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The Killers and Panic! at the Disco: How the Two Veteran Rock Bands Took the Long Way to the Top
Brandon Flowers of The Killers (left) & Brendon Urie of Panic! at the Disco (right)
The Killers came out of their cage this week -- and shot straight to the top of the Billboard 200 albums chart with their fifth album, Wonderful Wonderful.
No rock band of the past 15 years wanted this more than The Killers. From the opening gallop of “Jenny Was a Friend of Mine” -- off their iconic 2004 debut, Hot Fuss -- it was clear the Las Vegas quartet were determined to take over the world with their retro glam rock, and restore a sense of nobility to the barren rock landscape at large. As the genre continued to lose its grip as a viable commercial entity, The Killers kept plugging away, altering their sound ever-so-slightly and demanding the world’s attention. And with Wonderful Wonderful, they finally nabbed the coveted top spot for the first time in their illustrious career.
Yet they weren’t even the first 21st-century band from their hometown to scale those heights. Last year, Panic! at the Disco -- the theatrical pop-punk quartet who ruled Hot Topic shelves in the mid-2000s and whose frontman, Brendon Urie, remains the sole official member -- topped the Billboard 200 with their fifth album, Death of a Bachelor. Boiling Frank Sinatra’s smoky nightclub cool and Queen’s stadium-sized bombast into a cocktail of sultry glam rock, Death of a Bachelor marked the revitalization of a band that had suffered several lineup changes, stylistic overhauls and critical barbs over the past decade.
Broadly speaking, The Killers and Panic! followed similar career trajectories, culminating in their eventual rises to the top of the charts. But while the former carefully retooled their sound every few years, the latter staked a career on constant, drastic reinvention. Both paths proved successful up to this point, but their methods ultimately distinguished the types of fans they attracted, their critical standing -- and, quite possibly, their futures.
Let’s start with The Killers. Hot Fuss roared with transcendent alt-rock anthems, steeped in melodrama and gussied up with new wave synths. It was a pop-savvy take on the garage rock revival that blossomed in the early 2000s -- and one much more noticeably influenced by acts from across the Atlantic. The arena-ready hooks of “Smile Like You Mean It” and “All These Things That I’ve Done” earned the young quartet comparisons to U2, David Bowie and The Smiths.
Then there was “Mr. Brightside”: the frenetic, airtight sliver of power-pop that peaked at No. 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 -- still their highest to date -- and turned The Killers into superstars. Before long, they were racking up five Grammy nominations for Hot Fuss, winning Best New Artist at the 2005 MTV Video Music Awards and even playing the star-studded Live 8 London that summer. Whether they liked it or not, “Mr. Brightside” became the song on which The Killers would stake their legacy. Flowers was 22 at the time of its release.
Such meteoric success proved hard to live up to, as the band struggled to recreate the magic of their fully realized debut. They grew facial scruff and traded Duran Duran singles for Springsteen LPs on their sophomore effort, Sam’s Town, which was largely reviled by critics upon its release for its bombastic rock riffs and bathroom-stall poetry. The album was by no means a failure -- it peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 and subsequently went platinum -- but there was a sense that The Killers had lost a crucial spark on their way to the heartland.
Panic! at the Disco met a similar fate with their first two LPs. Their debut album, 2005’s A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out, melded angsty pop-punk and frantic electronica, liberally referenced Chuck Palahniuk novels and eventually went double platinum off the strength of vaudevillian emo anthem “I Write Sins Not Tragedies,” which peaked at No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100 and won Video of the Year at the 2006 VMAs. They made a 180-degree shift toward Beatles-inspired baroque pop on their follow-up LP, 2008’s Pretty. Odd., to rapidly diminishing commercial returns: the record failed to even go gold.
If Panic! suffered a sharper drop-off than The Killers, they also had less to lose, as critics never took them seriously in the first place. It made sense that a band of teenage Internet sensations who got signed before ever playing a show would disappear as quickly as they exploded onto the scene. Lead guitarist and chief songwriter Ryan Ross and bassist Jon Walker departed in 2009, and when the group released its third album, 2011’s Vices & Virtues, to little fanfare, it seemed like Panic! had consigned themselves to has-been status, bound to play clubs and theaters for the rest of their career.
Then, a curious thing happened. Utilizing his charming social-media presence and a series of massively successful music videos, Urie effectively forced his way back into the public consciousness. Too Weird to Live, Too Rare to Die! debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 in 2013, and the group slowly graduated back to larger theaters and amphitheaters. Drummer Spencer Smith quit the band in 2015, leaving Urie the sole official member, but their momentum was unstoppable: Panic! finally topped the Billboard 200 in 2016 with Death of a Bachelor, and embarked on a massive headlining arena tour that included a sold-out show at Madison Square Garden.
Panic!’s parabolic career arc allowed the now-30-year-old Urie to quietly and radically reinvent the band to his liking, incorporating new musical elements on each album at his whim. The Killers, meanwhile, publicly wrestled with critical expectations and a self-seriousness that weighed down all of their post-Hot Fuss releases. People regarded The Killers as one of the Last Real Rock Bands Standing, and they were understandably hesitant to tweak a winning formula too much. The band always maintained its arena headliner status, but as each record sold less than its predecessor, it seemed as if The Killers had slowly atrophied, creatively and commercially.
Nobody recognized this more than Flowers, who took time off after 2012's lukewarmly received Battle Born to promote his second solo record, 2014's The Desired Effect. He returned to The Killers with a vengeance, and Wonderful Wonderful is the sound of a band hellbent on proving its enduring commercial and artistic relevance. On the ominous, prophetic title track, Flowers implores a “motherless child” to “follow my voice and I shall give thee great cause to rejoice.” Yet on the funky, Bowie-inspired “The Man,” he puffs out his chest and declares, “Baby I’m gifted, you see what I mean? USDA certified lean!”
The Killers utilized this serious/absurdist dichotomy on their biggest hits, and they shoot for the same grandiosity on Wonderful Wonderful. So far, it’s worked: “The Man” has hit No. 2 on the Billboard Alternative Songs chart, their highest since “When You Were Young” topped the chart 11 years ago. They’ll headline a slew of stateside festivals this fall, and will embark on an enormous North American arena tour early next year.
Nearly 15 years into their careers, The Killers and Panic! at the Disco have both reached new commercial highs and dispelled the notion that they’re mere nostalgia acts. Still, their paths seem likely to diverge from this point forward. The Killers are deeply concerned with establishing their legacy; Flowers reminisces on going “back-to-back with Springsteen” and insists he “told you about McCartney” in the yearning “Out of My Mind.” Urie, on the other hand, is too busy keeping the party alive to worry about such historical weightiness: “We'll stay drunk, we'll stay tan, let the love remain,” he sings on Bachelor’s most striking song, “and I swear that I'll always paint you golden days!”
Perhaps Urie so aggressively dedicates himself to having a good time because he’s already weathered the harshest storms. He chose to soldier on as his band dissolved member-by-member, and he continued to attract generations of younger fans along the way. The Killers’ fanbase, on the other hand, invested in the group from the start and grew older with them as they worked through numerous style shifts. Now, the band must come to grips with its first lineup fracture -- bassist Mark Stoermer and guitarist Dave Keuning recently announced they would forgo the upcoming tour to spend time with their families -- and it’s unclear how they’ll proceed after they finish this trek.
Age plays a significant role as well. Flowers is 36 years old, drummer Ronnie Vannucci, Jr. is 41. They seem ready to assume their role as a legacy act, and they’ve embraced classics from their Hot Fuss heyday when they play live. Urie, meanwhile, eschewed several beloved Fever songs on Panic!’s last tour, largely in lieu of Bachelor material. Flowers exhaustedly ponders the band’s future on Wonderful Wonderful’s final track, “Have All the Songs Been Written?”; Urie can’t wait to put the pen to the paper again.
In the end, both acts have enjoyed longer and more successful careers than most artists can fathom -- or that most critics would have predicted in the mid-2000s -- and their arcs have finally come full circle. Panic! at the Disco adopted a new sonic palette with every album, ditching their current aesthetic for a brand new wardrobe. The Killers, meanwhile, settled into their sound like a well-worn denim jacket. Each weathered a long, precarious trip to the top of the charts, speckled with creative and commercial missteps, but for now -- to quote that immortal glam-pop gem from 13 years ago once more -- both are doing just fine.