In a 2017 interview with NME, Brandon Flowers, the lead singer of The Killers, was asked about the origins of “The Man,” the lead single from their then-upcoming album Wonderful Wonderful. According to Flowers, he wrote the song to “hearken back” to his public persona during the band’s heyday in the early-to-mid-2000s, when songs like “Mr. Brightside” and “Somebody Told Me” made them one of the biggest musical acts in the country. Flowers admits to enjoying slipping back into that past version of himself, but he says he looks back on that period of his life with more than a little embarrassment:
I’ve been cleaning it up for a long time. I don’t think that was really a great representation, an honest representation of who I am. It came from a place of insecurity and I would just puff my chest out and say things and put a lot of negativity out there. I basically came to regret that and I’m sure a lot of people can identify with that.
Based on Flowers’s comments, it is tempting to read “The Man” as a partial critique or parody of masculinity. Critics generally seemed to have reached that conclusion when discussing the song. Writing for Pitchfork, Ryan Dombal argues that “The Man” is the product of the conflicting urges to celebrate and mock traditional masculinity; the song is “poking fun at dick-swinging supremacy while serving up something that could reasonably soundtrack a rough-and-dusted pickup truck commercial.” More directly, Chris DeVille wrote in a (very short) piece for Stereogum that he likes “The Man” because the song “knows it’s ridiculous and it relishes that ridiculousness.” And in Spin, Anna Gaca suggests that the song “gets a lot better when you start believing that it’s narrated by the villain, and that the Killers are subtly shimmying some kind of truth to power.”
I understand the impulse behind these readings, but I’m not sure the text of “The Man” supports them. For one thing, to read “The Man” as a critique of masculinity feels like an excuse for enjoying a song with frankly uninspiring lyrics (“I’ve got gas in the tank, I’ve got money in the bank,” “Don’t try to teach me, I’ve got nothing to learn,” etc.). Gaca, to her credit, considers that very point in her review, conceding that “the lyrics are pretty cliché” and “not exactly something you’ll find yourself searching for deep-seated meaning in.”
But even if the lyrics were technically stronger, I still don’t think they’d support such a reading, because the content of every element of the song celebrates the subject matter. Every line is a boast of the speaker’s manliness; even a bizarre line like “USDA-certified lean” only sticks out because it’s novel, not because it’s skeptical of the song’s core conceit. The groove is infectious, an immediate call to the dance floor, and the roboticized backing vocals during the chorus are pure cheesy fun. Whenever I hear this song, the first thought that comes to mind is, “Hell yeah, I’m the man! This is awesome!” The fact that I’m not wholly comfortable with that response is the only reason I have for looking for critique within the song itself; it’s the natural way to reconcile my conflicted feelings about it.
At this point, I’d have to conclude that if Brandon Flowers wanted “The Man” to be an expression of regret or skepticism about his past as a performative stud, then it simply didn’t make it through the process. But I can’t say that Flowers is being disingenuous in that interview, either, because while the song does not effectively critique that persona, the music video most certainly does.
The video for “The Man” (dir. Tim Mattia, 2017) sees Flowers take on the roles of various caricatures of American masculinity: a Vegas lounge singer, a playboy, a daredevil motorcyclist, a greaser at a karaoke bar, and a high-roller in a cowboy get-up. Like the song itself, the video depicts these paragons of manliness at their most pumped-up, as they strut down the Strip, entertain the ladies, and lay down the big wagers. Unlike the song, though, the video does not leave those depictions unchallenged, but instead shows the consequences that such approaches to masculinity have.
Admittedly, the video’s skeptical outlook is gradual and at first rather fleeting. It’s not until the first chorus that we see some push-back against the characters that Flowers portrays: some eye-rolls behind the playboy’s back, a yawn from someone watching the lounge singer. In a video that’s driven by montage and built around five different plotlines, it’s easy to miss those first little jabs; I’ve had to watch it several times over while writing this review to catch as many of them as possible. They’re important, though, because they lay the groundwork for the later (and grander) declines these men experience. Without the eye-rolls and yawns, their downfalls might seem like sudden calamities; with them, and those falls become more and more inevitable.
Take this shot of an audience member for the lounge singer’s act. There’s nothing especially dramatic happening in the frame, but his facial expression conveys quite a bit. He’s not sold on the performance; if anything, he looks confused, as though he’s wondering why Vegas is still staging shows ripped from the days of Busby Berkeley or Flo Ziegfeld. This fellow resembles nothing if not the critic listening to “The Man” and asking himself, “Are these guys for real? This has to be a joke, right?” A shot like this is not essential to the video when considered in isolation, but as such moments accumulate the effect gets stronger and stronger. The viewer is left with the gut feeling that something eventually must give.
And, boy, do some of these guys fall hard. The high-roller goes on tilt at the roulette table and loses everything he has, before the casino tosses him out into the parking garage. The motorcyclist, haunted by footage of debilitating crashes (possibly his own highlights?), rips up his tapes in a self-pitying fit. After his karaoke set, the greaser starts flirting with a woman in the crowd right in front of her boyfriend, who proceeds to beat the snot of him. Even when the fall is comparably mild, there’s still a noticeable sense of dejection: the playboy on his knees when the ladies leave him, the lounge singer packing his glittery costume in a storage locker. To me, at least, the message of the video is clear and distinct: the version of masculinity presented in “The Man” is at best unfulfilling and at worst self-destructive. Turns out, you can in fact “break me down.”
This leads us to the question: if the video for “The Man” is a clear critique of traditional masculinity, does that make the song itself a critique as well? I’m still not convinced the answer is yes, but I can’t definitively say no, either. The music video is paratext for the song; it brings the reader to the text and offers some information for interpreting it, but it does not constitute the text. And given how most songs are heard without the context of the video, it’s not even a piece of paratext that people are necessarily likely to encounter (unlike, say, the cover a book or the title of a film). But I do think the video demonstrates that “The Man” can be employed in the context of critique, especially in the way that it asserts the speaker’s manliness to the point of insecurity—the singer doth protest too much, methinks.
Granted, that “The Man” is amenable to critical usage is not necessarily a point in its favor. It’s not like Negativland’s album Dispepsi proved that soda commercials were secretly subversive, just that they’re banality was amusing. But then again, it’s not like PepsiCo and The Coca-Cola Company were involved in the making of Dispepsi, either. The video for “The Man” was made with the band’s participation, and that does lend some extra weight to its reading of the song. Ultimately, I’m unable to find a clean resolution to this tension.
I think Dombal is on the money when he calls the song “a particularly phallic ink blot”: it provides a lot of potential answers, but no definitive ones. Alternatively, we could give Gaca the last word: “”The Man” is a bop. It would sound fan-fucking-tastic in a roller rink.” Somewhere between those two, you’ll find me.
But that’s enough from me. What do you think of “The Man” (either the song or the video, or perhaps the union of the two)? Can you think of any works of art you feel similarly conflicted about? Sound off in the comments below!
Normally this is where I would plug some previous piece of mine which is tangentially related to the one you just read, but this time I’ll instead link to a video essay by YouTuber Sarah Z entitled “The Politics of Dr Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog”. Her video also dives into the question of how to approach a work which appears to both endorse and critique the same idea. If you at all found this post interesting, I’d give her video a watch.
Take care, and thanks for reading!