Perhaps that’s why the song that seemed to pop up most frequently in internet culture this year was also a throwback: a 14-year-old song about jealousy.
Everywhere you looked in 2017, you saw “Mr. Brightside.” The Killers’ 2003 song has become a modern classic and a permanent meme fixture, which leaves us to ask the inevitable question: How did it end up like this?
Who is Mr. Brightside?
“Mr. Brightside” is the first — and still the most famous — single by Las Vegas rock band The Killers. Lead singer and lyricist Brandon Flowers co-wrote the song with the band’s guitarist, Dave Keuning. In fact, it was the first song they ever wrote together — which might explain why it still feels so fresh in its depiction of the whirling instability of jealousy combined with wry, detached self-awareness.
The entirety of the song is sung mostly on one note — the tonic, or center of the key, that gets repeated endlessly in order to emphasize how stuck our hero is in his fixation with his cheating girlfriend. The lyrics are by contrast rife with wordplay, including a famous implied rhyme (“my stomach is sick” with “and she’s touching his — chest”), and one line that’s found a second life as an internet refrain: “It started out with a kiss, how did it end up like this? It was only a kiss, it was only a kiss!”
The first verse narrates the hero watching events unfold around him, and his own reactions to them, almost as if he’s occupying a third-person birds-eye view of his own life. It’s such a strong presentation of the riled emotions of a jealous lover that Flowers decided not to bother with a second verse, instead repeating the first verse and trapping the narrator in his own cycle of insecurity and angst. In the middle of all this, the chorus is a surreal mix of cynical imagery and hope that leaves us with the ironic assertion that our bitter lover is “Mr. Brightside.”
While “Mr. Brightside” initially failed to make waves upon its initial 2003 release, when it was re-released as a single off The Killers’ first full album in 2004, it became a sleeper hit, steadily climbing to No. 10 on the U.S. Billboard charts. It’s maintained its place in the pop-cultural lexicon ever since, particularly in Britain, where it’s been adopted as something of an unofficial national anthem. (More on that in a moment.) In 2006, Cameron Diaz briefly screamed along to it in The Holiday to let out her feelings. In 2010, Rolling Stone listed it among the top 50 greatest songs of the decade.
Over the past few years “Mr. Brightside” has evolved into an improbable party song
Sometimes songs have renaissances that lift them out of the ether and place them briefly back into the cultural consciousness. For instance, the Journey song “Don’t Stop Believin’” had a huge cultural renaissance throughout 2009. Thanks to a boost from the 2007 Sopranos series finale, it suddenly seemed to be everywhere — from Rock Band to sports stadiums to the premiere of Glee. And it was only last year that we were all revisiting Santana’s 1999 Rob Thomas duet “Smooth” as the song meme of the summer.
Similarly, in recent years there’s been a growing acknowledgment that “Mr. Brightside” is a song that prompts us to freak out when we hear it on the radio or in the club. A few months ago, a YouTube user commenting on the song’s music video summed this feeling up neatly, noting, “I will NEVER not scream my hearttttt out to this song ... even in 2017.”
And that seems to be the magic of “Mr. Brightside” in a nutshell: It has, somehow, evolved into a go-to party song, despite sounding nothing like what you’d expect from a party song. In this regard, it arguably occupies a place within the realm of what’s often referred to as “millennial humor,” which trends towards cute absurdism and bleak, self-deprecating irony.
This is where the internet comes in:
MR. BRIGHTSIDE IS A LITERAL TIMELESS CLASSIC I WILL BE 90 IN A NURSING HOME AND HEAR "COMING OUTTA MY CAGE" AND CRAWL OUT MY BED AND TURN UP— Don (@itsDonLeach) February 26, 2015
White people when Mr. Brightside starts playing at a party pic.twitter.com/vekw84DnGY— jose (@abitchua) December 3, 2017
There are a couple of independent reasons for the song’s recent rise in our cultural awareness. In March of 2016, a man in a pub in Ireland went viral after leading the crowd in a boisterous rendition of the song in honor of his late friend, who himself used to lead a chorus of it every year on New Year’s Eve.
This video may have sparked awareness of just how huge a following the song has in Britain; in May 2017, Vice pointed out that the song has actually never left the UK charts since 2004.
A month later, NPR declared that the song would “never die,” proclaiming that “the song is an absolute jam, perfect for parties and breakups and countless occasions in between.” By the end of the year, it was clear that “Mr. Brightside” was having a (second) moment:
GOOD NIGHT— Lin-Manuel Miranda (@Lin_Manuel) December 8, 2017
DESTINY IS CALLING YOU
OPEN UP YOUR EAGER EYES pic.twitter.com/HTE0eC51A2
That also means it’s been having a meme moment.
The lyrics of “Mr. Brightside” practically meme themselves
As already mentioned, the line “IT WAS ONLY A KISS!” has long been a cry of tongue-in-cheek distress on the internet. This meme has spread so far that even newsrooms are into it:
It started out with a chip, how did it end up like this? It was only a chip. IT WAS ONLY A CHIP. https://t.co/5VKcVTdilT— KSAT 12 (@ksatnews) December 6, 2017
Recently, we’ve also seen the song’s first line — “Coming out of my cage, and I’ve been doing just fine” (he’s not fine) — taking on an internet life of its own.
This trend really kicked off on Tumblr and built steam through this now-deleted viral tweet from November of last year:
cOMiN OUTTA MY CAGE ANF IVE BEEN DOIN JUST FINE pic.twitter.com/scDc0R0Mzg— patron saint of the denial (@ileventeen) December 19, 2016
According to self-described “internet linguist” Gretchen McCulloch, the nature of “Mr Brightside” meme-ing is part of a generalized family of parody rewrites. This parodic quality was seen repeatedly throughout this year: the song figured prominently in Twitter’s giant “This Is Just To Say” meme as well as the end-of-year “play this song” meme.
McCulloch pointed out that “Mr. Brightside” has a couple of “key ingredients” that make it durable meme fodder — namely, “widely recognizable source text and versatile lyrics.” That quality allows it to succeed whether it’s being used literally (photos of dogs and cages) or as hilarious absurdism:
and im falling asleep— penis the beanis (@beesmygod) February 2, 2017
and she calling a cab
while he's having a smoke
and hes also a crab pic.twitter.com/ZMv4mwEaQn
In fact, “Mr. Brightside” seems to be so inherently meme-able that you can get points just from screaming the original lyrics on the internet.
Then there was this viral gag, which reconfigured the lyrics themselves to hilarious effect.
i edited the lyrics of mr brightside using google autocomplete results pic.twitter.com/liHZd30BGF— Warsaw Suicide Pact (@DOGGEAUX) December 1, 2017
When asked for her thoughts on why “Mr. Brightside” was having such a good run in 2017 of all years, McCulloch chalked it up to the power of that first line.
“‘Coming out of my cage and I've been doing just fine’ might be linked to 2016 and 2017,” she said, “along with the ‘This is fine’ dog meme.”
In other words, the song’s running theme — insistence that everything is fine and you’re eager-eyed and optimistic for the future when actually, everything is on fire — is a feeling millennials can relate to all too well.
“I think the angst-shout feel of that song fits well with the angst of 2017 on Twitter specifically,” she added, noting that “if you have a good external trigger, it can keep a meme around longer.”
For people trying to navigate their own wry cynicism and emotional upheaval during a turbulent sociopolitical moment, the external trigger keeping “Mr. Brightside” around might well be, er, everything. But that’s great news for fans of the song — and pretty great for internet culture, too.