Vox Humana: Doing the Story Justice

Gospel themes and imagery weave through the music of Latter-day Saint rock star Brandon Flowers.
By Thomas B. Griffith

I am no maven of pop culture, but I have six children, and on occasion they try to keep the old man abreast of trends. A few years ago, a daughter told me, “It is now officially cool to be a Mormon. Brandon Flowers has made an ‘I’m a Mormon’ video!” Even though I was vaguely aware that Flowers was LDS and that as the front man for The Killers he was possibly the most widely known living Mormon, I had paid little attention to him or the band. But spurred by my daughter’s enthusiasm, I watched the video. I was hooked. I am now a fan. Because Brandon Flowers, rock star, has filled his music, among the most popular on the planet, with gospel themes and imagery. Here’s a sampling.

“Only the Young” is a meditation on the plan of salvation. In the video, Flowers uses images of fire and water, angelic beings ascending to and descending from heaven, and a familiar portrayal of the First Vision to highlight the story of the disciple living in a fallen world. “Nothing is easy. Nothing is sacred,” the disciple observes, and then cries to heaven, “Mother, it’s cold here. Father, thy will be done. Thunder and lightning are crashing down. They’ve got me on the run.” And then a plea followed by an expression of hope: “Direct me to the sun [or is it Son?]. Redemption keeps my covers clean, tonight. Baby we can start again.”

The journey from our premortal life to this world is a recurring theme in Flowers’s songs. In “Human,” he asks, “Are we human, or are we dancer?” Are we free to choose, or is our every move determined by our biology or choreographed by God? The disciple, on his “knees looking for the answer,” “dream[s] of home” and recalls glimpses of a premortal life, learning of grace, virtue, good, and devotion to prepare for this time of separation from God.

In “Magdalena,” Flowers uses a pilgrimage from Nogales to Magdalena as a symbol for the disciple’s journey in mortality. Enduring to the end, the disciple rejoices, “I will know that I am clean now, and I will dance and the band will play.” Painfully aware that mistakes inevitably follow forgiveness, the disciple commits to getting up after every fall and staying in the covenant: “And if I should fall to temptation when I return to the evil throes, from Nogales to Magdalena as a two-time beggar I will go where I know I can be forgiven.”

Flowers sings of a different sort of pilgrimage in “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas”: not the journey of the resolute disciple, but the wandering of the unredeemed soul who “stumble[s] down the boulevard of neon-encrusted temples . . . looking for the grace of God in the arms of a fellow stranger.” It is only after the god of Las Vegas has lured you into his kingdom that he hurls the devilish taunt, “Didn’t nobody tell you? The house will always win.” It is always surprising to realize that he is the god of this world. But there is a way out of Satan’s realm, and once again, memories of our premortal past point the way forward. The wanderer has “a reoccurring dream” of a “little girl . . . back in Tennessee . . . playing hide and seek with a woman who used to know you very well.”

For his “I’m a Mormon” video, Flowers featured “Crossfire,” a song about eternal marriage that draws upon language from the Book of Ruth and, in the video version, what we know of Eve, the powerful and insightful protagonist from Restoration scripture. One can almost imagine Adam and Eve singing these lyrics as they exit Eden into the lone and dreary world: “We’re caught up in the crossfire of heaven and hell, and we’re searching for shelter. . . . Tell the devil that he can go back from where he came. His fiery arrows drew their bead in vain. And when the hardest part is over, we’ll be here. And our dreams will break the boundaries of our fear.”

Studying the humanities at BYU taught us the hazards of interpretation. It is risky to reach conclusions about the meaning of a work and perhaps even futile to suppose one can discern the creator’s purpose. Even so, I can’t help but think that we are seeing in the work of Brandon Flowers, LDS rock star, a response to the challenge put to Mormon artists by President Spencer W. Kimball “to do justice in recording in song and story and painting and sculpture the story of the Restoration” (“Education for Eternity,” pre-school address to faculty and staff, BYU, Sept. 12, 1967).

Thomas B. Griffith, a BYU humanities graduate, is a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. He previously served as BYU general counsel and as legal counsel for the U.S. Senate.