Panic! At The Disco
A gloriously overdramatic album opener exploring a sense of triumph and fighting spirit in which Brendon Urie delivers a typically spectacular vocal performance. The punchy instrumentation is bursting with built-up energy.
victory · danger · confidence · motivation · drama · darkness
United by a single clapping beat, a crowd sings out in perfect concert. Like a legion of adoring fans, their tune is simple and playful — a conquering anthem, designed to lift the wings of champion.
Tonight we are victorious
Champagne pouring over us
All my friends were glorious
Tonight we are victorious
Oh — oh — oh — ah!
The crowd is joined at the end of the chorus by the unmistakable voice of Brendon Urie, frontman and now only only official member of Panic! At The Disco. His voice is dynamic, theatrical, always with a hint of tightly controlled vibrato on the longer notes. Underneath him the instrumental winds up and erupts into a two-note electric guitar thrash with crashing drums. It’s the kind of chorus you’d want playing if you won an Olympic gold medal or several million dollars.
The ‘oh’s from the last line come rhythmically; they climb up melodically before reaching their zenith at the final ‘ah!’, which rings out glamorously. On the second repetition, the drums fall away suddenly as the ‘ah!’ continues for much longer, Urie’s voice wavering artfully as the guitar picks out a coiling riff that reminds me of a crossbow being loaded — building up tension with every bar. It is one of the first examples of this track’s fantastic sense of pace and contrast. His clear voice spirals heavenwards like a rocket ship blasting off into the night sky, becoming a scream before dispersing.
The verse’s melody starts high and twists downwards in steps, the dramatic minor key giving the proceedings a slightly tongue-in-cheek sense of debauchery. Urie’s words are concerned less with painting a coherent picture and more about using interesting combinations of ideas to evoke a dangerous, charged atmosphere:
Double bubble disco queen, headed to the guillotine
Skin as cool as Steve McQueen, let me be your killer king
The lyrical imagery is macabre but infused with excitement: he alludes to the spell of the troublemaking witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth (‘Double, double, toil and trouble / Fire burn and cauldron bubble’) before rhyming elegantly that the ‘disco queen’ will soon be punished by the ‘guillotine’ for her hedonistic transgressions. Notorious emblem of antihero cool Steve McQueen gets a mention too, his skin now even cooler as he lies six feet under; Urie’s character in the song aspires to be similarly sexy and unpredictable.
Joined by an eerie minor harmony that accentuates the edgy feel of the tune, he starts his vocal descent again, crying, ‘It hurts until it stops’. Victory is, after all, just the final product of perseverance. In the track, Urie embodies a kind of reckless, almost self-destructive attitude to life. He is ‘a killing spree in white’ (a line punctuated at the end by the glam ‘ah!’), his eyes ‘like broken Christmas lights’. These ideas show his dark, daredevil side once again: he dresses deliberately, ironically in white so the splattered blood of his enemies is conspicuous; his party spirit goes beyond the merry kitsch of yuletide decorations towards something more sinister and ruthless.
For the first part of the bridge, the guitar ducks out briefly, leaving the tune to bounce up and down against the clattering drums:
My touch is black and poisonous
And nothing like my punch-drunk kiss
I know you need it, do you feel it? Drink the water, drink the wine!
Urie continues to layer on the symbolism, his lips alluring when he is either drunk from spiking the punch at an otherwise boring party or dizzy from being socked in the boxing ring. His delivery becomes fast-paced and frantic in the last lines, commending us first to stay hydrated during the event and then to celebrate with wine as the melody rockets upwards like a firework. Listen carefully, and at right at the peak you can hear a sound like a can of something intoxicating cracking open as the really good times begin to flow.
The guitar blossoms upwards as the song’s key shifts to major, the tone joyous and extravagant. In the background little electronic fireworks start to fire sporadically, preparing for the big bang. Urie’s lyrics in the second part of the bridge are more simple and relatable, designed to be easily learned and sung in times of decadence — although his recognition that this kind of partying is the realm of the ‘washed-up celebrity’ shows still an knowing irony threading through the ecstasy:
Oh, we gotta turn up the crazy
Living like a washed-up celebrity
Shooting fireworks like it’s the Fourth of July
Until we feel alright!
As the last line twists back into the minor key and the instrumentation falls away to give focus, Urie’s voice whirls and strains upwards impressively — a vocal tribute to dancing the pain away. On ‘alright!’, the backing explodes again into the track; the Queen-esque ‘ah!’ sparkles syncopated at the end of each bar, adding a refined accent to the thrashing guitar and drums that hammer away, compelling heads to bang, hair to fly and spirits to soar.
Before too long, though, the cacophony stops with a hit of the high-hat. With a sound like a laser powering up, the coiling guitar riff returns once again, its rhythm reinforced by the kick drum and snare. Urie’s tenor cascades down the scale for a second time, the weird harmony underwriting the latter half of the verse.
I’m like a scarf trick: it’s all up the sleeve
I taste like — magic! Waves that swallow quick and deep
His wit is on display here as he equates his slick confidence with sleight of hand. He doesn’t give away his moves, either — there is always something, as it were, up his sleeve. A kind of sensuality winds its way into the mix here too: there is something inherently carnal, and therefore powerful, about tasting that Urie taps into here. He and multiple voices bend the word ‘magic!’ thrillingly skywards, and I am put in mind of a cartoon character’s hair standing on end after they taste something incredibly delicious. Whatever oceanic idea Urie conjures next, the use of the words ‘swallow’, ‘quick’ and ‘deep’ make it at least somewhat sexual (waves of pleasure, perhaps) — as well as evoking his similarities with the powerful and dangerous forces of the sea.
Throw the bait, catch the shark, bleed the water red
Fifty words for murder and I’m every one of them
The waters darken here, as the imagery of blood spilled in the sea emphasises the cutthroat ideals the song explores. Red has always been associated with pain, danger and physical endeavour; in this track it serves to soak the proceedings with a sense of violence, even cruelty. (As a side note, I find it intriguing that Urie imagines tricking and attacking a shark here, rather than embodying the predatory shark itself, which would have been the obvious call. Perhaps there is a noble side to this unstoppable machine after all — or perhaps he is simply the apex predator.) Having exhibited thoroughly his relentless take-no-prisoners way of winning, he affirms his commitment to absolutely killing it: he embodies every possible description of bloody triumph, like some many-named god of destruction.
The instrumentation retreats as Urie repeats the bridge, his delivery gaining pace as he sings about his ‘punch-drink kiss’, ‘water’ and ‘wine!’, the tune twiddling around and eventually upwards like a feather quill performing a great flourish.
The can hisses open for another round, and the vibrant melody pours forth; Urie again urges us to ‘turn up the crazy’, lifting his voice to heaven in praise of all the Dionysian (and in this case, distinctly American) spirits of excess. Everything builds as before, fireworks popping off as the strength of the instrumental grows… but, unpredictable as always, the track veers off in another direction. A sly note from a jazzy horn reveals instead the crowd from the beginning of the song, joined now by their hero on every word: ‘tonight we are victorious’. The effect is one of riding on a tidal wave of support; an army marching, striding on to further conquest. They repeat the refrain as the tight guitar riff zips and zaps restlessly underneath them.
The waters part; Urie entreats the listener once more to celebrate with him, to partake in his conquering success. The music swells, and in the light of the earlier detour the payoff is even more anticipated — and even more satisfying when the climax finally comes, the fierce tenor of our superstar roaring into the night sky as he sings ‘alright!’ As the crowd chants their victory anthem, all the instruments show up for one last manic dance — the crashing drums, the pumping guitar riff, the glittery ‘ah!’s scattered in the space between the bars. The song ends with their childlike voices united in a single word: ‘victorious’.
This song is a delirious embodiment of feeling unstoppable. Urie apparently wrote this in spite of his own lack of athletic success, making it all the more an anthem for everyone experiencing victory; everything from the fiery instrumental to the impassioned performance of its singer contributes to the sense of exhilaration at having triumphed over adversity.