Panic! at the Disco were one of my favourite bands during the mid-2000s emo heyday, and for the first time since then, they’re having mainstream pop success. They’ve always maintained a large and dedicated following, but suddenly I was hearing Brendon Urie’s voice on the radio again. In 2018, ‘High Hopes’ became their highest ever charting single on the Billboard Hot 100, beating out their 2006 breakout single ‘I Write Sins Not Tragedies’. This year, Urie appeared on ‘ME!’, the lead single for Taylor Swift’s latest album, which is the kind of thing I couldn’t have imagined ever happening right up the moment it did.
And I hate it. I hate it I hate it I hate it.
‘High Hopes’ is a monstrosity. It’s horrible. It hurts my ears. It’s not that it’s a straight pop song, it’s that it sounds like it was written to appear in ads. It’s not that it was written by other songwriters and given to Urie, it’s that it is so obviously not written for Urie in particular: I found out the song’s hook was conceived as being for a rap song, and everything snapped into focus. The lyrics about starting from the bottom but having the drive to succeed – “Shooting for the stars when I couldn’t make a killing / Didn’t have a dime but I always had a vision” – are pretty generic for hip hop, but bizarre from Urie, who recorded a triple-platinum album a month after he graduated high school. The whole thing is somehow both cloying and bland.
Urie’s appearance on ‘ME!’ is even more bizarre, if slightly less difficult to listen to, spelling/marching band breakdown aside. I don’t know why Swift wanted Urie to appear on this song – she’s the biggest pop star in the world, she doesn’t need anybody to appear on her songs – but for Urie, it represents a pivotal moment in his journey towards selling out. When I say that, I don’t mean “going pop”, because Panic! were always, in some basic way, a pop band. And I don’t think getting more pop is an inherently questionable artistic choice. But, as Todd in the Shadows points out, Urie is essentially turning into Adam Levine. Like Maroon 5, Panic! has shed members until it has become a strangely named solo project; like Maroon 5, Panic! has finally shed any shred of a distinguishable sound to mould itself into ads and Spotify playlists; like Maroon 5, Panic! fucking sucks now.
But it wasn’t always like this. Once upon a time, Panic! at the Disco didn’t consist of Brendon Urie and a revolving door. It was a band, with songs written primarily by Ryan Ross. They recorded two albums – 2005’s A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out and 2008’s Pretty. Odd. – before splitting, with Ross and bassist Jon Walker (briefly) forming The Young Veins. No matter how much the act currently recording as Panic! at the Disco suck, those two albums are still special to me. And I would hate to think of some sad teenager never finding them because, I mean, they know who Panic! at the Disco are, and they suck.
On A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out’s tenth anniversary, Billboard called it “one of the most polarizing albums of our time”. That seems on the face of it like it can’t possibly be true, but Fever definitely got a fair share of negative reviews. “Where does one begin to describe this steaming pile of garbage?” Pitchfork asked. And if you’re thinking “well, of course Pitchfork would give it an over-the-top negative review, contrarianism is 80% of the reason Pitchfork exists”, AllMusic said, “This is a band in love with making a record – making a statement – but there’s nothing unique inside, neither in their formula nor the vaunted and sticky production.” It didn’t help that Panic! were signed before ever playing a live show based on demos they had uploaded online – which was at the time extremely unusual and made them an immediate subject of backlash – and that they arrived among a glut of pop punk/emo bands which, to outsiders, sounded all the same. “Interchangeable groups include The Academy Is… and Fall Out Boy”, Johnny Loftus wrote for AllMusic.
When I got back into pop punk as an adult, there was a lot of stuff that was basically interchangeable. Did Cute Is What We Aim For have any identifiable sound? I think I remember liking Cobra Starship, but did I, really? Even early Paramore is distinguishable mostly thanks to Hayley Williams’s voice. But saying that about Panic! at the Disco is crazy.
A Fever We Can’t Sweat Out is one of the best albums to come out of that scene. It is very, very 2005 pop punk – the crunchy guitars, the melodramatic and esoterically witty lyrics, the sentence-length song titles – but spins off from there in two completely different directions. The first half infuses that sound with electronic instrumentation, and the second launches into full-on showtunes. It’s both ambitious and tightly constructed, both a thoroughly original sound even as it steals ideas from all over music history. I loved it listening on the CD player in my bedroom when I was thirteen, and I love it now.
Fever opens with an old fuzzy radio being tuned in. We hear faint snatches of music, and a sentence in Polish, but mostly just static, fading in and out as the dial moves. Then a very faint 1940s-style radio announcer says, “Ladies and gentlemen, we proudly present: a picturesque score of passing fantasy.” We smash immediately into ‘The Only Difference Between Martyrdom and Suicide Is Press Coverage’, a three-minute mission statement for the band that blasts in like it’s made of gunpowder. “Sit tight / I’m going to need to keep time / come on, just snap snap snap your fingers for me,” Brendon sings, but with such manic energy that it never feels presumptuous or demanding. It’s punchy and fun and eminently danceable. ‘The Only Difference…’ is replete with the kind of tongue-in-cheek self-loathing/self-aggrandising juxtapositions typical of Fall Out Boy: “Swear to shake it up, if you swear to listen / Oh, we’re still so young, desperate for attention.”
So far, so 2005 pop punk. Then, as the bridge, a few seconds of distorted guitar gives way to a techno breakdown. Brendon repeats the opening lines of the chorus over synthesizers and drum machines, before launching back into the final chorus. This sounds like no big deal here in 2019, when pretty much everyone uses at least some electronic instrumentation, and it’s relatively rare for major pop hits to have any non-electronic instruments at all. But when I first listened to Fever in 2006, that electronic breakdown blew my mind. Genres were much more rigidly defined then, especially for teenagers. A good chunk of my identity and the identity of my friend group was being into pop punk and emo, and that also meant not being into specific other kinds of music. I would have shot myself before I’d be caught dead listening to Cascada. Fever represented, among other things, a rejection of that kind of genre rigidity.
In the decade and a half since, those genre distinctions have broken down. But Fever still does a better job incorporating electronic music into a pop punk sound than anything since. Fall Out Boy’s most recent album, MANIA, is an attempt to mix electronic music into their work, and it’s a hideous mess. MANIA is extremely frustrating to listen to because there are places where you can almost hear the solid pop-rock song at the root, but it’s buried in gaudy over-production. MANIA uses electronic music to strip away the vibe and personality of the band’s usual pop-rock, and obviously isn’t as good at being electronic as work by artists actually devoted to that craft. Fever, in contrast, sounds unequivocally like a pop punk album. From the techno breakdown on ‘The Only Difference…’ to the disorienting robo-vocals on the verses of ‘Nails For Breakfast, Tacks For Snacks’, to the pulsing synth beat of ‘Time to Dance’, its electronic elements never strip anything away, they add layers and texture. Rock bands still struggle to adapt to the electronic era, but on Fever, Panic! laid out the blueprint.
In Pitchfork’s review, Cory D. Byrom said that Fever’s lyrics “are just the sort of vague teen heartache you’d expect.” This seems like a case of reviewing the album you expect to hear instead of the one that exists. Panic! were never more self-consciously theatrical than the Fever era. They dressed like dandies and their concerts were extravagant circus-inspired shows. Where lots of emo guys wore eyeliner or dyed their hair, Ryan wore a full-face of hugely elaborate make-up. The album itself pulls in vaudeville, burlesque, showtunes and film scores as influences, and even though it’s not a concept album, it sort of feels like one anyway. Brendon introduces himself as the narrator on ‘The Only Difference…’, and the album cycles through snapshots from all kinds of stories, basically none of which are “vague teen heartache”.
After ‘The Only Difference…’, we get ‘London Beckoned Songs About Money Written By Machines’, which is very specifically about the pressure of being in Panic! at the Disco and getting scrutinised by the press: “The weather today / is slightly sarcastic with a good chance of: / A. Indifference or / B. Disinterest in what the critics say.” This is pretty lame. It’s probably my least favourite song on the album, except for 1. the part where all the instruments cut out and you just hear the faraway-sounding drum, distorted and glitchy, like it’s been run through a vocoder and 2. the line “I’m burning and I’m blacking my lungs / Boy you know it feels good with fire back on your tongue.”
But then we get ‘Nails For Breakfast, Tacks For Snacks’ – “Sick and sad patients on first name basis / With all the top physicians” – and the album is (smartly) never a self-aware metacommentary on the band’s existence again. The intermittent autotune on Brendon’s vocals on this track presages how autotune would later be used – particularly by Kanye West – to create a sense of distance on emotional lyrics, as if retreating from too-raw feelings in post-production. Brendon sings “I am / Alone in this bed, house, and head / She never fixes this / But at least she…”, and it’s left unfinished, open, bare, and it cuts right through me every time. He sings “Prescribed pills / To offset the shakes, to offset the pills / You know you should / Take it a day at a time”, and he sounds so worn out and weary. I don’t know if anything has so well captured the particular despair of trying really, really hard to improve your mental health but not getting any better.
There’s ‘Camisado’, which combines twinkling synth and “ba-ba, ba-da-do” backing vocals with lyrics like “This is the scent of dead skin on a linoleum floor / This is the scent of quarantine wings in a hospital.” There’s ‘Time To Dance’, which has strange, evocative lyrics like “Boys will be boys, hiding in oestrogen / And wearing aubergine dreams” and bluntly straightforward pleas like “Give me envy, give me malice, give me your attention / Give me envy, give me malice, baby, give me a break.” There’s ‘Lying Is The Most Fun a Girl Can Have Without Taking Her Clothes Off’, where the verses are about fucking but the chorus is a call for “testosterone boys and harlequin girls” to dance, and I picture a Victorian ball every damn time, like a crazy person.
But then, on a dime, the album changes completely. There’s a snatch of dance music, and then the old timey radio announcer – still as faint as ever – tells us, “Due to circumstances beyond our control, we are unable to continue our broadcast of dance music. We shall continue now with our piano interlude.” The dance music is replaced by a single piano player, and when the album resumes, it’s not an electronic pop punk album anymore. Lots of pop punk bands of this era have a theatrical streak: My Chemical Romance had a particularly wide theatrical streak, from the vamping at the start of ‘You Know What They Do To Guys Like Us In Prison’ to the entire concept and execution of The Black Parade, but it’s there in Fall Out Boy et al. too. But the second half of Fever takes those twists of flavour and takes them to their furthest conclusion.
‘But It’s Better If You Do’ is set at a cabaret show, announcing the change in sound. The geniuses at Genius.com say it’s significant that it’s a song about stripping marks this change because “the music from this point on is, in a literal sense, stripped down” but it’s not, not really. It loses the electronic component, but if anything it sounds bigger, the vacated space occupied by a dozen new instruments. Where ‘The Only Difference…’ had a techno breakdown, ‘But It’s Better If You Do’ has a carnival music interlude, before the drums kick back in with an effect completely different from the drum machines in the album’s first half. This doesn’t sound like music a teenager could record in their bedroom.
The accordion and strings outro of ‘But It’s Better If You Do’ seamlessly becomes the intro to ‘I Write Sins Not Tragedies’ when the accordion drops out. It’s crazy to me that anyone could think Panic! were interchangeable with those other bands when this was their biggest hit, and I’m not even that big an ‘I Write Sins Not Tragedies’ guy. It’s a song that’s built around violins and glockenspiel and trumpets that’s about a guy overhearing that his fiancée is a whore on the day of his wedding. It’s a story song and a character song in a way that feels literally lifted from a musical. I can’t imagine any other pop punk band recording it.
‘I Constantly Thank God For Esteban’ is Brendon-as-preacher, but it’s not like a gospel song at all. The acoustic parts sound like classical guitar and there’s definitely a cabasa on the chorus. It’s easy to picture Brendon singing it in the desert church from Kill Bill. It’s ostensibly addressed to a scene that’s washed out and passionless – “And I, for one, won’t stand for this / If this scene were a parish, you’d all be condemned” – but like the best songs about the narrow historical specificities of mid-2000s emo (‘Thank You For The Venom’, ‘This Ain’t a Scene, It’s an Arms Race’), it works better if you forget about that completely. And then, before the album closes with a song about a scummy lawyer sleeping with a woman in a seedy motel as a condition of giving her a job (‘Build God, Then We’ll Talk’), we get ‘There’s A Good Reason These Tables Are Numbered Honey, You Just Haven’t Thought Of It Yet’, a fantastically campy revenge fantasy. The ragtime melody on the piano is muted to imitate a wax cylinder recording from the start of the twentieth century. “Haven’t you heard that I’m the new cancer? / Never looked better and you can’t stand it,” Brendon sings in the chorus, and it’s one of the truly great “fuck you”s of the genre. A lot of pop punk bands talked about wishing you would die in a car crash, but only Panic! would lace your cigarettes with nitro-glycerine.
I loved A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out in my early teens for a lot of the same reasons I got into pop punk in general: how it balanced polish and distortion, how it mixed caustic wit and melodramatic emotion. Pitchfork’s review derisively said that Brendon’s voice sounded like his “heart must get broken on a daily basis or something.” But that’s exactly what I loved about it, because I felt like my heart was breaking daily. But where Fall Out Boy or My Chemical Romance helped me name my darkest feelings, and provided a salve for my wounds or armour against the hurt to come, Panic! always felt different. So much of my favourite pop punk feels raw and personal to me, but A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out feels like playing pretend. I think that’s what people didn’t like about it: it’s not “authentic”, and isn’t trying to be.
A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out feels like a movie. There isn’t a song on it that I don’t picture in my head. It’s an album with an extremely fleshed out aesthetic. Partially that’s informed by the album art and the live shows, but mostly it’s projected entirely from the music. As a sad teenager, I felt so much pressure to wear a costume, to disguise myself into something acceptable, especially when it came to my feelings. Pop punk was my relief valve, whether it was Gerard Way extolling me to tell the world I want to stay ugly or Patrick Stump singing out my darkest places for me to scream along to. But Panic! at the Disco reminded me that costumes can be good when they’re the ones we choose to wear for ourselves. Costumes can be fun, or a way to express yourself, or a disguise of your own design for your own purposes.
Panic! would never sound like Fever again. Pretty. Odd. is a delightful, weird, sad album, but there’s a reason it had to open with a promise that they were “still the same band”: Pretty. Odd. sounds radically different, taking its influences from 1960s baroque pop and the Beatles and the Beach Boys. That was the last album Panic! recorded with Ryan Ross, and their next release – Vices & Virtues – is a blatant and mostly failed attempt to revert to the more financially successful A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out sound. Lead single ‘The Ballad of Mona Lisa’ has a chorus that makes me cringe – “Whoa, Mona Lisa / You’re guaranteed to / Run this town / Whoa, Mona Lisa / I’d pay to see you frown” – and I have a very strong tolerance for cringey lyrics. The whole album feels like a shadow of something, where A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out feels full to bursting.
Years later, on ‘Crazy=Genius’ from Death of a Bachelor, Brendon Urie – at this point the band’s sole member – would sing, “She said you’re just like Mike Love / But you’ll never be Brian Wilson.” I don’t want to overstate the parallels between Panic! at the Disco’s split and the Beach Boys’, but Mike Love – who may or may not have said “Don’t fuck with the formula”, but definitely didn’t want to fuck with the formula – to this day owns the rights to and tours under the Beach Boys name. But that doesn’t mean that the act that tours under that name is in any sense the Beach Boys. Conversely: “Brian Wilson is the Beach Boys. He is the band,” Dennis Wilson said about his brother, “We’re his fucking messengers. He is all of it. Period. We’re nothing. He’s everything.”
And ‘High Hopes’ is absolutely Panic! at the Disco’s ‘Kokomo’.