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Three Optimism Experts Analyze ‘Mr. Brightside’ by the Killers

‘I don’t think it can teach you about being optimistic. He’s definitely had a threesome, though.’

According to Brandon Flowers, frontman of the Killers, their song “Mr. Brightside” was about a girlfriend who cheated on him, which he discovered when he saw her kissing another man at a pub. As for the title, it implied that, despite this heartbreak, he’d have to persist, and try to keep looking on the bright side.

But Mr. Brightside is one of those songs with such ambiguous lyrics that people can look at it in a multitude of ways. After all, what the fuck does “swimming through sick lullabies” and “jealousy, turning saints into the sea” even mean? The music video — which appears to be about a guy visiting a brothel where, for some reason, Eric Roberts is the pimp — makes it no clearer.

Given all this, it didn’t seem entirely stupid to see what people who make a living looking on the bright side think of this song, and what it might teach us, if anything, about staying optimistic.

On What the Song Is About

Jodi Erin Rabinowitz, licensed professional counselor and sex-positive therapist: I’m very familiar with this song because I’ve heard it at basically every wedding I’ve ever been to, which is weird because it’s a terrible song for a wedding. But anyway, I’ve always had a few ideas about what this song is about. So, I think the song is either about somebody getting cheated on, or the song is about a protagonist who is such an optimist that he imagines that he has this relationship with someone who he doesn’t, like maybe she got drunk and kissed him one night, but that’s it, but now he’s seeing her go home with someone else, even though they were never really together. Or the song is about a guy who is so anxious that he imagines this woman is cheating on him in his head, but I really think it’s all an imagined relationship.

Lindsay Jackson, certified life coach at Eleven 11 Coaching and host of the Necessi-Tea Podcast: So, I’m not really sure, but I think the song is about a guy who was in a threesome where he brought in this other guy, but then his stomach is sick because he’s not as happy with the choice he made, so now he’s trying to find the bright side of that. From the title, I would have thought that the song would be about making lemonade out of lemons, but I didn’t get that from the lyrics at all. I think he’s a little confused about the whole thing. 

John Hollway, senior fellow at the Center for Positive Thinking: I’m a big Brandon Flowers fan and this is one of my favorite albums, so it’s certainly a song I’ve known about, but I haven’t really thought of it as a song about optimism. The title may lead you to believe it’s optimistic, but it isn’t. If you’re not familiar with this album by the Killers, there’s a narrative arc through the whole album. It begins with him getting questioned by police, and then he lays out, song-by-song, how it all plays out. Then at the end, there’s this big reveal that he actually killed his girlfriend.

So, just in “Mr. Brightside,” he has this vision that he’s been cheated on, but it’s all in his head. Then he “opens up his eager eyes” and becomes Mr. Brightside, so he knows what to do now, and he’s going to kill her. So it’s optimistic in the sense that he believes the future can be better, at least for him, but that’s not a very healthy look at optimism.

On What It Takes to Stay Optimistic

Hollway: From a psychological perspective, optimism is a combination of hope and agency. It’s a belief that the future can be better than today, and the belief that you have some ability to control that. Pessimists, on the other hand, see things as their fault and that things are finite and that they will continue to be that way in the future.

Jackson: Part of being optimistic is your upbringing. If you had people who encouraged you, I believe you’re more likely to be an optimistic person, but I also think it matters who and what you surround yourself with, because it can be easy to get sucked into negativity.

Rabinowitz: Optimism takes going with the flow and riding the waves during difficult times. It takes knowing that if things can get worse, they can also get better. 

On the Difference Between Optimism and Denial

Rabinowitz: I think in “Mr. Brightside,” he’s in denial. Like, in the music video, it seems like he’s in love with a woman of the night, so he’s in denial about how strongly she feels for him. Overall though, I think optimism looks at all sides of the situation, but then you choose something that looks at the positive side. As for denial, you ignore everything except for what you want to see.

Hollway: An optimist might ask, “Why did this negative thing happen?” and “What was my part in it?” Optimism uses data to move forward, whereas denial is like optimism overdone, it’s just a pollyanna-ish belief that things will get better without us constructively engaging with them.

Jackson: Optimism comes from a place of love. Denial comes from a place of fear.

On Whether or Not Sad Songs Can Help You Process Heartbreak

Jackson: For sure. It’s like therapy. Going to therapy and talking about bad experiences helps you, and music is a form of therapy, both for the artist and for the listener.

Rabinowitz: I think sad songs can be helpful. There can be something cathartic about listening to a piece of art that mimics your own experience. It can be therapeutic to know someone else went through something similar, and it encourages an expression of emotions, and a healthy expression of emotions is important. Listening to a sad song and crying can be really helpful and can help you process whatever is going on. I’ve done that with breakups, where I’ll take a day and listen to sad songs and let myself feel my feelings. The good thing is, too, a song ends, so it’s like a container. You can cry yourself out for those three minutes, and if you’re ready, you can move on to something else. 

On Whether or Not “Mr. Brightside” Can Teach Us Anything About Looking on the Bright Side

Hollway: Sure, I guess. This guy is managing to feel empowered, but I really wouldn’t suggest anyone taking his path.

Rabinowitz: I’m sure it can, but I don’t know how. If the song is about what I think it’s about, it teaches you more how to deny something. Actually, no matter how you interpret this, I’m not sure if there’s anything super “bright side” about this. I mean, she’s clearly not going home with him.

Jackson: No, I don’t think it can teach you about being optimistic. I say that because I’m not clear what he’s trying to communicate in the song — it’s just not clear. He’s definitely had a threesome, though.