Coming Out of Our Cage: A look inside the ‘Mr. Brightside’ phenomenon

Wednesday, March 7, 2018 - 6:04pm

The Killers

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As I walked toward the Greenwood block party last September, just as it seemed like it was about over, a familiar sound caught my ear. Amid the echoes of jubilant laughter and delirious chatter, I heard the unmistakable opening notes of “Mr. Brightside,” the debut single from Las Vegas quartet The Killers. The cluster of students streaming out of the neighborhood belted every single lyric, word for word, in nearly immaculate unison. It was mesmerizing, to say the least, though not unexpected.

Since I entered college, “Mr. Brightside” was considered the go-to anthem catered for every and any kind of social gathering. There are other iconic party jams that remain staples within college party culture — Fountains of Wayne’s “Stacy’s Mom,” Bowling for Soup’s “1985” and R. Kelly’s “Ignition (Remix)” are some well-known favorites. But no matter the venue or the time of day, “Mr. Brightside” is incomparable in how easily it can provoke a crowd of people to practically lose their shit and maintain that level of insanity throughout its duration.

While “Mr. Brightside” has been in existence since the early 2000s, its timelessness has transformed it into a fascinating and somewhat confounding phenomenon. A theatrical, triumphant anthem about unrequited love is now considered by many young people to be a millennial classic. In addition to being a musical marvel, “Mr. Brightside” has woven its way into other realms of pop culture, most notably on Twitter as a series of viral memes. It was featured in a scene from the 2006 rom-com “The Holiday,” where Cameron Diaz (“The Mask”) screams the lyrics to forget about her boyfriend’s infidelity, as well as a memorable sequence from the second season of “The O.C.,” where three of the show’s central couples confront one another at a rock concert — The Killers themselves make an appearance. The band continues to perform the song on tour, unabashedly and vigorously so, still capturing the hearts of their devoted fans, including “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Considering the social, cultural and sonic factors at play in the song’s runaway success, I decided to investigate what makes “Mr. Brightside” one of the most memorable and perennial tracks of the 21st century and what its significance might say about the people who cherish it the most.

“How did it end up like this?”: A brief history of “Mr. Brightside”

The magnitude of the song’s appeal can be traced all the way back to its beginning. In late 2001, The Killers’s frontman Brandon Flowers co-wrote the song with the band’s lead guitarist Dave Keuning. Inspired by a real-life situation in which Flowers discovered his then-girlfriend had cheated on him, “Mr. Brightside” follows a jealous guy and his attempt to reconcile with knowing his lover has left him for another man. Flowers and Keuning performed the song for the first time at an open mic night in Las Vegas’s Cafe Roma, a performance that Flowers described as “terrible” and “awful” in a 2005 Rolling Stone interview. Still, that didn’t stop the two from recording the song’s demo in 2002 (which was much grainier and more distorted than the original) and signing with UK indie label Lizard King Records. Initially, The Killers achieved more success in the United Kingdom, similar to how Jimi Hendrix found his commercial niche in England with his band’s 1967 debut Are You Experienced.

Once the song was re-recorded and re-released on the band’s 2004 debut Hot Fuss, “Mr. Brightside” finally found its calling in the United States. The song climbed to number 10 on the U.S. Billboard charts and became the ninth most downloaded song on iTunes in 2005. The Killers had officially been propelled into the mainstream limelight. To this day, the song continues to be a chart topper; according to Noisey, it spent 35 consecutive weeks on the U.K. Billboard Charts between July 2016 and March 2017, reaching its peak in three years at number 49 in January 2017.

The fact “Mr. Brightside” has endured years later and resonated with music listeners on an international scale remains a captivating enigma. Much like how the protagonist of the song prevails against the pain and suffering from losing his girlfriend, “Mr. Brightside” seems to have prevailed against its tumultuous start as well. Perhaps the song has maintained its success because of its unrelenting optimism, its ingenuity for its time or, most likely, the universal appeal of the underdog story at its center. Perhaps it’s all those things, but it’s worth noting “Mr. Brightside” would not be nearly as massive without the unforgettable lyrics and the propulsive beat that drive it.

“Gotta gotta be down because I want it all”: The lyrics and sound of “Mr. Brightside”

To further understand the song’s spellbinding allure, I spoke with Ryan Bodiford, a University professor who teaches Introduction to Popular Music this semester and specializes in musicology, a field that explores the relationships between music and its social significance. Though the song has a relatively conventional structure, Bodiford contends its attractiveness lies within the setup and payoff of its sound.  

“The whole tune is based around a build-up of momentum,” Bodiford said. “That bridge section is gaining momentum, the melody increases in pitch. The harmonies of the tune are building a certain tension that is released in this massive payout of the chorus.”

He also remarks the song draws on familiar styles, like British rock, pop and new wave music. This makes sense, especially because at the time of the song’s release, The Killers’s competition — The Strokes, Interpol, LCD Soundsystem and Yeah Yeah Yeahs — incorporated those genres as well as part of the growing NYC rock revival scene. But “Mr. Brightside” stands out not just for the texture of its production, but for the wistful feelings it elicits.

Jeff Peretz, an assistant arts professor at the New York University Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music, spoke about the song’s nostalgia and how its themes on paranoia, heartbreak and jealousy can translate into such a satisfying emotional release.

“I think (Mr. Brightside) gives permission to explore those kind of feelings,” Peretz said. “We all go through something similar and to be able to shout it out at a party out loud has got to be cathartic. It gives people a chance to celebrate that they’ve been through this.”  

It’s no wonder, then, why “Mr. Brightside” is considered such a desirable tune among college students. The combination of Flowers’s lyrical wordplay (“Jealousy, turning saints into the sea / Swimming through sick lullabies, choking on your alibis”) with the invigorating, major-key rhythm, comprised of fiery synths and booming, majestic guitar riffs, empowers and reassures its audience to remain optimistic even in the face of rejection, something that most young people arguably experience on a weekly basis.

That being said, millennials aren’t the only ones who consider “Mr. Brightside” a masterful earworm. In March 2016, 45-year-old Brian O’Sullivan led a raucous, emotional rendition of the song at an Irish pub in honor of his best friend who had died the previous week. The video that captured the scene went viral, even leading The Killers to post about it on Twitter, blessing O’Sullivan with their seal of approval. In a way, this kind of occurrence speaks to the song’s remarkable ability to transcend intergenerational barriers. Everyone, no matter what age, experiences some form of heartbreak over losing something or someone at some point in life.

“People feel more open and brave to express those kind of things,” Peretz said. “Whereas maybe they would be the kind of things you would keep to yourself if it wasn’t for a song like this.”

The song’s distinctive repetition also contributes to its infectiousness. Elizabeth Margulis, a music researcher based at the University of Arkansas, discussed the cognitive implications of repetition in pop music in a recent Vox video. At one point in the clip, Margulis deconstructs this idea of a “speech to song illusion.”

“You can take a little bit of speech, repeat it a number of times and for many people, there’s this very salient transformation where what initially just sounded like somebody talking to you sounds like someone singing,” she said.

“Mr. Brightside” works in a similar way; Flowers shouts the first verse, pre-chorus and chorus, then repeats them in the song’s second half, and finally ends by wailing “I never” four times in a row. According to the science behind the “speech to song illusion,” the more the lyrics are repeated, the catchier the track is. It’s why, as Vox contributor Estelle Caswell remarks in the video, songs like Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” Beyoncé’s “Formation” and Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” have become such addictive pop songs.

“Repetition doesn’t just make the song memorable,” Caldwell said when alluding to “Formation,” “it reinforces its central message.” The same can be said about “Mr. Brightside”; The song’s repetition supports this idea that no matter how difficult your circumstances may be, everything will be alright in the end.

“Destiny is calling me”: The cultural impact of “Mr. Brightside”

Even with all this in mind, it’s still difficult to ascertain just how and why “Mr. Brightside” has stayed so popular for so long. Why haven’t, say, Hot Fuss’s deep cuts “Smile Like You Mean It” and “Somebody Told Me” or “When You Were Young” from 2006’s Sam’s Town or “Human” from 2008’s Day and Age achieved the same level of playability? Why “Mr. Brightside” specifically?

Some have theorized “Mr. Brightside” has accumulated so much commercial and cultural capital because our parents played it for us when we were younger. It’s entirely probable that listening to “Mr. Brightside” could be some unconscious form of reclaiming that part of our childhood. And if not reclaiming our childhood, then maybe some type of psychological liberation. Others believe the song’s long-lasting success is due to the trend of post-ironic Spotify DJing, the comfort of nostalgia or simply because it’s a good song. One might also think millennials relate to the song’s themes of infidelity and jealousy because they are more prone to cheat on their partners, though there exists evidence that both supports and refutes this claim.

“Popularity is truly elusive,” Bodiford said. “There are things that nobody would’ve expected to become massively popular. In that case, you have to look at social aspects. Is it connected to a particular moment in time?”

Considering the turbulent social moment we’re currently living in, “Mr. Brightside” can certainly be an antidote to the unshakable anxiety that pervades youth and society at large today. By recontextualizing it as a party song, “Mr. Brightside” gives its listeners the agency and control that is so desperately needed during these times. Though the future remains unpredictable, the song’s legacy will hopefully stay intact.

“When the song first came out, I was like, ‘This is kind of cool.’ No one knew which one of those bands from that era was going to stick around,” Peretz recalled. “But this summer, at one of the festivals in the city (the Global Citizen Festival), they played the song and everybody went nuts for it. I remember being moved by how much people appreciated that song.”

“Youth is kind of inherently optimistic,” Bodiford said. “As you get older, you tend to get more jaded. Having a very uplifting theme that’s connected to music that’s also very optimistic and major-key and life-affirming… it resonates with a common outlook for a lot of University students that are getting ready to go out in the world.”

During the annual Michigan State University game last October, I witnessed this first-hand. The Big House decided to play “Mr. Brightside” for more than 100,000 people. Instead of cutting off the song, as they tend to do before the next play of the football game, they played it all the way through, letting it reverberate into the night as a horde of students roared along to the words.

Again, it was a captivating sight to see — the rainstorm that suddenly washed over the crowd made it feel all the more epic — but it felt appropriate in this context. Despite the fact that Michigan was losing against MSU, “Mr. Brightside” pushed us away from the lure of impending disappointment. It opened up our eager eyes and reminded us that we were doing just fine.