The first record I ever owned was Sam’s Town by The Killers. I shoplifted it from a Target that had just opened here in Staten Island. This was before they figured out that people brought stuff into the bathroom with them and ripped the packaging off so they could walk out undetected.
Now they have sensors right before you enter the bathroom, thus putting an end to a true golden age for moody teens who needed their fix of both bombastic stadium rock and season four of Scrubs. Shame.
Sam’s Town was the band’s “take us seriously” album. Their debut album, Hot Fuss, was fun and cheeky but the Nevada band showed they had enough (time, truth, and) heart for the LP to exist as more than just a trite ‘80s new wave rehash.
The key to all of this was lead singer Brandon Flowers’ impeccable showmanship. He just has this innate ability to powerfully deliver lines, making them feel important even if they secretly don’t mean a thing.
It’s his voice. It’s crisp, hearty, and the man knows how to bellow. In less capable hands, listeners would have realized how empty and dumb I’ve got got soul, but I’m not a soldier, was within the first listen. Instead, it took them about thirty, by which they were already in love with the song, so it didn’t matter.
This trick didn’t work for everyone, however. At the time, there was a “real rock” revival going on, spearheaded by bands like The Strokes, The White Stripes, Interpol, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Writers at Pitchfork, Spin, and Rolling Stone loved praising these bands. After a few years of boy bands, pop princesses and rap stars taking over the charts without a single rock group to be seen, all of a sudden, twenty possible candidates came out of the woodwork.
With the success of Hot Fuss, The Killers wound up being a part of those twenty bands. This left a sour taste in the mouths of their peer bands and the writers who breathlessly praised them. In this new league of rock, The Killers weren’t exactly a perfect fit.
Most of the critically-beloved bands of this time were formed after a leather jacket fell into a radioactive puddle outside of Orchard Street (you can replace this with whatever the hip street in London is in order to account for why NME loves The Libertines and Arctic Monkeys so much if you’d like).
This wasn’t the Killers’ story, though. And in certain ways, their starkly different origin is rather important in terms of understanding the band’s identity, and why that set them apart from their contemporaries.
Brandon Flowers is a Mormon bimbo from the outskirts of Las Vegas. I mean this in the nicest way possible.
His default setting is earnesty all the way, which is why, in an interview with Rolling Stone, he’ll go and say something like:
“I could go up to my hotel room right now and — y’know, I still want to write an ‘Imagine.’ It’s not impossible to me, as much as everyone would like to say it is.”Brandon Flowers
The ambitious naiveté that Flowers expressed here has stuck with me for over a decade now. It’s helped me better understand every single line he’s ever written. He wants all of his songs to reek of importance, and what’s more important than Good battling Evil, or true love knowing no bounds.
This is all Brandon Flowers, the Mormon Bimbo, ever thinks about. Unfortunately, there’s a very strange part of me that loves him for that.
The other bands who were reviving real rock were very much not trying to make the next Imagine. The Strokes, and Yeah Yeah Yeahs really just wanted to wreck whatever was in front of them, while Interpol would bemoan the mess left by those two afterward. The tactless earnestness that The Killers brought to the table simply didn’t fit in.
To these bands, as well as the writers covering them, it all felt inauthentic. As a perfect example, in Pitchfork’s 5.3/10 review for Hot Fuss, they call it “radio-friendly style-over-substance.”
Furthermore, Elizabeth Goodman’s oral history of this time period, Meet Me in the Bathroom, invites Strokes guitarist Nick Valensi to recall how he and his bandmates would compare themselves to the Killers, saying “‘gosh, I think our songs are better than ‘Mr. Brightside’ by the Killers, but how come that’s the one everyone is listening to?’”
It should be noted that this disdain was very one-sided. When asked about the bands from that time, each member of the Killers has nothing but glowing remarks to say about them.
Not only did Flowers gladly express how he thought Is This It, the Strokes’ debut album, was better than theirs, he’s also admitted that he was so floored by what they did on that album that they scrapped just about every song they had at that point. Every song except for Mr. Brightside, of course.
The love doesn’t even stop there, either. Recently, The Killers have recently made a habit of covering bands from whatever town they’re in that night. Because of this, The Killers have covered The Strokes, as well as Interpol, the latter performance being prefaced by a minute-long ode to a scene that made a whole book about how much better they were than them.
Regarding the ‘substance’ of it all, however, the idea of a rock band using synths had been a hotly-contest matter since the ‘80s. So in that respect, Pitchfork wasn’t exactly breaking new ground by saying such a decision lacked true artistic merit. The bigger issue, of course, is in regards to its originality, which is where things get very annoying.
As mentioned earlier, The Killers borrowed heavily from new wave on Hot Fuss. Those were the bands Flowers grew up idolizing and wanted to make an album that reflected that. That did not sit well with many people. However, Strokes frontman Julian Casablancas blatantly lifted a Tom Petty riff, and say time and time again that he was just copying the Velvet Underground, Can you find a link for this and everyone hails him for it.
Rock in the early 2000s was an entire movement predicated on revivalism. The charming aspect to this was that listeners got introduced to lesser-known legendary bands like VU and Joy Division by way of modern interpretations of their sound.
The Killers did this, too, but with acts that had less underground cache, like Duran Duran and New Order. It wasn’t the time to rehash New Order, though. There was already enough of that on the charts. What people really needed to hear was something more aggressive, something that made the listener think about how much heroin New Yorkers did in the ‘70s. Because that’s authenticity, baby.
The romanticization of artists going through drug problems is a tiring trope, and it’s unfortunately what a lot of writers love wasting ink over.
Music lovers who take themselves very seriously revert to tabloidy gossip hogs when talking about who’s addicted to what and how that influenced the recording of whichever album. And in terms of who you’d rather live vicariously through, sure, it’s probably way more fun being the stereotypical rock star than the earnest Mormon bimbo.
Ironically, though, The Strokes were posturing just as much as The Killers. These were rich kids who all met at Dalton, one of the most prestigious prep schools in the country. Also, many of the bandmates in Interpol and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs met at NYU, a private liberal arts college so rife with privilege that the name of the school itself is a punchline at this point. For many of these artists, they fell for the mythos of Old New York and committed so hard to their slummin’ it roles that they actually almost succumbed to the same perils as the bands they were trying to emulate.
The Killers never really had this problem. They all came from modest desert origins, and in order to combat that, they wanted to look dapper, which led to them being pariahs.
In the same Rolling Stone interview referenced earlier, Flowers broke the differences down perfectly, explaining “The Strokes were dirty rock & rollers coming from more well-to-do places. We came from the opposite end and put on suits.”
Part of me always wonders if the reason why they got so much hate is because The Strokes could tell from a mile away that they considered their off-rack suits to be gauche, but could never say that because then it would ruin their whole brand.
It’s hard to think of anything more tedious than fixating on which bands revived something authentically enough and which ones did not. But that’s what was happening during this time. And with the release of Sam’s Town, it only got worse, as they pivoted their worship from New Order to Bruce Springsteen.
Bruce Springsteen means a lot to many music fans. 14-year-old me never really listened to him. Honestly, why would I listen to the artist that every shitty Republican dad on Staten Island worshiped? There was nothing in it for me.
So when The Killers decided to channel The Boss on Sam’s Town, I was pretty much none the wiser and thought it all sounded rad and cutting edge. The critics begged to differ yet again.
For the second time in a row, The Killers failed the critics’ fickle little homage test. Both Spin and Pitchfork panned it. And since every Rolling Stone contributor has a marble Bruce statue erected in their living room, there was no way they were gonna accept such an unsophisticated bastardization of their god, so they gave it 2/5 stars.
To make matters worse, aside from the powerhouse “When You Were Young”, none of the tracks on their sophomore album had significant staying power in the mainstream. The Hot Fuss days were clearly over.
Despite being less successful commercially, Sam’s Town is what inevitably made The Killers who they are today. Fans bought into the new direction and fell hard for the glitzed-up heartland sound they created, and by the time the decade-end lists started rolling out in 2009, the Victims (yes, that’s what Killers fans proudly call themselves) got together and decided to get the last laugh on those harsh critics by fan voting Sam’s Town as Rolling Stone’s most underrated album of the aughts. I, still a very moody teenager at the time, took part in this poll. Take that, Rob Sheffield.
A couple years ago, outlets started to write up mea culpas on The Killers. Part of this was due to how much they loved “The Man”, their undeniable hit single from Wonderful, Wonderful. The other part was due to popular music as a whole being treated with much greater respect than it got back when the Nevada band first got on the scene.
From a broader perspective, the flawed reasoning behind what a fan or writer considered to be authentic has always had a history of reactionary underlining to it. The Chicago White Sox’s Disco Demolition Night is perhaps one of the more chilling examples, due to the explicit displays of racism, homophobia, and sexism that surrounded the event.
To be clear, The Killers are a rock band consisting of straight white guys. They did not struggle, they are simply benefiting from an environment forged through the hard work put in by those persecuted artists.
Surely, there are still issues that linger in this new poptimistic landscape. But its biggest win has been against the stodgy gatekeepers, deciding what is and isn’t allowed to get in based on their own limited perspective.
This means that a myriad of voices who were silenced for decades are now gaining an audience they never would have had before. It also vindicates me for hysterically singing “he doesn’t look a thing like Jesus, but he talks like a gentleman,” all throughout high school, so it’s a win across the board.
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