Brandon Flowers, the lead singer of the Killers, has made no secret of his ambition to steal the populist rock crown for Bruce. Too bad his interpretation of "Born in the USA" is closer the Reagan's than to Springsteen's.
For those of you who eschew MTV and commercial radio, a quick primer: the Killers are a wildly successful pop-rock band that broke out with a string of madly catchy singles and equally delicious videos. They owe a massive and largely unacknowledged debt to the music and aesthetics of the nineteen-eighties, and have a huge following among those too young to remember the decade of decadence. Their lead singer, 25-year-old dandy Brandon Flowers, seemed more preoccupied with starting feuds with other bands than talking politics or paying attention to current affairs, and while he was fairly open about being a practicing member of the Mormon church, he generally preferred to spend interviews talking about fashion and the reasons members of rival act the Bravery were jerks.
Somewhere in the course of the last year, though, Flowers seems to have discovered current affairs and the world around him. His first attempt at political commentary was a statement about the rock band Green Day, and their "unpatriotic" decision to film a DVD including their hit "American Idiot" in jolly old England (because, you know, those Brits just hate America. If they really wanted to be subversive, they would have filmed in France. Or Iran. But I digress...). "You have Green Day and 'American Idiot.' Where do they film their DVD? In England," Flowers told U.K.'s The Word. "A bunch of kids screaming 'I don't want to be an American idiot' -- I saw it as a very negative thing towards Americans...[T]hose kids aren't taking it the same way that he meant it. And [Billie Joe Armstrong] knew it." Flowers then want on to claim his new record is more patriotic, adding, "People need to see that, really, there are the nicest people in the world here! I don't know if our album makes you realize that. But I hope it's from a more positive place."
Oh, boy. Setting aside all the "dissent is patriotic" comments and the fact that Flowers might just have missed the irony and satire in the recording, the question remains: has it now become "cool" to unconditionally love America and call for the heads of those who criticize it? Will Ann Coulter now be rocking her black leather cat suit on stage at Webster Hall, instead of just on book covers?
Flower's comments don't seem too out of place when you examine the lyrics on the band's new record, "Sam's Town." The Washington City Paper's review had this to say: "In [a] sense, Sam's Town is essentially conservative, perhaps a reflection of Flowers' Mormon upbringing in the shadow of America's shrine to dreams fulfilled. There's little sense of forces beyond one's control, of flaws that might not be overcome by hitting the road. Everything is available on that open highway; Flowers never noticed or cared that the dreamers in Springsteen's "Jungleland" wound up "wounded, not even dead," or gIve a close reading to the rage of "Born in the U.S.A.""
Nowhere is this more evident than in the track "Uncle Johnny," which my friend Daphne described as "the squarest song I've ever heard." Uncle Johnny is a boozer and loser, but rather than offer sympathy or a nuanced portrait of a man who has lost his way, Flowers offers advice ripped from the Contract With America: straighten up and fly right, man. Pull yourself up by the straps of your boots and take advantage of the new economy and the opportunities you have, living in this great nation. But "Uncle Johnny" winds up being illuminating in one way, at least: now we know what a rock song written by Nancy Reagan would sound like. The Killers might be a band who mined the eighties for all the inspiration, but rather than making music for rebels, they write songs for the Alex P. Keatons of the world.
In a way, it's like the nineties never happened, and we just jumped straight from 1989 to 2006. Perhaps the most fitting visual image to support this thesis is that of Axl Rose, now a bloated shadow of his former self, introducing the Killers at the MTV Video Music Awards last month. The Killers seem to be direct descendants of Guns and Roses, and not just because they share similar musical influences. Axl Rose was often loathe to talk about politics but revealed himself to be a rather conservative thinker who more than once referred to gays as "fags" and wrote a song assailing illegal immigrants. While Flowers, who sports more eyeliner than Tammy Faye, wisely stays away from homophobia, his criticisms of Green Day lead one to believe he's not the most progressive of thinkers.
Flowers is coming close to being Toby Keith in mascara, but I doubt he'll be singing about putting a Chelsea boot in anyone's ass soon. Rather, what he's selling is much more insidious: jingoism disguised as patriotism disguised as rock and roll. If he were one lone commenter in a sea of forgettable rock bands, it would be easy to write him off as slightly cranky and bombastic, but this man is at the top of the charts and has a huge teenage fan base. Musicians like Flowers and his ilk hold a tremendous amount of sway over their young followers; the writer Al Burian has a great line about his years of social training being undone by one punk record, and asking anyone with a passing interest in music about the record that "changed the way they see the world," will usually net a long and worshipful answer. Maybe most of the kids are buying "Sam's Town" for the catchy hooks, but a good deal of them are probably also internalizing the lyrical content and following Flowers' exploits with a watchful and worshipful eye. Shortly after the story broke, message boards lit up with young listeners commenting on the situation, and many of them staunchly defended Flowers and Amerigasmic remarks.
In the end, one ridiculous comment and a handful of songs are unlikely to change the course of music history. The reason to keep following this story is ultimately to see if it was a one-time mouth-off, or a sign of things to come.