When conversation turns to the greatest songs ever written, musicians seem to occupy a separate plain of existence. No matter how hard you try, the idea of breathing the same air as Led Zeppelin or The Beatles seems almost unattainable. But what makes a song great in my book doesn’t come from the people who perform it but how the music itself affects the people who hear it.
Great songs take their respective subject matter and blow it up to gargantuan dramatic proportions. This makes the musician and the listener feel like they are part of something greater than themselves, and by the end of the song, the world shines just a tiny bit brighter.
An example of this musical marvel? “Smile Like You Mean It” by the Killers.
“Smile Like You Mean It” was a sleeper hit from the Killers’ debut record Hot Fuss, which came out in the summer of 2004. From the get-go, the synth-heavy pad and chiming guitar chords suck you in. While many bands at the time took a nostalgic, blues-centric route with their hooks, like Jet and the White Stripes, The Killers’ brand of rock was a different take at nostalgia: the 1980s.
The song’s subject matter of lost love blends perfectly with the synths to create an emotional yearning that all the greatest 80s bands did during their prime. Frontman Brandon Flowers and company wear their influences — The Cure, The Police, and The Smiths — proudly on their sleeves and instead of sounding shallowly nostalgic, this song, along with the other tracks on Hot Fuss, come off as unapologetically sincere.
While I liked The Killers when I first heard tracks like “Mr Brightside,” I always could never find the drive to listen to their records in full. But once the opening strains of Hot Fuss‘ opener “Jenny Was a Friend of Mine” came through my speakers, I was incredibly intrigued. Both “Jenny” and the follow-up, “Mr Brightside,” were exceptional slices of 80s-centric pop, “Smile Like You Mean It” took all the appealing aspects of the album and blended them into a single track. And with its poppy appeal and irresistible instrumentation, the song does not waste a second of its runtime of 3:54.
What gives the song its power is the context for which I had heard the song in the first place.
The album was released in 2004, but I didn’t begin to pick up on its brilliance until my freshmen year of college in 2015. During this time, I was an incredibly introverted kid trying to make sense of how to fit into this gigantic new world. As I settled in, I began to discover how real relationships worked — rather than the ones people claimed to have had in high school.
“Smile Like You Mean It” paints a beautifully sad portrait of a man who is watching the girl of his dreams going out with another guy. Throughout the song he seems to get more and more distraught about his situation until it is summed up in the bridge of the song. Flowers sings:
“Someone is playing a game in the house that I grew up in/And someone will drive her around down the same streets that I did.”
This speaks volumes because Flowers is not even bothering to find out who this other guy is, but it doesn’t matter, since he can’t stand the thought of not being with her.
This hit me especially hard because throughout high school and into college, I empathized with pain of unrequited love and how that pain can be soul-shredding at its worst. With the Killers I knew I had a friend, even if it was vicariously, through a set of speakers. I knew that I, this naïve kid from East Coast, was feeling the same way that this singer from Las Vegas was feeling.
“Smile Like You Mean It” spoke to my personal experiences, but not in the hippy-centric mentality of “music saved my life, man.” This song made me see that even though I felt alone in my little suburban cubbyhole of the world, there were a lot of other people who felt the exact same way.
The tune is also a classic example of how to write a perfect pop song.
Since it is only four minutes, it can tell its story and not overstay its welcome through sweeping interludes or wild sonic detours. It’s not the flashiest or most bombastic song the Killers have produced, but it rises above the rest through the sparse elements of their sound and creates something that transcends simple pop tunes.
With a simple drum, bass, synth, and guitar setup, the Killers take you on a sonic journey that is an absolute treat from start to finish. I never have to be in the mood for this song and whenever it comes on, I am automatically transported back to my days as a young college student trying to sort out his emotions.
While the kid who heard that song years ago may have grown up a little bit, the song’s emotional weight will live in him forever.
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