The Killers Hot Fuss

The Killers’ ‘Hot Fuss’ 20 Years On: A Layered Hit That Still Slays

The Killers’ Hot Fuss is made for the hips and heart, not the brains. Their best tunes are eminently digestible, meant to have you vibrating from the first few bars.

Hot Fuss
The Killers
7 June 2024

How bright the early 2000s look now. Sure, there was the continuing fallout from the War on Terror, Hurricane Katrina, and the 2003 European heatwave that killed 70,000 people — a sign of things to come. But looking back, we had it lucky. There was still a thriving monoculture. CD sales were at their peak (though not for much longer), and the post-punk revival was shaking up rock music. Nobody knew what an incel was — though if they listened to the debut album by a particular Las Vegas band, they’d see the inklings were there.

The KillersHot Fuss sharply divided opinion upon its 2004 release. Audiences ate up the video, which was on heavy rotation on MTV. Rolling Stone cheered how the group were about “to pry dance rock from the steely grip of hipsterdom” and send it mainstream. Meanwhile, the skeptical Entertainment Weekly fired off a loaded question: “Isn’t it too early for a Strokes tribute band?”

They were more right than they knew. Frontman Brandon Flowers was a devout Strokes fanboy-cum-rival, later telling the press, “I really wanted to beat [The Strokes’ debut].” So much so that when the band heard Is This It, they tore up almost all of their early material and started over. What that ghost record might have sounded like is a great ‘what if’ for the rock annals. But what we got instead is still reverberating in the charts and tinny smartphone headphones today: an endlessly danceable, irresistibly hooky album with a dark story at its heart.

It’s funny how many critics, trained to go beneath the surface of a song, instantly mislabelled Hot Fuss as pure 4/4-beat shlock. Pitchfork dismissed the whole LP and sneered at the “blasé lyrics about the pressures of being fabulous”. But the clues of a deeper narrative, even a scattered album concept, were right there, particularly in what would become known as the Murder Trilogy: “Jenny Was a Friend of Mine”, “Midnight Show”, and the B-side “Leave the Bourbon on the Shelf”. Tease apart lyrics like “she couldn’t scream when I held her close”, “I took my baby’s breath beneath the chandelier,” and “there ain’t no motive for this crime”, and you’ve got an open-and-shut case for themes of misogynistic violence.

But envy, compulsion, and violence stalk every moonlit part of Hot Fuss. Even seemingly innocuous weaker tracks like “Change Your Mind” (“So if the answer is no / Can I change your mind?”) start to seem a little queasy. Like ABBA’s heartbroken homage to divorce, “Knowing Me, Knowing You”, the infectious major-key arrangements hide a multitude of sins. In case you were in doubt that there’s a blood-soaked crime in these tunes, the whole record opens with chugging helicopters so loud you can practically see the silvery searchlights hunting for a suspect. And let’s not forget the band’s name…

This so-obvious-it’s-invisible dichotomy is one reason Hot Fuss endures. Two decades on, a new generation still loses their minds on TikTok when they put the murder narrative together like conspiracy theorists finding a clue. The killer concept invites you to participate, slotting pieces like a jigsaw. Flowers clearly had fun hammering the message home, sometimes altering the lyrics of “Jenny” to “she kicked and screamed while I held her close” at gigs, like an in-joke for Murder Trilogy members. In an age of incel culture, it gives the Killers’ Hot Fuss a dark edge that lingers long after the tracks end.

But all of that True Detective storytelling is a small beer compared to the tunes. Even for diehard fans, Hot Fuss is made for the hips and heart, not the brains. Their best tunes are eminently digestible, meant to have you vibrating from the first few bars. No song exemplifies this better than the hit that, just a few weeks ago, overtook Oasis’ “Wonderwall” to become one of the biggest UK singles not to reach number one in history.

“Earworm” doesn’t do it justice. “Mr. Brightside” drags you through highs and lows, from the triumphant opening image, “Coming out of my cage and I’ve been doin’ just fine”, like an invitation to start the night strong, to the sickening sight of watching your crush kiss someone else. Which of us hasn’t had nights like that? Dashed romantic hopes are like death and taxes: they never go out of business. The Killers tap into the universal and package it in a perfect, majestic dance-rock sound.

What makes the audio hit so hard? You must peel apart each element to see something clever happening here. The song is bright, gleaming, and radio-friendly as a final product. But the individual instruments sound grungy as hell. Analyzing the track for his long-running series “What Makes This Song Great?”, producer and YouTuber Rick Beato singled out the jackhammer bass, noting how “the distortion […] gives the song so much power. It grabs your ear, that dissonance.” Similarly, the synth sounds surprisingly eery and frenetic when isolated, like Gary Numan on speed, while the solo drums kick hard as a Nirvana single. If anything, the song is almost too tightly produced, as you miss all that oomph in the final shiny product.

But no matter — you’re too busy shouting along at the chorus to notice; everyone is. “Mr. Brightside” has become a pop culture monster that will not die, played in indie clubs, karaoke bars, student unions, and weddings and funerals. It’s a song for every stage of life. In 2016 a “Mr. Brightside” singalong at a rural Irish wake went viral: so much so that the band tweeted their adoration, telling one of the singers “Brian O’Sullivan, if Brandon ever needs a fill-in, we’re calling you! May we all have friends like this #farmersrule.”

Alongside the other megahit, “Somebody Told Me”, “Mr. Brightside” is made for the masses. The Hot Fuss singles are dancefloor candy for people who can’t dance, who just want to bawl the words with a beer in one hand and their buddy’s shoulder in the other. Like “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Hey Jude”, the Killer’s best songs survive because of their majestic choruses. Flowers’ operatic refrains are simple to the extreme, ensuring they are instantly memorable. That can, however, make them an easy target for parody. “I’ve got ham, but I’m not a hamster…” sang standup comic-cum-musician Bill Bailey, skewering the line “I’ve got soul, but I’m not a soldier.”

It was also easy to make fun of Flowers’ Anglophone leanings. The singer, a lover of the Cure and New Order, was damned with faint praise by no less than The New York Times for his “genuine fake British accent”. An example of cultural appropriation before we had a name for it, perhaps, but the expression “genuine fake” certainly rings true in the age of social media.

After one of the strongest five-track runs in modern rock history, Hot Fuss runs into a tiny problem: all the remaining tracks. Then and now, critics point the finger at the flimsy second half. A 2005 review in the venerable NME is worth reading as a time capsule. It praises the album’s opening side as fantastic before flatly panning the second part as “beige filler”. Harsh but fair: somehow, the 1980s Duran Duran-esque charm and energy goes totally AWOL.

“Glamorous Indie Rock & Roll”, a bonus track on some editions, came under particular fire as “the most teeth-grindingly embarrassing you will hear in your entire life”. Flowers’ caterwauled chorus, “It’s indie rock and roll for me”, fell on deaf ears, which is fair enough given the scratchiness of the high notes. But listen to those wails today, when indie rock has been crushed under the behemoth wheels of pop and hip-hop, and his hipster line seems like a prescient eulogy.

The good news is that while the last few songs are undeniably weak, Hot Fuss came out at a perfect time for listeners to cherry-pick their songs. For the first time, technology made it truly simple to separate the wheat from the chaff. Tellingly, NME’s 2005 review ends with this coda: “The Killers have made half of the album of the year. Lucky that now we’ve got Napster, you only need to buy half.”

Catch the band live soon, and you won’t have that option. During an eight-show hometown residency, the Killers will play Hot Fuss in full at the Sphery. It’s an apt setting, considering the love-hate relationship people have with the iconic, skyline-dominating Las Vegas venue. Like Hot Fuss, the architecture demands questions. Is the shiny technicolour Sphere vapid or sublime? A glitzy mirrorball concerned with surface, or a multi-layered masterpiece? Perhaps the answer is all of those things, all at once. Whatever your take, the audience at the Sphere won’t care. They’ll be too busy screaming their indie rock and roll hearts out, five syllables at a time: “I’m Mis-ter Bright-side…”

Works Cited

Robine, Jean Marie et al. Death toll exceeded 70,000 in Europe during the summer of 2003. Epidemiologie, 2008.

Eliscu, Jenny. Hot Fuss. Rolling Stone, 2004.  

Browne, David. A Hot Fuss. Entertainment Weekly, 2004. 

Starkey, Adam. Brandon Flowers refuses to listen to The Killers’ Hot Fuss anymore. Metro, 2016.

Loftus, Johnny. Hot Fuss. Pitchfork, 2004.


Mr Brightside by The Killers overtakes Wonderwall as biggest song never to hit number 1 in UK. Sky, 2024.

Rick Beato. What Makes This Song Great? “Mr. Brightside” The Killers. Youtube, 2023.

McCauley, Ciaran. The Killers: Mr Brightside sing-a-long at County Kerry wake goes viral. BBC, 2016. 

“I’M NOT A HAMSTER” Bill Bailey Ruins This Classic From The Killers. Universal Comedy, 2021. 

Cowan, Amber. Killers on the road. The Times, 2005. 

The Killers: Hot Fuss. NME, 2005.

Bell, Sadie. The Killers to Perform ‘Hot Fuss’ in Full at First-Ever Hometown Las Vegas Residency: ‘It’s Good to Be Home’. People, 2024.