On a middle school trip to a Christian retreat in California, the kind where there isn’t hazing so much as there are unspoken contests to see who can cry the hardest while proclaiming their love for Jesus, my best friend showed me the Killers’ 2009 live show at the Royal Albert Hall. Long bus ride, rear projection background, moonlit desert. Brandon Flowers, whose eyes used to drift into the middle distance in early live performances, struts back and forth across the stage, a marquee letter K next to artificial palm trees and blue neon edge lights. The crowd is impossibly large and stunningly cohesive, shouting every line—“Are we human or are we dancer?” and “Coming out of my cage and I’ve been doing just fine”—in unison.
Near the end of a stripped-down rendition of “Sam’s Town,” the image black and white, Flowers begins to sing, “You know, I see London, I see Sam’s Town,” but stops short as the crowd overtakes him. Instead of a more recognizable piece of Vegas lore, like the Dunes or the Golden Nugget, the Killers named their sophomore album after a saloon-styled hotel and casino no tourist ever sought out, one whose light show in the center atrium, called Mystic Falls Park, had long become something of a joke—a fake waterfall, the jittery head-turns of an animatronic mountain lion and bear atop the plaster cliffs, the incongruous lasers. But no one in London knew that, and even if they did, they didn’t care.
There, when Flowers almost whispers the line, “Have you ever seen the lights?” in front of the band’s facsimile of the desert, you catch a glimpse of something like mythmaking. Part of the terror and mystery of the Southwest is how easily it can be reshaped and repurposed to become what you want it to be, even if what you want is not and never will be real. So when Flowers sings the question, there can only be one answer. It’s not the lights of downtown, or the Bellagio Fountain, or the Welcome to Las Vegas sign, at least not in the moment. It’s all of those things afterwards, in memory.
In November, a few months after the release of the Killers’ new album Imploding the Mirage, Nevada, flooded like other states with an unprecedented number of mail-in ballots, was taking longer than usual to call the state’s decision for president in hopes of achieving accuracy over speed—an expectation set out by the Secretary of State early on in the process, though one that fell on deaf ears.
The following are tweets:
“Irony – the city that never sleeps (Las Vegas) goes to sleep on election night.”
“Nevada counting ballots” captioned above Brian McKnight’s video for “Back at One,” emphasis on the number of times McKnight pushes his index finger out like he’s telling you to wait.
“y’all rushing tf out of Nevada. girl we 50th in education give us a second we can’t count”
“Everyone can’t wait three days for Nevada to count our ballots. Meanwhile, in Las Vegas, we’ve been waiting for rain for TWO HUNDRED DAYS as of today.”
There was talk of Veep’s Season Five episodes, where, in the life-imitates-art kind of way, an election comes down to Nevada, complete with a sitting president flailing about indecisively, trying to stop disadvantageous votes from being counted. At one point, the senior strategist for the president, Kent Davison (played by Gary Cole), steals the show by cutting through all the relevant and shocking coincidences of screen and history: “It’s pronounced Nev-ADD-a.”
Parallax is standard here in the liminal, blank space of the American imagination, where most of what you’re told about where you are is that no one really cares what’s real or not.
That’s not true.
“That’s not true” is its own industry. People spend a lot of time trying to correct the city’s record. On one hand, the illusory vision: sun-melted playground in the desert, rough-hewn people industry, repeated blank slate for billion-dollar dreams. On the other, a contested reality that, for all the good intentions of local writers and newfound residents, reveals the city as a place where people live and work and do whatever it is they set out to do in most any other place.
Amanda Fortini, a part-time Vegas resident and former teacher of mine, writes in her essay “The People of Las Vegas” that this is a place “about which people have ideas. They have thoughts and generalizations, takes and counter-takes, most of them detached from any genuine experience and uninformed by any concrete reality.” That’s mostly true. But after long enough, fantasy becomes real here in the sense that it persists without hesitation or evidence. Residents are part of the fantasy-upkeep crew, after all. No one checks into the Bellagio or drives out into the flat expanse for a “Well, actually.”
For locals, there are other fantasies, like that of “Vegas Strong,” a motto that has become ubiquitous throughout the city following the October 1st mass shooting in 2017 and is now synonymous with a dubious, amorphous sense of diversity and community. (It’s true that Blue Lives Matter apologists and BIPOC community organizers alike use the phrase, but no one’s yet pinned down what exactly defines Las Vegas’s brand of strength.) Or the cornucopia of plenty found in the dozens of hotel buffets and internationally recognized restaurants that tower above a houseless population of nearly 10,000. Or the grand proclamations about the natural beauty of the Mojave and its prized outdoor recreation, which has been dominated by white residents and tourists. More often than not, Vegas isn’t idealized, it’s stitched together with shiny tape. That’s the real truth. “That’s the real truth” is its own industry too.
But every now and then, the accretions of rumor and old-town nostalgia buckle under their own weight and the mirage of Las Vegas solidifies in harsh, mundane ways. This year there were, and continue to be, numerous demonstrations over the murder of George Floyd and other Black people by law enforcement. For many here, Floyd’s death was reminiscent of that of Tashii Brown, a local Black man who was tased repeatedly, punched and choked on the ground in 2017. Though the incident was ruled a homicide, the offending officer was never indicted. Nevada is home to one of the highest-paid police departments in the country. Its jails have historically welcomed contracts to hold ICE prisoners and have been criticized for their inhumane conditions, which, during a march I attended in the summer, was a topic of concern given burgeoning COVID-19 case counts.
As the year continued, the number of virus-related deaths rose and rose, overwhelming an already understaffed and underfunded state healthcare system. Governor Steve Sisolak’s protocols, which were either in line with the restrictions of other states or slightly lax, inspired conservative ire over the repression of citizens’ First Amendment rights. People recalled the shutdown of the Strip at the start of quarantine, photos of empty Las Vegas Boulevard making the rounds online (ironically crafting a new, morbid kind of destination for people with nothing better to do than drive out and look for themselves). They mourned the inability to gather and to work, and correlated standard distancing procedures with a government conspiracy to, among other things, suppress Second Amendment rights and promote voter fraud. One group, called the Battle Born Patriots, began a signature-gathering campaign calling for Sisolak’s removal from office. Their slogan was “Taking Nevada Back.”
Between lockdown and the election, the Killers released Imploding the Mirage, their sixth album. The name is evocative for invoking a sense of unveiled truth, but the album is easily their most fantastical. Sonically, the Eighties are front and center as they were in their early albums, but with even more grandiosity; Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham features on the album, alongside k.d. lang, plus all the warm, bombastic, glowing synth and wailing guitar you could ask for. Lyrically, it’s Flowers’s most personal work, charting his recent departure from Vegas in 2017, his wife’s traumatic past and love strained. To craft these contexts, Flowers employs ever more religious (and likely LDS-inspired) imagery. On the cover fly two celestial beings, bearded man and long-haired woman, who take the form of clouds high above the desert. As you make your way through the album, it seems as if the Killers are done with name-checking Vegas streets and reveling in cliched imagery. In place of these there is a stomping brio, a confidence backed by faith and experience.
Imploding the Mirage is one of the band’s best records. After the departure of co-founder and lead guitarist Dave Keuning, and with the part-time departure of bass player Mark Stoermer (who features on a few songs on Imploding the Mirage), there was a question about how the Killers might evolve. Looking at their arc from Sam’s Town to now, idiosyncratic song structures have given way to more traditional pop songwriting (verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, etc). Along the way, the band, and Flowers in particular, have courted Eighties icons like Johnny Marr and Elton John. The result, before their latest record, had a tendency to feel falsified by the sheer weight of artistic influences, such that the band sounded like they were trying to win their heroes’ favor. On Imploding, they fully embrace those influences—synths, gospel choruses and all—avoiding signposting in favor of a delightful grandiosity.
This album is also the Killers’ whitest. Despite its recent efforts to indicate the opposite, the LDS Church has always been synonymous with whiteness. On Imploding the Mirage, Flowers trades his traditionally sweeping narratives for earnest proclamations about Mormon marriage “dressed in white,” enshrining divine matrimony in the heavenly light of a God who chose America as the promised land for a band of white settlers. On the band’s previous album, Wonderful Wonderful, Flowers quoted scripture and seeded his lyrics with a Biblical flair. Here, those familiar with the Mormon Church beyond its strange history and conservative reputation will recognize earnest songs like “When the Dreams Run Dry” (“Reach for the summit / of an ancient design / on the verge of eternal / on the heels of divine”) as a twinned defense of traditional values and a celebration of white spiritual destiny. Flowers also ruminates on the term “white trash,” which he often uses both as a descriptor and as a label he believes is misunderstood. On “Blowback,” the phrase points to his wife’s origins, while also taking on a kind of defiant pride.
The Killers, Springsteen, Billy Joel: these are white, liberal projects. White in their authorship and their concerns, which display no shortage of good intentions but favor intentionally apolitical (and, even when mentioning issues of class, blandly outspoken) generalizations about unity and freedom. They are also infectious, with generational and demographic devotions that speak to a fantasy we want to believe is true. With Vegas and the Killers, you seemingly get to choose what to believe. Gamblers and addicts can win it all and, in doing so, be freed from their addiction. A gilded past, filled with crooning entertainers and eccentric celebrities, represents a better era from which we might learn, as opposed to a century riven with racism, violence, abuse and chauvinism.
On “Neon Tiger,” from the Killers’ third album, Day & Age, Vegas and its surrounding landscape are personified as a kind of exotic animal whose beauty and very nature is under threat: “Run neon tiger there’s a price on your head / They’ll put you down and cut you, I’ll never let them touch you.” The desert is as a vast, undisturbed jewel that is respected, tended to, appreciated, rather than divvied up, used as a nuclear dumping ground and exploited for its precious resources. The lights are here, the unvarnished reality takes place around you.
Here’s a truth: as the years have gone on, lead singer Brandon Flowers has gradually affected a subtle Western accent, hard r’s and long vowels. It’s not there in the band’s earliest interviews on tour with their debut album Hot Fuss. At some point, likely during the production of their home-focused follow-up, Sam’s Town, amidst a new black and white presentation of Vegas as a dusty, hardened, rock ’n’ roll oasis, Flowers starts to sound slightly Texan. This is part of his persona, I don’t doubt, one that’s expanded to include shades of the Thin White Duke and the Boss. It reveals one of those peculiar anachronisms regarding what is assumed about the Southwest, something rugged, inflected by the Confederacy and the Civil War in fashion or “rebel” spirit, something independent and masculine, which coalesces here into the platonic ideal of a cowboy. Everyone knows that the cowboy never existed so simply, but the figure does find a modern parallel in the 21st-century police officer, he who takes an enterprising attitude toward Manifest Destiny, monitors arbitrary borders, defends whiteness and garners rewards for murder.
How people come to believe stories about where they live is complicated. You can, like me, grow up around ads for strip clubs, the cadre of bail bondsmen that pop up like weeds around town and the newest vanity restaurant from a chef you’ve seen on TV without understanding that such things appear symptomatic of some deep moral vacuum to other people. And when you are forced to qualify your experience coming from “a place like that,” the old stories about home you never realized you paid attention to are easy to reach for, even if you don’t buy into them.
Nevada’s began during the Civil War. Lincoln needed to be reelected to enact his grand plans—so, despite lacking the requisite number of residents, Nevada became the 36th state to join the Union, eight days before the 1864 election. “Battle Born,” as it reads on the state flag, even though it turned out Lincoln was going to win just fine without our help.
Nevada covers areas that were once part of the Utah Territory, and before that Mexico, and before that the Spanish Empire, and before that, land inhabited by the Paiute, Shoshone and Washoe indigenous peoples, among others. A large swath of desert that has been continuously traded and stolen for trade routes, rail lines and water, though for many unfamiliar with the terrain, it was a stark, bewildering place to inhabit. In a letter to his family, Mark Twain described the region thus: “Some people are malicious enough to think that if the devil were set at liberty and told to confine himself to Nevada Territory, he would … get homesick and go back to hell again.” Harsh. And an inflection point where cliche and reality dovetail: the desert is breathtaking despite its perils.
The state’s politics have long been associated with the Republican and the libertarian, distrusting of authority, featuring outsize figures like Cliven Bundy. Urban legends, like the aliens hidden at Area 51, loom large in the collective consciousness (the federal government lays claim to more than 80 percent of the state’s land). Its landscape, in the context of art, has long been dominated by the likes of Michael Heizer, “a master of the American West” according to Interview magazine, with massive far-flung sculptures that seem like lost artifacts in the wake of war. Over the years, the slogan “Battle Born” has taken on new meanings, everything from the stiff upper lip of a city braving one of the deadliest mass shootings in history to the radioactive wastelands left behind by nuclear testing. Each refashioning has served various purposes, and in the process, certain aspects of history have been emphasized over others.
The Killers’ fourth album, from 2012, takes the name Battle Born and uses it in the spirit of Springsteen. Rough-and-tumble blue-collar grit meets a wide-screen vision of the possibilities of the open road. By this time, the 2003 hit “Mr. Brightside” was still in rotation on rock radio stations, and a band that was once written off as riding on the coattails of the Strokes, Franz Ferdinand and Interpol had transformed drastically, filling stadiums with music that carried increasingly unexpected genre influences, singing less about Las Vegas and more about its cliches. “So, baby, ’til life and the dream collide / There’s gonna be a mystery underneath those neon lights,” Flowers sings on “The Rising Tide.”
That dream, as illustrated by Flowers’s increasingly personal lines, leans hard into running-in-the-night Americana, where someone’s “star-spangled heart” finds opportunity and ruin in games of chance. The previous two Killers albums, Sam’s Town (2006) and Day & Age (2008), had sprinklings of patriotic ephemera in them (“Red white and blue upon a birthday cake, my brother, he was born on the fourth of July”), but the band didn’t seem to believe in the American myth as much as they do on Battle Born. “Miss Atomic Bomb,” which references a 1950s trend in which Las Vegas hotels would dub a chorus girl working at nuclear bomb watch parties with the title, goes back to the band’s Hot Fuss days chasing and losing love. “Racing shadows in the moonlight / Through the desert on a hot night / For a second there we’d won / Yeah, we were innocent and young.”
In the new album, the Killers continue to ruminate on youth and innocence, placing it squarely among the nostalgia conjured up by old memories of a city that has a reputation for constant change. They do this instrumentally, with the newer, synth-forward tracks that draw sonic associations with buzzing hotel lights and visually, with the band’s stage costumes sitting somewhere between trucker chic and rhinestone cowboy. Their lyrics document once-functional motels that sit vacant, lonely cracked roads that no longer lead anywhere, and Flowers’s preoccupation with a world that conspires to beat childlike wonder out of the best people.
Such stylized disillusionment can seem necessary for those who buy into the American dream the way Flowers does. It’s safe to say his cast of characters—a “slick chrome American prince” in “A Dustland Fairytale,” the “man in red” who urges you to leave the stifling small town behind in “This River Is Wild,” a girl “born into poor white trash and always typecast” in “Blowback”—are white, members of a romanticized working class, religious and/or hardened by life’s fake-outs. They want better, deserve better, and are willing to work hard for it.
For a moment, every now and again, that vision cracks. The 2019 standalone single “Land of the Free,” whose documentary-style music video, directed by Spike Lee, offers glimpses of the migrant crisis at the border, laments a broken country riven by racism and intolerance. Police brutality, mass incarceration, gun control, the border wall: all of it is mentioned head-on, PSA-style. Apart from a “fake news” mention on the Killers’ fifth album, Wonderful, Wonderful, this is how far the band dares to stick its neck out. It’s not a criticism to say that, before “Land of the Free,” the Killers have never been interested in commenting on American politics. Still, it is revealing to note that, while they tend to cloak themselves in the garb of an imaginary mid-late nineteenth-century cowboy, the few times they’ve come close to directly referencing history deal with nothing older than 1961. Beyond that, the past is a grab bag of found objects, a mystical, primordial slate from which any number of truths can be gleaned.
If it’s possible to capture the sound of a city, or the sound of a place, or of any entity whose history is received and molded seemingly singlehandedly by the people who don’t live there, the Killers sound the most like Las Vegas in the last forty seconds of Sam’s Town. Recently, a friend tweeted, “It feels silly to nitpick Las Vegas being described as a ‘city of gamblers’ but in this narrator’s opinion it is much more accurately described as ‘a city of people who pick up after gamblers,’ and that makes all the difference.”
You can hear that on “Exitlude,” the final track of Sam’s Town. “It’s good to have you with us, even if it’s just for the day,” a fading chorus sings, their voices echoing down an unseen hallway into a world that, whether day or night, probably doesn’t consider time as much as it should. The line could come from a cleaning crew in any number of hotels or casinos, any receptionist or property manager, any janitor riding around in a cart power-washing literal shit and vomit off the sidewalk, any or every hospitality worker in the city who puts on an accommodating face while a tourist tosses another oversized margarita container into the trash. “Outside, the sun is shining. Seems like heaven ain’t far away. It’s good to have you with us…”
Truth is, delivery and confidence make up most of what becomes believable anyway. Plus it’s impossible, truly not even worth trying, to dispel a myth once it’s taken root. All that results is a facelift and another line in that myth’s crow’s feet. Is it good to have you with us? When we don’t even like delineating who “us” is? What ends up being most revealing is when people express their ideas about you or where you come from: it’s those moments when you’re granted access to the inside of them, if only for a second. What they say versus what they do: wisdom through parallax. People believe that sin has a special place in Las Vegas, a paradox of safe hedonism that grants you the highest high without killing you.
Beneath all of it—beneath the “American masquerade” in Flowers’s veins on the album’s title track—there’s still something unexamined and festering. What the Killers create is staggering for its ability to unapologetically adorn itself in the sweat-warped glitz of the country’s party city and still manage to inspire real, honest feeling. Still, it’s a fraught fantasy. “We’ve seen it all: bonfires of trust to flash floods of pain,” they sing on “Exitlude.” “It doesn’t really matter; don’t you worry, it’ll all work out.”
In the wake of Trump’s failed reelection campaign, Republicans, including Trump and members of Congress, have tried to contest the election results in increasingly bewildering ways. One of these included an amicus brief filed to the Supreme Court by an attorney named Robert Thomas, who represents two nonexistent states: New California and New Nevada. Most recently, Trump invited his most fervent supporters to march in protest against the imminent end of his presidency in Washington, D.C. On January 6th, a large, armed mob of Trump loyalists stormed the Capitol as a joint session of Congress was in the midst of formalizing Joe Biden’s victory. The building was evacuated and locked down. A standoff between protestors and law enforcement resulted in five deaths and multiple serious injuries. Trump’s words at the “Save America” rally before the march were indicative of the conspiratorial, anti-federalist fervor that came to define his presidency: “We’re going to walk down Pennsylvania Avenue—I love Pennsylvania Avenue—and we’re going to the Capitol … and we’re going to try and give our Republicans—the weak ones, because the strong ones don’t need any of our help—we’re going to try and give them the kind of pride and boldness that they need to take back our country.” A familiar, freewheeling attitude. And in the wrong hands, a dangerous one.