From the archives: The Killers, Franz Ferdinand, and Modest Mouse

Since things are turning into a last chance Hegelian power drive over here, and I’m still woozy from the results of election night, I thought I’d just go ahead and re-print this little piece from 2005 on American guilt and rock and roll. It was going to be published in Chicago, in the best magazine you’ve never read (called Swagger), but then Swagger went under. Also, this seems appropriate since Adam Roberts has started a rock revival over at the Valve (I jump in here, but keep in mind that things get pretty obscure later on). Of course, The Killers have put out a new album, Sam’s Town, which like the first album has at least one certifiable moment of genius (“When You Were Young”). The video is racist, so I’m going to give analyzing the song a skip, but I will say that I love the song’s conflation of childhood nostalgia and Puritan alarmism.
So here you go:

Last year, Franz Ferdinand, Modest Mouse, and The Killers all struck it rich. Garage and new wave had been on the rise for years, but this explosion into the mainstream was less reminiscent of the Strokes than of grunge in the nineties. The Killers were a particularly hot topic. They sold in Wal-Mart, in Target, in Best Buy, and in small indie boutiques. The critical response ranged from “album of the year” (many publications) to less friendly summaries, like “revisionist cash dance” (Pitchfork). Most of us like at least one of the two big Killers singles, “Somebody Told Me” and “Mr. Brightside.” Why? Why, for that matter, were we subjected to endless repetitions of “Float On” and “Take Me Out”? This is the first time Modest Mouse has gone platinum in their 11 year career.
Sure, the hooks are great, but that proves nothing. The Strokes have been putting out songs with great hooks since 2001. Neither of their LPs went platinum in the U.S.A. No, to understand this phenomenon you have to do the unthinkable: put the lyrics together with the audience. The audience is American teenagers growing up in an extremely confusing period. We are a guilty society. Terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center, killing thousands: we’d like to understand why. We consume far more than our share of the world’s resources. We are unable to make up our minds about homosexuality, or about sex education, or about sex in popular culture. Our troops are dying by the thousands overseas. We would like to think of them as heroes; at the same time, some of our troops have been videotaped torturing prisoners of war. Our president lied about “weapons of mass destruction,” then lied about a connection between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein.

The heart of the American neurosis is Las Vegas: Sin City. Part of the legend of the Killers has always been that they incubated in that cesspool of cash and desire. What else do they have to do with American guilt? Their name, for one thing. The Strokes are libertines. The White Stripes are peppermints. The Killers are just what their name says. The first song on Hot Fuss, “Jenny Was A Friend of Mine,” is about a girl who “couldn’t scream while I held her close.” The rest of the song could have been written for a jury: “I know my rights, I’ve been here all day and it’s time / For me to go, so let me know if it’s alright / I just can’t take this, I swear I told you the truth.” But it’s all not good enough. Lead singer Brandon Flowers turns paranoid, haunted by somebody whispering his guilt in his ear.

Flowers tries to prove his innocence by singing, “There ain’t no motive for this crime / Jenny was a friend of mine.” Actually, he does have a motive – he and Jenny had a fight on the promenade –- but he’s repressed it. It’s the opposite of the old cliché, that you should write what you know. If you want to get on the radio, write what you don’t know. On Modest Mouse’s second single, “Ocean Breathes Salty,” Isaac Brock sings, “Well I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know. Don’t think so.” Franz Ferdinand is about as helpful on “Take Me Out”: “I say, don’t you know / You say, you don’t know.” These songs succumb over and over to sheer confusion. They echo other questions, ones that hover in the back of our minds. Why are we in Iraq? How do we feel about sex? What is “morality” and how on earth can you vote for it?

We’re mixed up in things that we swear are beyond our control. In a country divided over gay marriage, Brandon Flowers learns (in “Somebody Told Me”) that he had a girlfriend who looks like somebody else’s boyfriend. They might even be the same person. While Congress listens straight-faced to testimony about the addictive powers of pornography, Flowers sings, “I know what you want / I’m gonna take you to a midnight show tonight.” Franz Ferdinand takes the smart way out, namely, the suicide pact. In “Take Me Out,” Alex Capranos is a “crosshair” who’s just “a shot away from you…just a shot…then we can die.” If both die, all debts are paid.

But the Killers would rather just tear themselves away from wrongdoing, and realize some better self. After finding out about his androgynous girlfriend, Flowers retorts, “It’s not confidential / I’ve got potential.” Potential to do what? Last time we let you out, you killed Jenny. But he’s back at it on “Mr. Brightside.” He’s a “saint” forced to swim through “sick lullabies.” Although the whole song is a voyeuristic fit of jealousy, he claims he “just can’t look, it’s killing me.” Despite everything, he’s an optimist with eager eyes, and “destiny” is calling him. As the song fades out, we hear Flowers hysterically repeating, “I never…I never…”. Flowers is always desperate to skip town. He wants his listener to “drive faster” (“Midnight Show”), is last seen “rushin’ around” in “Somebody Told Me,” and in both “Jenny…” and “Mr. Brightside” asks to be let go.

To be “let go.” To be forgiven. American guilt is always the same, whether the problem is racism or consumerism: people have suffered, but don’t blame us. We didn’t start the fire. In “Float On,” Isaac Brock first backs his car into a cop car, then mouths off in front of somebody. The cop drives away, the friend laughs it off. There’s no penalty, and Isaac concludes, “Sometimes life’s OK.” I’m not suggesting for a second that, for Modest Mouse, these images are anything other than literal. It’s just that the euphoria is harder and harder to sustain. A “fake Jamaican took every last dime with a scam,” but it’s OK because it’s a learning experience. In fact, by the end, even if things get a bit too heavy we’re all still floating on towards good news. Even if the backup singers sound dangerously hoarse.

The Killers bring us back to reality. Their album cover is a glamorized shot of burning skyscrapers. On the aptly titled “All These Things That I’ve Done,” the Killers bring out an entire gospel choir to sing along with them. I’ve seen them do this live. They were as smug as Neo would have been, if he’d had thirty black people believing in him, instead of just Morpheus, Tank, Dozer, and the Oracle. What do they sing at the climax of the song? “I’ve got soul, but I’m not a soldier.” There’s no draft yet. Not all of us are soldiers. But we do all need a decent lawyer. Brandon Flowers is a better lawyer than either Isaac Brock, who can only float so long, or Franz Ferdinand, who are ready to settle.

Your honor, this man’s country has committed crimes against humanity. His girlfriends have committed crimes against ordinary gender and common decency. All the same, we plead not guilty. There are extenuating circumstances. Destiny is calling him. He has potential. We ask that you let him go.