Here, in the 34th day of the longest government shutdown in history, in a place where children are dying at the border and Native Americans are being mocked by kids with red MAGA hats, only one thing remains certain: there is no such thing as the American dream.
The image of life in the United States has been bleak for a longtime, though it’s a picture often painted over with privilege and an insincere message of freedom and love. Who gets to live the dream? It certainly isn’t everyone. It certainly isn’t the innocent people who have had their narratives mangled by the country’s current administration. When lives are being tossed to the side and the precedent for goodness has been more-or-less corrupted, can anyone really call this place the Land of the Free?
These are the exact questions The Killers ask in their newest song, aptly named, “Land of the Free.” The passionate protest anthem is a hauntingly real portrayal of the current state of the country, with frontman Brandon Flowers criticizing everything from the border wall to institutionalized racism.
“How many daughters, tell me how many sons, do we have to put in the ground before we just break down and face it? We’ve got a problem with guns,” The Killers’ frontman sings. His voice echoes across a sea of gospel-inspired backing vocals and powerful piano riffs to create a kind of rock-and-roll lament. Here is an image of America, in its rawest form.
Working alongside Flowers’ voice is an accompanying music video directed by none other than legendary filmmaker Spike Lee. Lee, who filmed The Killers’ video toward the end of 2018, was drawn to the song because of its strong political message, and specifically the lyrics that reference the border wall, “High enough to keep all those filthy hands off of our hopes and our dreams, people who just want the same things we do, in the land of the free.” To Lee, the song is about people who are trying to seek peace, but are instead met with warfare. How does this country demonize those who share the same dream?
Captured in Lee’s raw-footage video are the many underrepresented faces of the country, showing the stark impact and inequity of Trump’s America. Close-ups of Mexican families, parents holding their sons and daughters’ hands while they race across the border, and even wheelchairs being pulled through crowds of fearful people are just some of the scenes depicted.
As a kind of mirror image, ICE officers wield guns as they patrol the surrounding grounds. It’s the kind of mesmerizing footage that seems almost mythic in its madness, yet it is happening at this very moment. In Lee’s own words, the song and video could not have dropped at a better time.
Currently, federal employees are losing paychecks and claiming unemployment due to the government shutdown. Workers are being forced to take out loans and look to food banks for support. People are suffering with no reparations. On the Supreme Court level, the majority-conservative justices just ruled in favor of Trump’s ban on transgender military personnel, turning the clock back on important progress being made in the LGBT community.
The song seems absolutely imperative now, though the anthem was actually years in the making. Flowers first felt inspired to write “Land of the Free” after the tragic mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School back in Dec. 2012, in which six adults and 20 children were killed. In an Instagram post describing the roots of the song, the The Killers singer wrote, “The news was devastating. Heart wrenching. A gut punch. But, sadly not as shocking as it should have been.”
Like the rest of the country, Flowers and The Killers were distraught by the onslaught of school shootings, along with the never ending incidents of racial injustice. Only two years after Sandy Hook, Michael Brown was fatally shot by white police officer Darren Wilson, a case that rocked headlines and allowed the Black Lives Matter movement to gain traction across the country. Police brutality was brought even further into the public discussion after video footage captured Eric Garner choked to death by a NYPD officer. In an interview with Zane Lowe’s Beats 1 show, Flowers adds, “This stuff didn’t seem to be in harmony with the values that I believe my country was founded on.”
At the same time, Flowers was originally unsure if he was the right person for the job, but he couldn’t ignore what was happening. “I would start the song and then I would put it away and I’d say, ‘I’m not the guy to do this,’” he said, adding, “Then it just piled up … Las Vegas, Orlando, Parkland, and it just kept coming and I was just like, I have to get this out.” At some point you have to stop waiting for someone to make the change and do it yourself. The Killers’ anthem works this frustration into the overall tone of the song, which is far from subtle. Flowers and the rest of his bandmates — who were never prone to going political before this — are fed up, and they want people to know it.
In conversation about his 1963 hit “Masters of War,” Bob Dylan said, “The song is a sort of striking out, a reaction to the last straw, a feeling of what can you do?” The Killers’ new song has been created in the same vein. It’s never the right time.