Hot Take: The Killers are not alternative rock

Are the Killers even alt-rock at this point? That was the question that ran through my mind after I listened to the much-overhyped “Imploding the Mirage,” the Killers’ sixth studio album from 2020. A record that many saw as the finest in over a decade, I found it to be merely adequate. The first half of the record is chock-full of catchy tunes, and the further exploration of synth-pop and 80s arena rock production style is at times welcoming. The second half of the album, however, proves to be dull and lifeless with the sterile, 80s production job making these already mediocre songs yawn-inducing. I wanted to say something, but I felt like I didn’t have much to state beyond, “First half good, second half boring.” I wondered if the Killers’ turn towards pop music had something to do with the departure of guitarist Dave Keuning when a thought occurred to me: When did the Killers stop being alternative? Little did I know I was asking the wrong question. It wasn’t a matter of when the Killers were alt-rock, but a question of whether they have ever been alternative. The simple answer is not really. Of course, things are more complicated than that.

There are several definitions of alternative rock as a genre. The most obvious – or rather, the definition that adheres most closely to the meaning of the words alternative and rock – is that of rock music that is alternative to the mainstream. Admittedly, this definition is vague because of the lack of specification of what actually constitutes the “mainstream.” For this essay, I will be defining “mainstream” as songs that chart within the top 40 on Billboard’s Hot 100 singles chart and albums that chart within the top 20 on Billboard’s 200 album chart. Additionally, mainstream music should also be conscious in everyday life and leave an imprint on society at large. Having defined mainstream music by these terms, we can now look at the Killers’ history of commercial success. A quick glance at Billboard’s 200 albums chart shows that each of the Killers’ studio albums has charted within the top 10. More specifically, three of those albums made it into the top 3: 2006’s “Sam’s Town,” 2012’s “Battle Born” and 2017’s “Wonderful Wonderful. Additionally, all of their studio albums have gone to number one in the United Kingdom, and their 2004 debut, “Hot Fuss,” has sold 7 million copies worldwide. Pretty mainstream, if you ask me. 

Of course, album sales aren’t indicative of what’s culturally conscious at a given moment in history. You can have an album chart in the top 10 and merely be a forgotten speck in a given year’s swarm of music releases. Singles, however, tend to have a much more lasting impact than albums, largely because they are more digestible, being only two to five minutes in length, compared to an album which typically contains at least 30 minutes of music and multiple songs.

Looking at the Killers’ chart success on Billboard’s Hot 100, we find that they have 11 chart entries, most of which reside on the lower half of the chart. However, they do have three songs that charted within the top 40: “Human,” “When You Were Young” and “Mr. Brightside.” The last of these is significant, as it was not only the first single the Killers put out, but it’s also their only song to chart within the top 10. Let me repeat, The Killer’s debut single was a top 10 crossover smash — and that’s not hyperbole. “Mr. Brightside” stayed on the charts for 38 weeks and was also, according to the Billboard Year-End Hot 100 singles chart of 2005, the No. 16 best-selling song of the United States that year. The only rock bands that charted higher than the Killers were Green Day with “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” and Lifehouse with “You and Me.” Combine this chart position with the 2 million units the single has shipped – along with the one billion-plus streams the song has on Spotify – and it’s clear that we don’t have to go in-depth about their other charting singles to confirm that the Killers are, by the commercial definition of the word, not alternative.

So is that the end of the story? Have we proved that the Killers are not alternative? Not quite. While we have disproved their claims to being alternative rock on a commercial level, we still have to consider their musical sensibilities and where they stand within the larger cultural zeitgeist. When it comes to the sonic canvass of alt-rock, it must be acknowledged that there is no one clear definition of what alternative rock encompasses on a musical level. This is because alternative rock is an umbrella term for all types of rock music alternative to the mainstream. So long as it “rocks” and is “alternative,” anything can be considered alt-rock. Of course, we can narrow down what alternative rock is on a sonic level a little bit beyond our term from earlier.

According to the New York Times, alternative rock is “guitar music first of all, with guitars that blast out power chords, pick out chiming riffs, buzz with fuzztone and squeal in feedback.” Given that their definition of the genre was proposed back in 1989, it’s probably for the best that one comes up with a revised definition so as to accurately describe the genre in its current form. Guitars are no doubt central to the ethos of alternative rock, but so too are independence, blunt honesty, freneticism and a DIY attitude that stems from the genre’s origins in 1970s punk rock. When considering all this, an appropriate definition for alt-rock might be raw, guitar dominant music that takes inspiration from the likes of 1970s punk rock and/or grunge music from the 1990s. 

When I think of harsh, guitar-driven music, I think of Foo Fighters, Audioslave, 3 Doors Down and Nickelback. You know who I don’t think of? The Killers. And it’s not because they don’t have a guitarist — well, that’s a bit complicated — but because the guitar isn’t the dominant instrument. It’s one of them, but it’s also competing with another instrument that makes the Killers sound quite different from most “alternative” bands. That instrument, ladies and gentlemen, is the keyboard. Now, the fact that the Killers use keyboards and preprogrammed synths doesn’t disqualify them from being an alt-rock band but ask yourself this, do any of the significant alt-rock bands from the early to mid-2000s prominently feature synth sounds in a majority of their songs? With two obvious exceptions, the answer is probably no. And as per those exceptions, let’s briefly get into them. The first one is Coldplay, a band who use pianos and synthesizers as the main instrument in many of their most well-known tracks. Are they alternative? One look at their chart success and record sales would indicate that the answer is a resounding no. 

The other exception is Radiohead. Do their use of keyboards disqualify them from being considered alt-rock? Surprisingly, no. Radiohead is able to qualify as alt-rock because they’re weird and very much go by the beat of their own drum. Barring their grunge influenced debut album, they’ve always pushed themselves to pursue styles and genres that are far from popular, whether it be prog-rock, electronica, or classical chamber music. Considering this along with their being one of the first major musical acts to adopt a “pay-what-you-want” sales method for their 2007 album “In Rainbows,” I think it’s safe to say that Radiohead is an alternative band.

So if Radiohead can hold on to their credentials as an alternative act due to their experimental style and sales tactics, doesn’t that mean that the Killers could still be considered alternative? After all, the Killers don’t sound like the big “alternative” bands from the mid-2000s. That’s a tricky question, but my gut feeling is that they still don’t qualify as an alt-rock band. Despite being sonically distinct from the likes of Foo Fighters and others, the Killers’ music still fits into a specific mold of music that was relatively popular at the time. This mold was, in fact, a movement, the garage rock/post-punk revival movement. Beginning in the late 90s, with bands like the White Stripes, the garage rock/post-punk revival movement found its inspiration in the garage rock of the 1960s and the post-punk music of the early 1980s. Some of the better-known bands from this movement — besides the White Stripes —  include the Strokes, Franz Ferdinand, Interpol and the Arctic Monkeys. The biggest thing that lumped these groups together was not necessarily a uniform sound, but the image and vibe they gave off, especially in comparison to the mainstream “alt-rock” acts at the time. Instead of being heavy and uber-masculine, the garage rock/post-punk revival bands were pretty. They were fresh, slick and pondered the world while they “shook their skinny hips.” They were the hot new thing.

Though they were more influenced by 1980s New Wave music than many of their peers, the Killers still embodied most of the traits that the other “revival” bands displayed. They were nervous, twitchy and groove-oriented, yet also made music that would inevitably end up in hip night clubs and, as mentioned earlier, parts of the radio. And the odd thing about all this? The Killers were bigger than their “revival” peers. Their albums sold more, they blew up faster, and they had more crossover hits. Not only that, but the Killers have survived in a way many of their “revival” compatriots have not. Part of this is from them evolving as artists, first by incorporating elements of heartland rock into their sound and then by doubling down on the dance elements that were present on “Hot Fuss.” Did this cost them respectability? Perhaps, but it allowed them to maintain longevity and establish themselves as part of the rock establishment.

Despite all this, the Killers are generally seen as an alt-rock band while their “revival” peers are not. Does this make any sense? I sure don’t think so, but it’s totally fine if you disagree with me. Genre is a construct that frankly makes little sense if you think about it, and as my friend Savannah argues, should probably be done away with. At the end of the day, we should all just like what we want to like, and not worry too much about what is and isn’t alt-rock or pop or whatever other genres you think exist. It’s advice I wish I had been given before I went down this rabbit hole, but oh well. At least I got people to reconsider their preconceived notions about what is and isn’t alt-rock. And who knows? Maybe we’ll someday be able to clearly define what alt-rock happens to be and finally put this argument to rest. Until that time, I maintain that the Killers aren’t alternative.