By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Few songs can be said to typify the mid-noughties music scene like The Killers’ ‘Mr Brightside’. The Las Vegas band’s breakthrough hit, the song has attracted considerable attention from fans and critics.
Is this a song about a cheating girlfriend, or a paranoid boyfriend? What are the origins of the song’s composition, and what can they tell us about its true meaning?
‘Mr Brightside’: song meaning
The song is unusual in that it has just one verse which is repeated twice, with the same wording. Let’s take a closer look at that verse, as well as the song’s chorus, which features the title, ‘Mr Brightside’.
In summary, we might say that the song is about the singer witnessing his girlfriend kissing another man; this act of infidelity then causes the singer to imagine other unfaithful acts his girlfriend might perform with this other man, his jealousy and overactive imagination spiralling out of control.
Despite acknowledging that it was ‘only a kiss’ that he witnessed between his girlfriend and this other guy, the singer (here we use ‘singer’ to refer to the narrator or speaker of the song’s ‘story’; this singer may or may not be identical with Brandon Flowers himself) is wracked by terrible thoughts of what else his girlfriend might have done, or might go on to do, with another man.
He keeps telling himself it was ‘only a kiss’, and seems surprised that he has blown it all out of such proportion; how did he get to the point where he cannot think about anything else but his girlfriend being unfaithful?
The lyrics are elliptical, telegrammatic, and syncopated in their delivery and style. This means that they are somewhat ambiguous. But one reading of the rest of the song’s verse is that the singer is imagining his girlfriend leaving him (the singer) as he (the singer) falls asleep. She calls herself a cab and joins her paramour, the ‘other guy’, who is waiting for her somewhere, smoking as he waits.
The two of them go to bed while the singer is asleep, unaware of their infidelity. The mere thought of this – even though, as he acknowledges, the act of betrayal is purely imagined, and is ‘all in [his] head’ – is enough to make him sick to the stomach.
He imagines his girlfriend touching the other man’s chest as he, in turn, removes her dress. The singer can’t bear to ‘look’ – even though he is, of course, ‘looking’ only in his mind’s eye, since this whole scene is imagined, rather than real. The imagined narrative of his girlfriend’s intimate betrayal is controlling his every thought.
The chorus becomes more lyrical, describing how jealousy ruins the reputation of those we love and put on a pedestal, much like iconoclasts tossing the effigies of saints (or maybe the actual saints themselves) into the sea, to destroy them.
Sweet nothings whispered between lovers get caught in the throat of the jealous lover, who finds such ‘lullabies’ tainted by the perceived infidelity of their partner. Similarly, the ‘alibis’ or excuses offered up by the (supposed) unfaithful partner just make the betrayed lover’s feelings worse.
‘Mr Brightside’: analysis
For a song that has such a grim subject – a minor infidelity which is then exploded into a full-on affair by the jealous lover – ‘Mr Brightside’ carries a surprisingly upbeat title.
Indeed, the opening lyrics are also arrestingly optimistic, with the singer describing emerging from the ‘cage’ of his dark thoughts about what his girlfriend has been getting up to.
However, as it progresses and he describes the nature of those thoughts, he becomes possessed by the jealousy that has been imprisoning him. He begs to be ‘let go’ and set free.
He ends by declaring that he is ‘Mr Brightside’: alluding to the idea of ‘looking on the bright side’ of something dark or unpleasant. Rather than dwelling on the sadness, he is determined to put a brave face on and open up his ‘eager eye’: in other words, to look at things more enthusiastically, searching for the positives.
This is perhaps what lifts the song above other songs about jealous and destructive love: the singer turns his (possibly unwarranted) insecurities into a positive by acknowledging that they are just fantasies and that he can now start looking on the bright side.
We’ve used the expression ‘the singer’ here to refer to the ‘narrator’ of the song, who may or may not be the same person as Brandon Flowers, the frontman of The Killers.
But the origins of the song appear to have been personal. According to the BBC, Flowers wrote the lyrics to ‘Mr Brightside’ at the end of his first serious relationship, when he was still only 19 or 20 years old.
The BBC article reports that, when he was speaking to Q Magazine in 2009, Flowers recalled how he had discovered his girlfriend was cheating on him in a pub in Las Vegas. Flowers was indeed asleep (as in the song) and instinctively knew something was wrong. In the interview, he put this down to his ‘instincts’. He went to the local pub and found his girlfriend with ‘another guy’.