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The Killers’ ‘Mr. Brightside’ at 20: A Generation’s Anthem

The Killers’ ‘Mr. Brightside’ at 20: A Generation’s Anthem


The Killers released “Mr. Brightside” 20 years ago and hardly anybody cared.

The dominant hits of the day were hip-shakers and party bangers whose titles doubled as bodily imperatives: “Shake Ya Tailfeather,” “Get Low,” “Stand Up” — odes to the delirious, thrilling movements that keep the party going. “Mr. Brightside” is … not that.

It’s an intense, dramatic song about the shattering experience of getting cheated on by someone you love. The lead single off the Las Vegas band’s debut studio album, “Hot Fuss,” consists of exactly one verse, pre-chorus and chorus, which simply repeat; the singer Brandon Flowers’s voice is the sardonic wail of a jilted lover who is physically ill at the thought of his girlfriend being with someone else (“Now they’re going to bed, and my stomach is sick”), and pretends that he is totally OK (“Comin’ out of my cage, and I’ve been doing just fine”) when he is obviously an absolute wreck (“I just can’t look, it’s killing meeeee”).

Yet in the intervening decades, “Mr. Brightside” — which eventually reached the Billboard Hot 100 over a year after its initial release, peaking at No. 10 in June 2005 — has become something more than a hit. It has grown into an all-purpose, inescapable rallying cry: a karaoke staple, a football tradition, a party playlist must-have, a meme. It’s a straight shot of nostalgia that, having survived that awkward interval when a song feels dated and falls out of favor, now belongs to a pantheon of modern classics that are both extremely of their time and transcend it.

If boomers gave the masses “Don’t Stop Believin’,” millennials can claim “Mr. Brightside” as the generation’s official entry into that canon: a song that gets everybody at the bar shout-singing along.

The track is the centerpiece of the Killers’ oeuvre and the star of their new greatest hits album, “Rebel Diamonds,” which is full of hits with lyrics that are basically tattooed onto the hippocampuses of even the most casual fans — “All These Things That I’ve Done” (“I’ve got soul but I’m not a soldier”), the synthy-sad “Smile Like You Mean It” and gender-bendy “Somebody Told Me” (“you had a boyfriend who looked like a girlfriend that I had…”). But none of those singles comes close to matching the ongoing ubiquity of “Mr. Brightside.”

“We’ve never not played that song live, because it’s stood the test of time and I’m proud of it,” Flowers told Spin in 2015. “I never get bored of singing it.” (A representative for Flowers said he was unable to speak for this article because he was in the studio.)

“You drop this on a Friday night at midnight and the whole club just goes bananas,” said William Reed, a D.J. and founder of Club Decades, a dance party at Boardner’s in Hollywood. “Literally everybody in there is dancing and singing and dancing on top of the platforms and shouting with their eyes closed and screaming. It’s beautiful.”

Tony Twillie, entertainment director of the New Orleans Bourbon Street karaoke hot spot the Cat’s Meow, called it “one of our most popular songs.” He can cite its code for the D.J. — R203 — off the top of his head. “Everyone knows that code.”

Unlike “Don’t Stop Believin’,” “Mr. Brightside” is almost comically easy to sing — or at least, it is a song that can withstand being sung very badly.

Josh Fontenot, a bartender and former karaoke host at Louie’s Pub in Chicago, always pitches “Mr. Brightside” when rookies need a recommendation. “You can put the song on and not sing it and people will be excited that the song is on,” he said. “The room will sing it for you.”

If you have been to Nashville recently and felt like you heard this song everywhere, you’re probably right: Jer Gregg who oversees entertainment for TC Restaurant Group venues that cater to country music purists and bachelorette parties alike, estimates that “Mr. Brightside” is getting played “somewhere around 300 times a week” at the company’s various locations.

Why does the track slip so seamlessly into so many different settings? Genre-wise, it’s fluid: The Killers are a rock band, but their energy is a little bit glam, a little bit dance pop, a little bit emo. “Mr. Brightside” covers a cornucopia of emotional bases, too. You can sing it when you’re ecstatic, on a celebratory night out; you can sing it when you’re miserable, on a “forget about that ex” night out. There’s even a football angle.

At a 2017 University of Michigan game against its rival Michigan State, in the midst of a torrential downpour, the song came over the loudspeakers at the end of the third quarter and everybody in the sold-out stands (capacity: 109,901) kept singing a cappella after the D.J. cut the music. Belting “Mr. Brightside” has been a third-quarter ritual ever since. You can even buy “Mr. Brightside” Michigan-themed merch.

“It’s a weird song to have be a college football anthem,” acknowledged Alejandro Zúñiga, a Michigan alum who covers his alma mater for 24/7 Sports. “The subject of the song is not related to sports, and it’s not a fight song.,” he added. “But it just had so much momentum that it became what it is.”

“MR. BRIGHTSIDE” IS what the chart analyst and “Hit Parade” podcast host Chris Molanphy calls “a second-chance hit”: a song that fizzled and nearly flopped until something in the culture jolted it back to life. (Like Lizzo’s “Truth Hurts” from 2017, which didn’t really catch on until 2019, when it was released as a radio single after getting a bump from TikTok and Netflix.) “Sometimes certain songs need to marinate before they find their moment,” Molanphy said in an interview.

If artists hoping for a smash in 2020 are praying their song blows up on TikTok, in the early 2000s, the ultimate signal-boost for an indie band was getting on the soundtrack for the soapy teen drama “The O.C.” The Killers did one better: They appeared on a second-season episode of the show, performing a three-song set at the Bait Shop which included, of course, “Mr. Brightside.” Two months later, “Mr. Brightside” debuted on the Billboard charts.

The following year, when Nancy Meyers needed a specific song for her house-swap rom-com “The Holiday,” she felt like “Mr. Brightside” had been written with her movie in mind. In the scene, Cameron Diaz’s Amanda, drunk and alone — having fled to England after catching her boyfriend in bed with someone else — pops “Hot Fuss” into a CD player. With a glass of red wine in one hand and her other fist pumping the air, she drunkenly shouts along to the chorus.

“I knew I liked the song,” Meyers said in an interview. “The lyrics worked for the scene. What’s that line about? ‘Choking on your alibis.’ I don’t know if they wrote it from a woman’s point of view, but it fit what I needed.”

“It’s strangely upbeat, for an angry song,” she added, noting that the track has aged well: “Cheating on people, that’s not going out of style.”

CHANCES ARE YOU’VE heard “Mr. Brightside” at a wedding — maybe you played it at your wedding. According to DJ Intelligence, one of the top software platforms D.J.s use to let their clients build event playlists, “Mr. Brightside” is the third most-requested song, behind only Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” and Abba’s “Dancing Queen.”

Evan Reitmeyer, owner of the D.C.-area D.J. company MyDeejay, said “Mr. Brightside” is on more than half the playlists of his upcoming weddings — and its numbers have only been growing: “I would say in the last five to seven years especially, it’s just become a perennial hit that’s getting requested at every wedding.”

Despite its not-very-matrimonial theme, “Nobody seems to care about the lyrics,” he said. “They just care about how it feels. And I don’t mind; it kills on the dance floor so I’m going to keep playing it.”

For brides and grooms in their 30s, “Mr. Brightside” would have been a bop of their formative years — a time when late nights were spent chugging Four Loko, sweating through skintight American Apparel disco pants and making out with the wrong person (or knowing that, actually, you were the wrong person).

“I think it’s one of those songs, like ‘Don’t Stop Believin’,’ that people belatedly realize: ‘It’s an anthem. Why don’t we play this at every party we’ll ever have?’” Molanphy said. “And now you can’t escape it.”

But does Journey, a band that also got a boost when its song featured prominently on TV, think that “Mr. Brightside” is the new “Don’t Stop Believin’”?

“Sure, it is!” said Jonathan Cain, the band’s keyboardist and rhythm guitarist. He remembered liking it right away. “It was quirky and catchy. It bounced. When I heard it, it was kind of like the first time you heard Talking Heads. Very similar to David Byrne,” he said in an interview. “And what an opening line!” he added. “That immediately captures everybody’s imagination. It’s original. It’s got teeth. It’s got all that poignant sarcasm to it.”

While the two songs have very different emotional trajectories — “Don’t Stop Believin’” begins in loneliness and ends in a call for faith, while “Mr. Brightside” tracks the narrator’s spiral from coupledom into exile — both, Cain said, are about “the idea that stuff is going to come at you in life and you’re going to have to be able to walk through it, no matter what.”

For Kyle Tekiela, whose band Starry Eyes does some Killers cover gigs, “Mr. Brightside” is always the closer. “When it finally happens, everyone goes out of control and screams it. It’s like a religious experience,” he said. “‘Mr. Brightside’ comes on and it’s like: OK, all our energy is spent, and now it’s time to go. Call the Uber.”



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