Brandon Flowers Is “The Man”—Whatever That Entails

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!

Classics Club #1: “The Dyer’s Hand” by W. H. Auden

For a number of reasons, I knew that I wanted to start my Classics Club project with a look at W. H. Auden’s The Dyer’s Hand. For one, of all the books on my list, it’s the only one that I’d read any part of; during the first semester of my MFA program, I had to read several essays from the book and then write poems inspired by them. For another, as a work of literary criticism, I thought that The Dyer’s Hand might provide a high-level view from which to consider the rest of the books on the list. And for a third, it just happened to be next on my queue regardless.

But while I was reading it, I found it difficult to settle on a direction to take this post. After the first three or four essays, I thought about comparing Auden’s fragmentary style to the philosophical inquiries of Ludwig Wittgenstein, but then Auden’s style became more streamlined and structured as the collection went on. I thought about comparing my thoughts on various artworks to Auden’s, but let’s just say that he’s seen Don Giovanni infinitely more times than I have. And I thought about discussing the Ariel/Prospero distinction he mentions in his essay on Robert Frost, until I remembered that I wrote such an essay in grad school and decided I didn’t want to repeat myself.

I was completely stuck, until I happened upon a discussion that has apparently been raging across the internet: the state of the negative review. It’s a topic that the book-blogging community raises frequently (see, for instance, this post from Krysta of Pages Unbound), but of late the topic has come up more in the popular press. In recent months we’ve seen Kyle Paoletta decry the overly-celebratory nature of TV criticism for The Baffler, Rob Harvilla contemplate the role of the take-down in the age of social media for The Ringer, and sci-fi author John Scalzi defend the virtues of the pan on his blog. And I found all this fascinating in the context of The Dyer’s Hand, because if high-brow W. H. Auden were to walk into this conversation that’s been going on, he’d actually be the most skeptical of the negative review’s value.

In the first essay in The Dyer’s Hand, entitled “Reading,” Auden says that a critic ought to perform at least one of the following tasks when discussing a work:

1) Introduce me to authors or works of which I was hitherto unaware.

2) Convince me that I have undervalued an author or a work because I had not read them carefully enough.

3) Show me relations between works of different ages and cultures which I could never have seen for myself because I do not know enough and never shall.

4) Give a “reading” of a work which increases my understanding of it.

5) Throw light upon the process of artistic “Making.”

6) Throw light upon the relation of art to life, to science, economics, ethics, religion, etc.

The Dyer’s Handpp. 8-9

Looking closely at this list, one can conclude that Auden doesn’t really see aesthetic appraisal as a vital role for the critic. Auden’s ideal critics should provide context, draw connections, share discoveries, and reveal truths, but it’s not clear that they should provide up-or-down judgments as to whether a book is good. The task which comes closest here is the second, and even there, it would seen that Auden wants the critic to go in a specific direction: to show that a work is better (or perhaps just more interesting) than the audience had given it credit for. He does not advocate that critics tear down works which they believe have been wrongly praised.

Indeed, throughout “Reading,” Auden is skeptical of the notion that writing bad reviews serves any purpose, and he addresses either directly or implicitly some of the common arguments in favor of the practice. An obvious argument would be that writing a negative review will persuade readers not to waste their time on a given work. But Auden reminds us that even a negative review acts as publicity and keeps a work in the current conversation. “Had Macaulay never written his review of Robert Montgomery,” he writes, “we would not today be still under the illusion that Montgomery was a great poet” (p. 10). Instead, Auden would have advised Macaulay to remain silent on the matter, allowing Montgomery’s work to fade into obscurity.

I’ll admit, I find this argument to be Auden’s weakest, or rather the least generally applicable. Being a poet, Auden naturally has poetry on his mind as he’s writing this essay. Even by the standards of book publishing, the poetry market is incredibly small; one could probably count on one hand the number of people making a living solely off revenue from writing poems. There aren’t any big marketing campaigns to smear the latest chapbooks across the public consciousness, so reviews are basically all the advertising a poet may get. Thus, if their collection is terrible and no one wants to review it, then it will almost certainly be forgotten for all time. But the same rules don’t apply to Hollywood films and popular TV shows. The machinery supporting those cultural products is so large and powerful that there is little chance of them simply withering in the darkness.

But at other points, Auden’s critique of the negative review seems not only reasonable, but also insightful. For example, he takes up the notion that one must critique bad works of art, lest those works inspire artists to make even more inferior pieces. The problem with that argument is that influence doesn’t necessarily work like that. Those who make bad works of art often draw inspiration from masterpieces; they simply lack the skill or vision to duplicate their forebears’ successes. Think about how many terrible student films come from kids who fashion themselves the next Quentin Tarantino or David Fincher. “The more powerful and original a writer,” says Auden, “the more dangerous he is to lesser talents who are trying to find themselves. On the other hand, works which were in themselves poor have often proved a stumulus [sic] to the imagination and become the indirect cause of good work in others” (p. 10). That last point rings especially true for me: I find I have far more success in writing when I use mediocre poets as a model, rather than trying to write something like Milton or Dryden.

This is not to say that Auden sees no value in the take-down. First, he concedes that in practice, critics often can’t just refuse to review a bad work. The terms of their employment may require them to write something, and if they can’t stay silent then they’ll at least be honest. Second, Auden still believes that the “corruption of the language” should be “continually publicly attacked,” but even then he says the true culprit is not the work in question but “the misuse of language by the man-in-the-street, journalists, politicians, etc.” (p. 11). But that’s about as far as Auden is willing to go in this essay. Personally, I’d carve out a larger space for the negative review. In particular, the belief that one should connect a work “to life, to science, economics, ethics, religion, etc.” requires that a critic call out harmful or dishonest artworks when they encounter them, lest we pretend the realms of art and life are somehow separable. And the more prominent a work is in the culture, the more harm it can do, and the less compelling Auden’s arguments seem to become.

It will be interesting to see whether I can, or whether I should, keep to the spirit of Auden’s position for the rest of my Classic Club posts. At the very least, I always want to keep those six tasks he listed in mind when writing a post. I’m certain that I’ll dislike at least some of the next forty-nine books I read for this project, but whatever I write about them should have some substance beyond mere vitriol. It may be true that, as Auden claims, [o]ne cannot review a bad book without showing off” (p.11). But I’m sure one can do so without just showing off.


Please feel free to share your thoughts on The Dyer’s Hand or on negative reviews in the comments below. If you’d like to get a sense of what’s on the horizon for my Classics Club project, you can access my list of fifty books here. And as always, thank you for reading.