Despite being skeptical about Mormons and anything coming out of Las Vegas, I’ve always had a soft spot for the Killers. I can excuse, and even celebrate, kind of, their over-earnestness, and while their self-admitted Springsteen-chasing might be a little presumptive, at least they picked a good idol to try to emulate.
At any rate, the Killers’ relevance to this paper is the fact that the apotheosis of all Killers songs, the first single off their 2013 album, ‘Battle Born,’ happens to be, in my reading, a poignant explication of the failure of modern romance. To wit:
 

The Atavist Playlist presents:

 

"Runaways" by The Killers

The Atavist Playlist:

The Killers, Runaways

by Jackson Lay

August 8, 2014

As told by the Killers, Modern Romance doesn't always have a happy ending...

First verse:

 

"Blonde hair blowin' in the summer wind
A blue-eyed girl playing in the sand
I'd been on her trail for a little while
But that was the night that she broke down and held my hand
The teenage rush, she said, "Ain't we all just runaways, we got time"
Well that ain't much...
We can't wait 'til tomorrow
You gotta know that this is real, baby why you wanna fight it?
It's the one thing you can choose, oh!"

A couple things to note in the first verse:


    •    The youth of the couple - she’s described as a girl, playing in the sand. This informs the last line: ‘the one thing you can choose’ is her relationship with the speaker. We don’t choose our families, or our economic circumstances. That wouldn’t be a problem if most families and circumstances were sufficient for childhood flourishing, but they’re not. Kids end up in stultifying conditions that they had no choice over. There is a desperation for control here, the ability to assert oneself against the oppressiveness of the modern environment. This is further reflected in the fact that she already thinks of them both as ‘runaways’, even though to our knowledge nothing bad has happened to either of them yet. While it’s possible that she’s been abused off camera, it can also be read as a universal need to run away from the modern world that we’re born into. The problem is, often we don’t know what we should be running towards.


    •    The refrain at the end of the verse’s ambivalence: ‘we can’t wait ’til tomorrow/you gotta know that this is real, baby why you wanna fight it’ can be read as enthusiasm for the future and a plea to let their love develop (we can’t wait for tomorrow to come, because we’re so in love!), or as a dumb teenager’s version of Marvell’s ‘To his Coy Mistress’ (we can’t wait until tomorrow to get it on, because ‘time isn’t much’ - we could lose it at any time). A teenage relationship can be the first thing in a person’s life that feels real. Without the advice of close friends and relatives, ideally older peers taking an interest in the teenagers’ lives, the overwhelming emotions take over and can lead people to bad decisions. We shouldn’t blame the teenagers for this: we should blame the society that forces teenagers into isolation. And to those who would argue that that’s just what teenagers do, they rebel? They didn’t always. Teenagers rebel because they can sense that the world they’re being groomed for is stuffed to the gills with madness and hypocrisy, and they haven’t been beaten into submission ye. They rebel because they’re not getting enough of what all of us want: community acceptance. This is why popularity is so important for all of us, and especially teenagers.

 

Second Verse:

"We got engaged on a Friday night
I swore on the head of our unborn child that I could take care of the three of us
But I got the tendency to slip when the nights get wild.
It's in my blood
She says she might just runaway somewhere else, some place good
We can't wait 'til tomorrow
You gotta know that this is real, baby why you wanna fight it?
It's the one thing you can choose

Let's take a chance baby we can't lose
Ain’t we all just runaways?
I knew it when I met you, I'm not gonna let you runaway
I knew it when I held you, I wasn't lettin' go"

    •    So now we might guess that the first refrain about waiting should probably not be interpreted innocently, but it doesn’t really matter. Whether the couple’s courtship was only a few months long or a few years, the story is the same. The marriage doesn’t appear to be a shotgun wedding - there’s no mention of pressure from parents of society. Rather, it appears that they’re still in the love. He’s not a pickup artist who just wanted to bang a girl and leave her in the lurch - he’s trying to take care of her and his child, apparently not out of a sense of duty but out of continued affection.


    •    Note that the crimes of the man don’t even need to be stated. It can be argued that a better writer (Springsteen, presumably?) would have added more specifics, to make the story more interesting, but it’s not really necessary. We all know what boys do when the nights get wild. They flirt with other women, or cheat, or get into fights. And the feeling that it’s in their nature - ‘it’s in my blood’. Sure, he might be able to change, but if he does so he won’t be being true to himself.


    •    Running away at this point is not an escape from the world into love, but escape from a relationship back out into the world. But where is there to go, really? A young mother’s options are generally to (a) go it alone as a single mother, which is incredibly difficult economically and psychologically, (b) find another man to help her, which may be harder to do since her ‘stock’ is diminished by aging and the fact that she’s got her child as baggage (in the Rational Model, a man has to be pretty gullible or pretty stupid to spend energy raising someone else’s kid - and while Atavists argue that the Rational Model does not reflect human nature, it is descriptive of a lot of human behavior in the modern environment) or (c) to go live with her parents in the family home. The Atavist would argue that the last option is often the best, as it allows for more community support of both the mother and the child, but it’s an option which is not always available and is viewed with scorn or condescension by many. Plus, in many communities, leaving her husband would bring the mother down in the social order and make her lose support from others in the community.


    •    What does the refrain mean now? ‘We can’t wait ’til tomorrow’ in this context seems to evidence an unhappiness with the present. The husband still thinks that the relationship is real, and doesn’t want his young wife to fight it. This shows an optimism - somehow, they’ll make it work, if they just keeping trying harder. This is what he wants her to take a chance on - staying with him. Saying ‘we can’t lose’ indicates a belief that their relationship is already at a zero point - they have nothing further to lose from each other, so they might as well stay together and have a shot at getting something back. The husband shows such determination - in not letting his wife run away, in not letting go - you can hear the effort in just the words, even without Brandon Flowers’ choked delivery. This determination is generally, and rightly, applauded - even if it would be easier for the husband to leave, it’s probably better for the child at least if he stays. One can argue that, freed from a bad relationship, the mother could find a better match and would have the ability to raise the child in a loving relationship, but for many single mothers that’s a fantasy. It gets shown on TV a lot - the aggrieved wife leaves her husband and things work out for her in the end with a new rich husband who loves her and her kids - but how often does that happen in real life? Consider the following ‘duh’ statistics from a scholarly article entitle “Epidemiology of Divorce” (The Future of Children, CHILDREN OF DIVORCE, Vol 4. Issue 1, Spring 1994): “[After a divorce,] [y]ounger women are more likely to remarry than older women, but age is not associated with remarriage in men… The presence of children lowers the likelihood that a woman will remarry but does not affect the probability of remarriage in men.” So the older a woman is, and the more kids she has, the less likely she is to find a new husband. Combine that fact with the statistic that second marriages fail 60% of the time, and third marriages 75%, and the chances for a rosy future might seem so great. Maybe they should grit their teeth and try to work harder.

 

Bridge:

"We used to look at the stars and confess our dreams
Hold each other to the morning light
We used to laugh, now we only fight
Baby are you lonesome now?

At night I come home after they go to sleep
Like a stumbling ghost, I haunt these halls
There's a picture of us on our wedding day
I recognize the girl but I can't settle in these walls"

    •    These lyrics show that there is still affection in the relationship, at least from the husband towards the person that his wife was when he married her. But he also seems to care that she’s lonely now - although he may be using her loneliness as justification for giving up on his determination to make things work - if she’s lonely with him, maybe getting out of the way would give her a chance to be less lonely?


    •    The turning of guilt onto the self also shows here. The husband ‘recognizes the girl’ in his wedding photo, indicating that he doesn’t think she’s changed too much, but ‘he’ can’t settle down this way. He refers to himself as a stumbling ghost, already dead - he’s turned his frustration with the relationship inward and he hates the person he’s become. This makes sense if you think that marriage is the normal state of humanity - someone who can’t settle down in a marriage must, then, have something wrong with them.

 

Final Chorus:

"We can't wait 'til tomorrow
Now we're caught up in the appeal, baby why you wanna hide it?
It's the last thing on my mind
(Why you wanna hide it?)
I turn the engine over and my body just comes alive and we all just runaway
I knew it when I met you, I'm not gonna let you runaway
I knew it when I held you, I wasn't lettin go, no no no!
(No no no!)
Ain't we all just runaways?
Yeah runaway
Ain't we all just runaways?
Yeah"

    •    The last chorus of the song can be read in multiple ways, but to my mind there’s only one that’s consistent. What can’t they wait until tomorrow for now? It can be read as divorce, which makes sense when read in conjunction with what follows. Divorce is appealing to both of them, though they can’t really admit it, and even a glancing mention of the possibility makes him say that he doesn’t want it (‘it’s the last thing on my mind’). That appears to be the last interaction between them in the song - the husband then gets into his car and runs away, in one respect or another. The question is whether his running away is for good, or whether he’s driving to the bar for another night out. I would argue that the final insistence that he’s not going to let her runaway, that he’s not going to let go, indicates that divorce isn’t on the table anymore. He’s resigned to staying in the marriage, but he’s still running away from it, into a fake world of self-delusion and entertainment. Perhaps he’s about to become a big sports fan. Perhaps she’s about to start reading romance novels. They’re moving away from direct confrontation and towards the sublimation of their frustrations and desires. They’ve run away from the world into their relationship (first verse), and they’ve found it impossible to run away from their relationship (second verse), so now they’re running into fantasy (third verse). Any way you read it, however, it’s hard to find a happy ending to this song, and to me that makes it realistic.