The Anniversary

Hot Fuss Turns 20


Let’s call it right now: “Mr. Brightside” is the white “Back That Azz Up,” the white “Gasolina.” If you play “Mr. Brightside” at a sufficiently loud volume around a crowd of sufficiently drunk white people, bedlam will ensue. The song is a shared experience, a cultural staple. It’s still in the British charts after 20 years, making it the longest-running chart hit in UK history. Over there, it recently replaced “Wonderwall” as the biggest hit that never went to #1. “Mr. Brightside” will never go away. Every day, it’s a little harder to remember a world without that song. That world once existed. If you’re old enough, you might even vaguely recall a moment when “Mr. Brightside” was the flop-sweaty second single from one more fresh-faced band attempting to cash in on the return-of-the-rock hype.

Let’s take a trip back. American Apparel. Indoor smoking. The Vice Do’s & Don’t’s column. Fluorescent extra-medium T-shirts. Cocaine sniffed off of toilet tanks. Britpop dance nights. Enthusiastic discussions of what might happen on next week’s Lost. And New York rock bands. Every week, it was another New York rock band. You couldn’t keep track of them all. The Strokes were just the beginning. By 2004, the conversation had moved on — the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, TV On The Radio, the Rapture, Liars, Radio 4, Out Hud, Ambulance LTD. Those bands were horny and anarchic and well-dressed and fully versed in the UK new wave of the early ’80s. For a moment, Interpol were kings of the zeitgeist, ready to take the leap and headline Madison Square Garden for generations to come. Then some Mormons from Las Vegas swept in and fucked their whole shit up. Nobody saw the Killers coming.

The Killers named themselves after the fake band from New Order’s “Crystal” video, and “fake band from a New Order video” was very much their aesthetic. They leaned into kitschy Vegas-bred showmanship, and they applied that hamminess to the scuzzy and synth-infused rock ‘n’ roll that they loved. Brandon Flowers famously claimed that the Killers ditched all of their early non-“Mr. Brightside” songs once he heard the Strokes’ Is This It, and then he made a record that sold exponentially more than Is This It. This put the Killers in a strange position: The bands that they idolized looked at them as industry-plant interlopers, but none of those bands were doing Killers numbers. Things change when you make hits, and the Killers made hits.

Growing up in Vegas and in a few different small Utah towns, Brandon Flowers could only view the rock ‘n’ roll that he loved from afar. If he’d been born a generation later, Flowers would’ve spent his whole life online, but this wasn’t an option for the eldest of millennials. Instead, Flowers haunted the Las Vegas Virgin Megastore, where he could pick up imported copies of NME and stay up on the American bands that were hyped up in the British press. Vegas had a rock scene, but it was dominated by warmed-over nĂ¼ metal, and Flowers wanted to make some David Bowie shit. Eventually, he found three other musicians who wanted the same thing.

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The Killers played the long game. They posted their songs online in the pre-MySpace era when unsigned bands didn’t generally do that. They found themselves a manager, shopped their demos around to major labels, and played an LA showcase for Warner execs. They weren’t trying to to tour dive bars across America or pay underground dues. In Lizzy Goodman’s Meet Me In The Bathroom, drummer Ronnie Vannucci says, “We’d play a sports bar with 13 people in it and we’d act like it was Wembley.” The New York bands weren’t doing that. If anything, they were doing the opposite, barely acknowledging the crowds that they were drawing.

The Warner execs who saw the Killers in LA weren’t interested, but Ben Durling, of the newly founded British indie Lizard King, offered them a deal. Brandon Flowers had just watched the Strokes take off by dropping a UK-only EP and whipping up a frenzy in the British press, so the Killers simply followed the same playbook. The NME hype-cycle was already starting to wear itself out in 2003, but the Killers snuck through the door just before it slammed shut. After their few UK shows got fired-up reviews, the American labels were suddenly interested, and the Killers signed with Island. (Sarah “Ultragrrrl” Lewitinn, an early Killers booster, wrote about that whole process for Stereogum when Hot Fuss turned 10.)

The Killers might’ve followed a familiar trajectory, but they didn’t have much in common with the other bands who went through that hype-wringer. They weren’t partiers. They weren’t drunk and high all the time. They were studious, socially stilted outsiders who didn’t particularly care about their own coolness, and they were going for it. The Killers’ debut album Hot Fuss, which turns 20 today, is not a tentative step. The band has said that they tried to keep a raw immediacy on the record, to the point where they used the original demos of songs like “Mr. Brightside,” but Hot Fuss doesn’t sound like a raw, immediate album. The first half, at least, sounds like a readymade greatest-hits record. It emits that rare hard-striving quality that you only hear in blockbuster albums on the level of Thriller or Hysteria. Hot Fuss isn’t as good as those, but it’s a fascinating case study of how hard those hipster sounds could go when they were adapted by people with no interest in hipness.

The first time I heard “Somebody Told Me,” I thought it was a joke, a Michael Bay movie’s take on dance-punk. The hooks were too obvious, the keyboards too expensive, the singer too impressed with his own post-gender flirtiness. It sounded like some major-label boardroom was trying to market the warehouse-party disco-rock that I loved to me, and I was immediately suspicious. Then I realized that the hook was firmly stuck in my head all afternoon. The first few times that I sang along with the “Somebody Told Me” chorus, I was probably trying to be ironic. Somewhere in there, though, the irony faded away. Hit songs have a way of showing you just how foolish your resistance can be.

“Mr. Brightside” was technically the first single, and it came out in the UK in the fall of 2003. In the US, most of us didn’t hear “Mr. Brightside” until after “Somebody Told Me” had already primed the pump. There was no fighting “Mr. Brightside.” The song didn’t immediately sound like the kind of thing that would still be on the charts decades later, but it did feel absolutely fucking huge. The opening guitar riff was like the Edge jacked up on Pixy Stix. The second verse was the same as the first. The chorus was the kind of thing that you wanted to scream into your friend’s face at the peak of the night. Brandon Flowers was singing about desperately coveting a girl he couldn’t have, but he didn’t sound jealous even when he was belting out the word “jealousy.” Instead, he sounded as charged with excitement as the song felt. The “Mr. Brightside” video turned that jittery energy into something operatic, and it had Eric Roberts as the villain, just like a Ja Rule video.

It took a while for “Mr. Brightside” to fully click in the US. It made it to #10 on the Hot 100 in June 2005, after Hot Fuss had already been out for more than a year. At some point, I caved and bought the CD, possibly under the pretext that it was a gift for my girlfriend, and I was delighted to learn that Hot Fuss opened with the sound of a helicopter rotor. The songs on Hot Fuss don’t all hit as hard as “Mr. Brightside” and “Somebody Told Me”; some of the back-half tracks are straight-up forgettable. But the whole album has a blockbuster-sized ambition that simply didn’t exist in the Killers’ contemporaries. The White Stripes were good for one “Seven Nation Army” per album. The Killers wanted every song to land like “Seven Nation Army.” It was different.

One night, “Mr. Brightside” came on in the club, and I had a drunken epiphany: This was how I wished Interpol would sound! I kept trying to get into Interpol, and I couldn’t get past how boring they were. I saw that band two or three times when they were touring behind Turn On The Bright Lights, and I always found myself playing Snake on my Nokia phone. Interpol were icy and remote and teutonic, and they were not trying to engage me at all. The Killers were the opposite. They were shameless and earnest and eager to please and sometimes even embarrassing. They desperately wanted me to love them. They were the golden retrievers of ’00s hipster rock, and I love a golden retriever.

I still don’t know how serious the Killers were trying to be with their album closer “Glamorous Indie Rock & Roll.” Maybe they meant it! But they were about as major-label as it got, and they sounded fundamentally opposed to everything that I knew as “indie.” Eventually, that song came to sound like a taunt.

But then, plenty of Killers lyrics took on different meanings over time. Consider: “I’ve got soul but I’m not a soldier.” I thought that line was so fucking stupid the first hundred times I heard it. Even then, though, I had to marvel. The Killers liked that line enough to repeat it a bunch of times, with a full gospel choir behind them, in the context of a majestic hands-in-the-air stadium-rock banger. Once again, my resistance crumbled. By 2006, a scarred-up Justin Timberlake was lip-syncing that line in Richard Kelly’s baffling Donnie Darko follow-up Southland Tales, and it started to feel like it might even be meaningful.

I wanted to be too cool for the Killers. I was not. You probably weren’t, either. Hot Fuss kept gaining steam. A year after its release, it was double platinum and still spinning off singles. (It’s sextuple platinum now.) Brandon Flowers would publicly worry about how his band’s album wasn’t as cool as the records that he loved, but its uncoolness clearly struck a chord. With its arch, wounded drama-nerd tendencies, Hot Fuss moved way beyond the target audiences for the Strokes and White Stripes of the world. It sounded right at home next to arena-rock emo jams from bands like Fall Out Boy and Panic! At The Disco, and the Killers welcomed their new normie fans with open arms. They were normies, too. They meant it.

In October 2005, as the Hot Fuss album cycle was just starting to wind down, I reviewed a horribly misconceived music festival in New York. The promoters of the Across The Narrows fest had a big idea: Two different shows in two different NYC minor-league ballparks at the same time. You can see the problem here. These festivals were competing against each other, and they required New Yorkers to schlep out to Staten Island and Coney Island, two places that were way off the beaten live-music path. It was a truly sad spectacle — a few hundred people in a cavernous Staten Island baseball stadium, with Tegan And Sara, British Sea Power, and Interpol all playing to dead silence. By the time the Killers closed out the night, though, some energy entered the building.

At that point, the Killers only had the one album, and their deep cuts and faithful David Bowie covers weren’t compelling enough to fill all that empty stadium space. But when they played those singles, they brought the magic. When I heard “Mr. Brightside,” I was suddenly happy that I’d ridden the Staten Island Ferry out to this boondoggle of a festival, and everyone who was there felt the same way.

This weekend, the Killers will headline Governors Ball, another New York City festival. They will play “Mr. Brightside” again, and it will sound amazing again. The Killers will be able to keep playing arenas and festivals for as long as they want, and Hot Fuss and “Mr. Brightside” will be the primary reasons that they’re still able to pack them in. Hipster credibility is evanescent; it’s not the kind of thing that anyone worries about two decades later. But the white “Back That Azz Up”? That’s forever.

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