The Audacity of Panic! at the Disco’s Debut Album

The record, which juxtaposed moments of vulnerability with exaggerated nonchalance, alternately enticed and repelled audiences back in 2005. “Well, we’re just a wet dream for the webzine / Make us it, make us hip, make a scene / Or shrug us off your shoulders / Don’t approve a single word […]

The record, which juxtaposed moments of vulnerability with exaggerated nonchalance, alternately enticed and repelled audiences back in 2005. “Well, we’re just a wet dream for the webzine / Make us it, make us hip, make a scene / Or shrug us off your shoulders / Don’t approve a single word that we wrote,” the lead vocalist, Brendon Urie, sang on the preposterously titled track “London Beckoned Songs About Money Written by Machines.” Many rock reviewers were unamused by the record, and some accused the band of gimmickry and unoriginality. Pointing to the “London Beckoned” lyrics, a Punknews.org critic congratulated the group “on writing either the most arrogant or self-effacing couplet in music.” A Pitchfork writer effectively charged Panic! with killing emo, lamenting that “Urie’s impassioned, warbling vocals are so strained it’s as if he might just burst into tears at any moment.”

Rock purists weren’t the only ones who rolled their eyes at the wordy song titles and self-conscious lyrics. Panic!’s insistence on melodrama and literary flourish, shaped in part by the influence of Wentz and other labelmates, was easy to parody. Their obsession with multisyllabic words (nitroglycerin, surreptitious, caricature) made some songs feel like SAT essays. A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out was stacked with allusions to the kinds of books that crowded Urban Outfitters shelves: Much of the album was inspired by Chuck Palahniuk’s fiction, and its breakout single takes its name from a line in a Douglas Coupland novel. “I Write Sins Not Tragedies” opens with creeping strings and builds to an impossibly catchy and now-infamous chorus. Along the way, it sneaks in some genre-characteristic misogyny, most notably in a line that feels tailor-made for skeptics to mock: “What a shame the poor groom’s bride is a whore.”

“I Write Sins Not Tragedies” took Fever to the heights of MTV’s Total Request Live charts, back when that was the ultimate marker of pop-cultural relevance. Like all good emo, the record was beloved by the most assiduous arbiters of feeling—teenagers, who embraced the band’s earnest yet playful approach to youthful angst. By the following year, when “I Write Sins Not Tragedies” won Video of the Year at MTV’s Video Music Awards, the album was everywhere, whether you liked it or not. As SPIN’s Emily Zemler wrote at the time of the record’s release, “The songs blend together into one seamless aural experience that worms its way into your head and mercilessly nests there.”

Like other pop-punk bands whose saccharine musings soundtracked the mid-2000s, Panic! at the Disco made music that relished the agony of suburbia. The songs “Nails for Breakfast, Tacks for Snacks” and “Camisado” chronicle Ross’s experiences navigating his father’s alcoholism, with the latter building to a defiant chorus: “Can’t take the kid from the fight, take the fight from the kid.” Yet Fever wasn’t all self-serious pondering and car-crash metaphors. Nor did the band just strip down to raw emotion like Dashboard Confessional, or introduce itself with macabre imagery like My Chemical Romance. They shirked political commentary, distancing themselves from the punk and nu-metal bands that proliferated in Vegas at the time. Wide-eyed and brokenhearted, these greasy-haired Nevada teens channeled their woes into elaborate, vaudevillian theatrics instead.

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Thu Oct 1 , 2020