Panic! At The Disco ran a countdown on one of multiple massive LCD screens, descending through the seconds until their set. The energy of roughly 16,000 people in the room—many of them teenagers—crackled tangible and electric in the air. Their voices sounded like the signals of individual satellites ascending into the dark towards the stadium’s roof, out of sync, until the final minute unified them: 5, 4, 3, 2, 1.
I was on the arena floor in the media area, two cameras slung over my shoulders, perfectly positioned to watch Brendon Urie jump from inside the stage onto its surface—like levitating. Like magic. And the crowd responded in kind, on their feet, in the air, instantly screaming the words back.
Later, I’d walk the venue floor, past rows and rows of listeners, to find my way up multiple flights of stairs to an upper level vantage point. I watched the room erupt with the optimistic radio smash hit “High Hopes.” I saw them brought down to rapturous attention with “Dying in LA” (a piece that saw Brendon Urie performing the song at an all-white piano, suspended in midair, traveling across the length of the arena). I witnessed a masterful cover of “Bohemian Rhapsody” unite every generation, parents and their teenagers and the 20-somethings like myself in between, in a raucous sing along.
Panic! At The Disco’s showmanship is masterful. From the explosive fireworks that punctuated “Ready to Go” to the plumes of pyro perfectly timed with a ferocious live cover of “The Greatest Show,” every element is woven together to create an experience. At moments, it was like being immersed in a movie. A small strings and brass section created a refreshingly organic feel to big, arena-sized songs. Nicole Rowe and Mike Naran offered the perfect balance of personality and professionalism on bass and guitar. And then there’s Brendon—every inch of his posture a showman, channeling the Vegas vaudeville that raised him. He strutted and danced, occasionally descending below the stage’s surface as if to make a point before bursting back into the spotlight, cheekily soaring through effortless vocal runs that would leave most vocalists gasping.
The crowd was engaged at every moment of 25 songs and nearly 2 hours. For that matter, I was engaged. I was in the generation that first found Panic! when “I Write Sins Not Tragedies” was the edgy emo anthem every MySpace kid was living for. I’ve watched Panic! At The Disco manage to somehow continue to capture the attention of each new generation, a progression of continued relevance that I’m sure is on some level calculated, yet never feels contrived.
Usually, I am drawn to the songs that reveal something deep about the world, that go beneath the surface. Rock has always been a socially conscious genre, from the scathing commentary of early U2 to earnest current acts like Rise Against. Spirituality finds a natural home in the genre for that reason.
But Panic! At The Disco does not fall into that category. Their songs often feature your standard party content that will not be for everyone reading this. So what is it about them and their music that have been so resonate for over a decade now?
As I watched an arena full of listeners passionately singing along, often abandoning their phones for long periods of time, intensely connected to each other through the songs, I felt a slow-dawning realization: the resonance is joy.
The curtain of 2019 has opened on a world deeply, painfully divided, politically, relationally, ideologically. The issues that are being discussed are important, make no mistake. But the digital age and the non-stop access to these life and death conversations becomes exhausting on a soul level. I see the word “compassion fatigue” more and more frequently. The pursuit of truth and beauty is certainly worth enduring for. But there is a bone-deep weariness that comes with being asked to bear the weight of empathy for a perpetual onslaught of tragedies, the worst of human experience exposed and available to us 24/7. Teenagers coming of age now are the first to have spent their entire life in a world where to-the-minute updates on the latest human rights atrocities are literally streamed into their consciousness.
In a world like that, maybe something to simply enjoy is no small thing. The art of joy, of delight, becomes something spiritual in and of itself. There is a gift in having spaces to let go of the weight we carry, to rally ourselves, to sing a hopeful song, before facing the hard conversations again. Maybe even trying (and failing) to sing along with Brendon Urie’s ridiculous falsetto is an act of pushing back against the belief that tragedy is all there is.
“Feel good” anthems become something more in times like these. They become a powerful affirmation of all the living we are invited to do, even in the face of the dark.
“Had to have high, high hopes for a living
Didn’t know how but I always had a feeling
I was gonna be that one in a million
Always had high, high hopes.”
After “Victorious” finished the evening with a flash of confetti, I left the Pray for the Wicked tour smiling, surrounded by others who were doing the same.
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