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‘How did it end up like this?’: Twenty years since the best song of all time

If you were to wind the clock back to any dance floor in the mid-2000s, there would inevitably be a moment when the opening riff of Mr. Brightside kicks in, and every person in the crowd started to lose their mind.

By the first verse, we were all coming out of our cage, and we were doing just fine.

Better than fine, actually. Because, even two decades on, Mr. Brightside is one of those unique tracks that boasts universal appeal. Hipsters, goths, emos, rockers; no matter your subculture, when Mr. Brightside starts playing, it’s impossible not to sing along.

Brandon Flowers surveys the sold-out Brisbane crowd during Mr Brightside during a visit to Australia in 2018.

Brandon Flowers surveys the sold-out Brisbane crowd during Mr Brightside during a visit to Australia in 2018. Credit: @robloud, Rob Loud

Today marks 20 years since The Killers released the track, creating a phenomenon that would see the song become not just the soundtrack for a generation but an unexpected hit with people yet to be born when it was written.

Mr. Brightside remains immensely popular, particularly in Australia. It can still be found in the top 40 ARIA Singles Chart and is the longest-running track on Spotify’s Top Songs Australia at 352 weeks straight.

Perfect for parties and breakups, weddings and AFL Grand Finals, here is the comprehensive story of the greatest song ever written.

The origins

Mr. Brightside was the first track The Killers ever wrote and recorded after the band formed in Las Vegas in 2001. At the time, frontman Brandon Flowers was moonlighting as a bellhop at a hotel and returned home from work one day to find his girlfriend sleeping with another man: Now they’re going to bed. And my stomach is sick.

The track was part of an initial LP dumped after Flowers heard The Strokes Is This It and decided they needed to do better. “The bar had been raised, so we threw away everything we had,” he told Rolling Stone in 2018. “Except for Mr. Brightside.

Turning his heartbreak into a hit didn’t come easily, though. When Mr. Brightside was first released on September 29, 2003, it was a slow burn. It failed to chart in the UK, US and Australia, but a re-release in 2004 (after their first single, Somebody Told Me, from their album Hot Fuss put them on the map) helped the track reach the top 10 in the UK and US, while it hit the top 40 in Australia.

Then, two separate events would help launch Mr. Brightside into the stratosphere that same year.

In June, they played the John Peel tent at Glastonbury – a space reserved for new and up-and-coming artists – but the buzz around the track meant it was standing room only. “Mr. Brightside went off, it looked like footage of the Sex Pistols,” Flowers told Rolling Stone.

A few months later, the band got the ultimate leg up when producers from The OC tapped them to play on the show. The OC had become a defacto tastemaker for early 2000s music, so when The Killers played the Baitshop, Mr. Brightside was on its way to anthem status.

The appeal

The mid-2000s were a time when our jeans were tight, but the vibes were loose. Almost every second band was “Brit pop-inspired”, and they looked, sounded (and were named) the same: The Strokes, The Hives, The White Stripes, The Vines, and, of course, The Killers.

But the appeal of Mr. Brightside stretches beyond indie rock being the flavour of the decade and instead taps into something far more powerful: relationship revenge. Countless songs have been written about heartbreak, but few capture the paranoia and confusion as effectively Mr. Brightside does. It’s all in my head, but she’s touching his chest now.

Drawing inspiration from Oasis’ anthemic Don’t Look Back In Anger, Flowers opted for a singalong call to action rather than a depressing ballad. We wanted our exes to choke on their alibis, and we wanted to scream it loud.

The resurgence

Hit songs come and go, but memes live forever, and as Mr. Brightside became ironically popular, it made for perfect Internet fodder.

The rise of the This is Fine Dog meme in the 2010s led to an offshoot of “Coming out of my cage, and I’ve been doing just fine” spinoffs inspired by the track, capturing the attention of a new audience whose favourite punch line is that things are not fine at all.

Lyrics were constantly repurposed online, while the perceived whiteness of the song (four white guys from Las Vegas inspired by mostly white band from England) led to the internet lovingly declaring it peak “white people music.”

Having established itself as the ultimate feel-good singalong, Mr. Brightside has become the go-to song for any major occasion, with clips of the song being chanted at football matches and sporting events worldwide.

The Killers famously performed Mr. Brightside at the 2017 AFL Grand Final, joined by Richmond vice-captain Jack Riewoldt after the Tigers had secured the win. The unbridled joy of Riedwoldt and Flowers, backed up by the adoring crowd, is a perfect snapshot of why Mr. Brightside refuses to go away.

A more popular choice: Jack Riewoldt gets on stage with The Killers after 2017 grand final at the MCG.

A more popular choice: Jack Riewoldt gets on stage with The Killers after 2017 grand final at the MCG.Credit: Getty Images

Destiny is calling me

Like most trends from 2003, The Killers are not as popular as they used to be. The band is still together, although last month Flowers revealed to The Times that he had scrapped their next album midway through production.

“Halfway through recording, I realised I can’t do this,” Flowers said, adding: “I’m as proud of Hot Fuss as you can be for something you did when you were 20, but I’m not 20, so I’m thinking about the next phase of my life.”

That sounds like a healthy step for Flowers, but for those who remain frozen in time, here’s to feeling twenty for the next twenty years.

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