The Gift and Curse of The Killers’ Hot Fuss 10 Years Later



By Julian Kimble

If nothing else, the Killers are ambitious. The release of their first single, “Mr. Brightside,” made it clear that the Las Vegas band had stardom in their crosshairs, which is exactly what their debut album, Hot Fuss, catapulted them towards. Released 10 years ago this month, Hot Fuss became an instant commercial success, selling over seven million copies worldwide and earning a Grammy nomination for Best Rock Album in 2005. Though it remains one of the best albums of the aughts, it’s proven to be a gift and a curse over time, looming over the Killers’ heads in Illmatic-like fashion as something they were expected to duplicate. Furthermore, it lead to rock’s dilution as imitators eager to emulate the group’s formula followed suit. Still, a decade later, the album remains a landmark.

Hot Fuss was a musical sucker punch, emerging from the Vegas desert seemingly out of nowhere in mid-2004. Its sound was both vintage and foreign, as if someone had dropped Duran Duran and the Smiths into a blender, then added a healthy dose of synths for good measure. Though the new wave influence was obvious, Hot Fuss still had a distinct modern sound, and the group succeeded in fusing the sonic landscapes of 1984 and 2004, as well as rock and pop music en route to creating a dance-rock hybrid that resonated remarkably well with listeners.

Drenched in paranoia, “Mr. Brightside” became the group’s best-selling U.S. single on the strength of its frenetic pace, which matched frontman Brandon Flowers’ panicked insecurity. The feel-good vibe betrays the song’s true meaning, but it’s so good that people don’t care that they’re dancing to the jealous ramblings of a humiliated boyfriend. “Somebody Told Me,” which sounds like it could’ve been played at a party in Less Than Zero, builds to that infamous chorus which still leaves people wondering, “Wait, what?” after reciting it.

The hazy organ at the beginning of the montage-ready “All These Things That I’ve Done” evokes memories of Saturday morning hangovers. Even if you think the “I’ve got soul but I’m not a soldier” lyric is unbearable, everyone can relate to the song’s overarching theme—the burning desire to be more than what you are. There’s a frantic honesty in Flowers’ voice on the opening track, “Jenny Was a Friend of Mine,” that makes the song’s interrogation-like narrative so vivid. Flowers does his best Simon Le Bon impression, and the song has become a fan favorite despite never being released as a single.

Ten years later, “Smile Like You Mean It” remains the album’s strongest moment and possibly the band’s best song. More contained than the previous singles, it speaks to the struggle of growing up, preaching a valuable lesson: Cherish the moment, but move past it. There’s a unique beauty in how the band matched the wailing guitars and synths with Flowers’ words of wisdom. It’s Flowers at his most earnest and proof that, sometimes, less really is more.

For the ‘80s babies, it sounded like the decade they were born in, as well as the decade in which they came of age. They can fondly recall red cup-laden parties from their formative years with non-stop games of beer pong soundtracked by ‘Mr. Brightside’ and ‘Somebody Told Me.’

Hot Fuss’ popularity can also be credited to its ability to absorb the spirit of a nostalgia-obsessed generation. For the ‘80s babies, it sounded like the decade they were born in, as well as the decade in which they came of age. They can fondly recall red cup-laden parties from their formative years with non-stop games of beer pong soundtracked by “Mr. Brightside” and “Somebody Told Me.” Truth be told, you probably could’ve gotten away with letting the whole album ride during a party. It contained party music, had a string of radio dynamite, and helped the Killers establish their pop culture relevance. This propelled them to a late-2004 appearance on The O.C., a pop culture relic in its own right that was always receptive to emerging bands.

This, along with their appearance at Live 8 in 2005 and Grammy nominations in 2005 and 2006, was part of the band’s journey to superstardom. Hot Fuss was a home run. Their 2006 follow-up, Sam’s Town, was powered by the anthemic “When You Were Young.” The grandiose production and short film music video made it obvious that the Killers were making a very deliberate transition to big, Americana-soaked records that would make Bruce Springsteen and John Mellencamp proud. That, and it sounded like it could’ve played over the credits of a pre-rehab Zac Efron-driven film. It remains their most successful single after Hot Fuss, and Sam’s Town was another multi-platinum success, but it’s also the distinguishing moment when things changed for the band.

2008’s Day & Age was a creative crapshoot that produced “Human,” yet another successful single which echoed some memories of why Hot Fuss was so exalted, but didn’t measure up to its strength. After an extended hiatus and solo album from Flowers, Battle Born arrived in 2012. It was a literal return to their roots (“Battle Born” appears on the state of Nevada’s flag), and, while ballad-heavy, sounds like an amalgam of their first three albums.

Battle Born’s overt link to Hot Fuss is “Miss Atomic Bomb” and its accompanying video, which revives the “Mr. Brightside” storyline and makes Mr. Brightside himself seem even more delusional in retrospect. Similar to many things the Killers have done over the past 10 years, it’s the type of stunt that only they can get away with. However (and unfortunately), that doesn’t mean others haven’t tried to mimic them.

In hindsight, the drawback to Hot Fuss isn’t that the band hasn’t been able to recapture its magic, it’s that the album ushered in a legion of disciples and wannabes who have tried to follow the Killers’ road to success. What made the band unique in 2004 was exclusive to them, and attempts to replicate their sound have resulted in a wave of stadium-filling rock parrots who produce music that, despite selling well, has created a stale genre. The problem is that subsequent acts have attempted to copy their blueprint, further blurring the line between alternative rock and pop music to the point that it’s almost invisible.

Hot Fuss may have been the Killers’ apex and might’ve been a double-edged sword for rock in general, but it’s a great moment to revisit.

Hot Fuss may have been the Killers’ apex and might’ve been a double-edged sword for rock in general, but it’s a great moment to revisit. It came about at a time when you didn’t have to think like Peyton Manning to be good at the Madden series, The Real World was more than just the minor leagues for The Challenge, and Mean Girls was becoming a generational bible. Above all, “Smile Like You Mean It” now takes on a new meaning, as the wild kids of 10 years ago are now adults. Looking back, Hot Fuss brought things full circle for an entire generation. Part of growing up is remembering the music from your younger days, and, regardless of where the Killers go next, Hot Fuss will always stand out as an undeniably important album.

  •!/PancakeMcKennz pancakemckennz

    I remember when I first heard The Killers, I couldn’t believe they were from the US.

  • Julian

    Same here.

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