“Are we human, or are we dancer?” is one of pop music’s more metaphysical lyrics. And that’s not a misprint — it really is “dancer” rather than the more grammatically correct “dancers”.
And in a song that’s designed to make you think, that slightly dissonant grammar serves the same purpose as a guitarist striking a deliberately discordant note. It grabs your attention. Your brain switches from passive listening to curious attention almost instantly.
Of course, some people were outraged by the inappropriate use of grammar when “Human” was released. And, interestingly, that was rather the point…it means the lyrics written by The Killers’ front-man Brandon Flowers hit their mark.
He claims the lyric “Are we human, or are we dancer?” was inspired by a quote from legendary “gonzo journalist” Hunter S. Thompson. Thompson’s style was to insert himself in his stories as an active participant, rather than a passive observer like you’re taught in journalism school.
So Brandon Flowers making his lyrics a story all in themselves is very much a nod to the Hunter S. Thompson style of writing.
There is some doubt whether Hunter S. Thompson ever said the words that Brandon Flowers attributed to him, but I even like that aspect too. It makes “gonzo songwriting”, if I can use that term, even more powerful if it’s based on a quote which never existed in the first place.
Whether or not Hunter S. Thompson ever uttered the words is a moot point. What Brandon Flowers did was delicious either way. And of course the faux outrage and intellectual critiques for his potentially mis-attributed quote only served to make his point even better.
The original quote…if it ever existed…is actually a powerful piece of writing in its own right…
America is raising a generation of dancers, afraid to take one step out of line
That’s a pretty important idea whoever said it, or even if nobody said it at all and it’s a figment of Brandon Flowers’ imagination…in fact, especially if it’s just a figment of his imagination.
But “Human” isn’t just about one metaphysical question and some bad grammar. There are plenty of other lines in the lyrics which are designed to make you think.
And sometimes I get nervous
When I see an open door
Close your eyes
Clear your heart
Cut the chord
This raises the fundamental…and Hunter-esque…question about what we do when opportunity presents itself. Do we go for it, or are we afraid to step out of line and do something different which might horrify our family, scandalise our friends and concern our community?
I have a feeling that announcing you’re going to become a rock star might do that. I’ve come across plenty of great guitarists, pianists and drummers over the years who work in the daytime as lawyers, accountants and engineers.
It’s not for me to criticise their choices…all we can hope for in the end is that we get to live a happy and fulfilling life around people who love us…but all of them faced the question at some time in their lives as to whether they should give the music business a try, and decided not to. They were all technically good enough, but they made a choice.
And in all honesty, I don’t know what I would have done in similar circumstances. I was never talented enough on the piano, so the question never came up. But it’s a toughie…do you roll the dice for a one-in-a-million shot at global fame and fortune, or do you trade a lot less fame and fortune, but still a very decent standard of living, on more of a “sure thing”.
Hunter S. Thompson would definitely have strapped a guitar to his back and set off down a dusty country road somewhere, swearing never to return until he’d got himself to the top of the pop charts around the world.
But then if you’re looking for a definition of “wild risk-taker”, Hunter S. Thompson was probably one of them. We’re not all cut out like that.
Why “Human” is such a great song is that, despite everything I’ve written about already, there are more fantastic lyrics to come.
Brandon Flowers holds up a mirror to life in the early 21st century and tries to get us to think about whether we’re happy with the way society has turned out…
Pay my respects to grace and virtue
Send my condolences to good
Give my regards to soul and romance
They did the best they could
And so long to devotion
You taught me everything I know
Wish me well
You’ve got to let me go
The grammar controversy aside…that was just to get our attention…this is what “Human” is really about.
When we’re kids, teachers, parents, TV and every other influence we have tells us what life is supposed to be like.
People are kind to one another.
They show respect to one another.
If you work hard, your efforts will be noticed and you’ll be rewarded.
And many others.
“Human” asks the question — is all that really true? Is life like we’re told it is when we’re growing up, or is it something else entirely?
Now that’s an important question. With the greatest respect to The Killers, this is far too important a question to be buried in the lyrics of a pop song.
But, as is often the case, when society at large isn’t thinking deeply enough about an issue, art comes along to ask the questions that nobody else seems prepared to confront.
For that reason alone, Brandon Flowers’ lyrics for “Human” are so important. They raise a question we should all spend more time thinking about.
Now it’s fair to say that since 2008 when “Human” was released, society at large has probably got worse, rather than better. That’s a personal view, but I feel pretty confident plenty of people would agree with that, even if they would agree with it for wildly-opposing reasons.
This is why we need artists. Screenwriters, playwrights, songwriters, novelists, actors, painters, musicians and any other sort of artist you can think of.
When the world doesn’t ask itself the questions it should be asking, artists come along to ask them for us.
And there probably isn’t a more important question for any of us than to decide whether we’re truly a flesh and blood, free-spirited human being determined to live life to the full, or whether we’re happy in the chorus line, moving in time with everyone else, living a life determined by a hidden choreographer somewhere…perhaps even a choreographer who passed away centuries ago, but who still determines how we live our lives.
It’s a fascinating, thought-provoking, challenging question. And I’m glad Brandon Flowers asked it…after all, it’s our ability to think and make decisions for ourselves that sets us apart from animals who work entirely on instinct.
That quality is…if you like…what makes us human.
Here’s The Killers with “Human” to get you thinking…
The video is below, but if you prefer to listen to this song on Spotify, you can find it here…https://open.spotify.com/track/0McuGBXkEVz9Yq5gui4A7c