old Jonas Brothers, but it also doesn't sound like much else in pop right now. With the help of OneRepublic frontman, songwriter and producer Ryan Tedder (as well as popcraft overlords Max Martin, Greg Kurstin and Justin Tranter), the Jonas Brothers have shed their pop-punk-curious crunch and Disney sing-along sugar, while staying faithful to the drums-and-guitar roots and tactile storytelling that made a generation fall in love with them. The effect is a flavor of blissed out pure pop, that both sounds both refreshing next to today's deluge of morbid pop cyborgs and comfortingly familiar.
"We had a real sense that it was important for us to stay authentic to who we are," Nick explains when I ask how they resisted the urge to abandon their rockist roots for pop's current greener, genre-scrambled pastures. "When you go back and and listen to Jonas Brothers records, they're written and produced as rock and roll records." However, he says "that doesn't mean that we can't try out other sounds, or go on a journey to get there," and promises there's at least one trap beat and one yeehaw moment on Happiness Begins.
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Despite the above, let's be honest: a No. 1 Jonas Brothers single in 2019 doesn't make any sense (a glitch in the simulation, as they say). The Jonas Brothers belong in the past: in the childhoods of a generation now in their mid-twenties, and in a normcore, suburban fantasy that feels like it should have lost its appeal in our increasingly conscious times.
Plus, boy bands don't get number ones anymore. The last time one accomplished the feat was in 2003, when B2K's P. Diddy-assisted "Bump, Bump, Bump" hit number one (overtaking Christina Aguilera's "Beautiful" and Justin Timberlake's "Cry Me A River), according to Billboard. Even unfathomably famous ones: One Direction's highest entry on the Hot 100, 2013's "Best Song Ever," peaked at No. 2, lagging behind "Blurred Lines." Their own hits, 2008's "Burnin' Up," "Tonight" and "A Little Bit Longer," never made it past No. 5 during the reign of Katy Perry's "I Kissed A Girl" and Rihanna's "Disturbia." Their new trophy signals the JoBros have begun to transcend the silos of a traditional boy band audience, and thus, our general disdain for the culture young women tend to love.
On Kevin: Jacket by Fendi; On Joe: Polo by Fendi; On Nick: Jacket & Belt (Worn as Tie) by Fendi
How did they do it?
There's a cinematic mythos to the Jonas Brothers' reunion story, which, indeed, will be soon available to stream. It went like this: Nick, the architect of the reunion, had started occasionally slipping JoBros songs into his solo sets and realized he was craving their brotherly magic. As they began spending time together on the set of their documentary, the seed in Nick's brain broke ground, and became an explicit conversation. Then, there was the spontaneous jam session of "Love Bug" in Cuba that reminded them of the magic of playing together. Then came the "intervention," when Kevin and Nick flew to Australia where Joe was hosting The Voice to address the baggage left over from their last run as a band, which they'd realized would be a prerequisite for a successful reunion. They did so with a series of conversations that Kevin describes as "the kind probably only brothers can have without wanting to throw a table at each other" ("they're in the doc, and they're heavy," he promises). During these talks, they decided that this time around, it would be all about having fun. Kevin adds: "The choice to do this wasn't out of need, it was more, 'This is something we really want to do together.'"
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The Jonas Brothers' break-up went like this: the flame was Nick's solo ambitions. The gasoline was burn-out, the colliding egos of a band with two frontmen, diverging tastes (evident in the forked road of DNCE and Nick Jonas), and general paralysis. "We lost touch with what we wanted to say, because we were trying so hard to say something different from what we said in the past, musically and creatively," Nick explains. Plus, instead of becoming deluded by their preternatural fame, it had given them imposter syndrome and anxiety. "We understood that our level of success and fame had reached a point, where our musicianship and writing and performing abilities needed time to grow and catch up to it."
When I ask what kept them humble enough to realize this, Nick admits: "I think it was a combination of humility, and just being scared that it was all going to disappear." He references what he recalls as a Coldplay soundbite, that helped them through that choice: "I don't want to misquote, so you might want to fact check, but something about the fact that, they had become too big, you know, for their level of musicianship, so they worked harder than ever and went even deeper creatively. We really related to that." I'm unable to confirm the words belong to any member of Coldplay, but wherever the Jonas Brothers came across it, it must have been a comfort to know they were navigating charted rockstar waters.
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Listening to the brothers reflect, it seems that the pyre underneath the Jonas Brothers' flame-out was simply the reality that Nick, Joe and Kevin are genuinely skilled, creative musicians, who were always going to clash with their cramped confines. Maybe the demises of commercial boy bands aren't a product of personal dysfunction at all, but rather, of their artistic health — evidence that they're composed of living, breathing human beings, rather than attractive androids positioned in the right spots on a music video set. If a group of kids in the Jonas Brothers' position forge ahead cheerfully into the complex chaos of their twenties without craving autonomy from each other or Disney's iron fist, someone should probably check under their curls for lobotomy scars.
"I think it was a combination of humility, and just being scared that it was all going to disappear." — Nick Jonas
"It really took the last six, seven years to figure out who we were as people and what kind of music we wanted to make." Nick says. He mentions tactfully that "a lot of young performers find this transition into adulthood really challenging," and implies pushing the bounds of their wholesome, juvenile aesthetic while still operating as the Jonas Brothers might not have been pretty: "If we had continued to try to push things forward the way we were operating, it might have been difficult. Perhaps we would have had to make bolder statements... shocked people into understanding who we are. I think the world is more accepting of us as adults than they would have been if we insisted, 'This is who we are now, accept us.'"
On Joe: Jacket by Acne; (On Kevin) Jacket by Double Rainbouu, Shirt by The Elder Statesman; (On Nick) Jacket by Acne
If they hadn't abandoned their spot at the top, and taken the time to grow up and chill out, avoiding many of the more excruciating personal and professional pitfalls of young pop stardom, the Jonas Brothers might have found themselves somewhat tragic figures in 2019, doomed to a career mired in nostalgia. Instead Nick, Kevin and Joe are having the time of their lives on their prodigal pop homecoming. I doubt they'd have this moment if they'd staged their return, however, by attempting to make the world see them as more than "just a boy band." With no ambitions beyond "trying to bottle happiness" and bringing "positive vibes to the world," as Nick explains of the album title inspiration, the Jonas Brothers, against the odds, have plucked themselves out of our "Week in 2009" column and earned a place in the living, breathing cultural fabric of 2019.
Maybe the key is simply prioritizing what's always been at the core of the Jonas Brothers: the fans — their palates and desires, giving them new lyrics to tattoo on their ankles, Easter eggs to mine for the details of their lives, and concerts to scream at with their friends.
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"The reunion... felt like getting my best friend back after a long time," one fan, whose handle is @jonasbr0, says on Twitter. Another, whose display handle reads "Kat LOVES the Jonas Brothers," claims "I'm the most excited that anyone has ever been about anything," revealing "When I graduated high school I decorated my cap to say "I'd rather be at a Jonas Brothers concert." "Their music has brought some of my best friends into my life. We've all grown up together with the boys" says @taylaxo.
Nick muses, "The best part of this go around, is the fact that those fans have lived with our records for so many years that they're part of their lives, and they're really meaningful to them. We can feel that energy. All those years of fearing it was going to disappear are now kind of..." he trails off.
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Stream the Jonas Brothers' Complete Collection, below.