From Cabaret to Corporate: The End of “Panic! at the Disco”
April 5, 2023
Adolescence is a time of great self-discovery for a teenager. Teens are impressionable as they forge paths into fashion, film, television, and other forms of media. A person’s music taste is fully set in by the time they’re 13-14 years old. And, while most people branch out from their teen years, the values we treasure in music stay with us for a lifetime. Music is an opportunity for understanding and connecting—especially for teenagers. In their humble beginnings, “Panic! at the Disco” offered more than just understanding; enveloped in vaudeville clothing with young features accentuated by eyeliner and intricately crafted eyeshadow designs, the band added stakes to teenage angst and sought to have an intellectual impact on their listeners. Intellectualism, a concept lost in the later years of “Panic! at the Disco’s” career—lest we forget that 35-year-old frontman Brendon Urie allowed the lyrics, “You’re a car, you’re a woman, you’re a drug/You’re all of the above, baby” make it into their final album—originally penned in the room of a 17-year-old would outlast the 2000’s pop-punk boom that the group first found fame in.
“Swear to Shake It Up, You Swear to Listen”
“Panic! at the Disco” started off as a Blink-182 cover group in 2004 featuring guitarist, lyricist, and singer Ryan Ross with drummer Spencer Smith, both childhood friends and classmates at Bishop Gorman High School. The duo invited then invited their friend, Brent Wilson to serve as bassist. Wilson then brought along his fellow Palo Verde High School classmate, Brendon Urie, to audition for a guitarist position. With each position filled out, the quartet began rehearsals in the living room of Smith’s grandmother’s house. Contrary to what the public would see for the next eighteen years, Urie would not be the lead singer of “Panic! at the Disco” until the group recognized the vocal talents he had while singing backup harmonies. From then on, Ross would assume the position of lead guitarist, songwriter, and backing vocalist while Urie began his journey as lead singer.
With every member still in their teens, they found their ticket out of suburban Summerlin, Las Vegas in the form of Pete Wentz: the Fall Out Boy bassist and lyricist and impending face of pop-punk.
For how integral the band’s relationship with Wentz was, it may come as a surprise that it began as Ross and Urie impulsively sending Wentz newly developed demos on LiveJournal in late-2004.
The band’s first demo can be heard here.
Upon listening, Wentz booked a trip to Las Vegas to meet the band and watch rehearsals before signing them to his label, Decaydance Records. With their creativity heard by a scene-heavy hitter like Wentz, “Panic! at the Disco” was able to conjure up a debut album that managed to capture the zeitgeist of the 2000s and find increasing relevance with each passing year.
“Teen Hearts Beating Faster, Faster”: A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out”
In the first non-instrumental track of “Panic at the Disco’s” debut, “The Only Difference Between Martyrdom And Suicide Is Press Coverage,” Ryan Ross beats any and every Panic! think piece to the punch. He writes in the second verse, “It seems the artists these days are not who you think,” “So we’ll pick back up on that on another page.” Needless to say, “A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out” reads like a prophecy.
It contains heady lyrics throughout, with songs taking inspiration from a literary favorite of Ross, Chuck Palahniuk, childhood, religion, and celebrity culture. But, one of the greatest joys delivered from the album comes in its confidence. Even at seventeen, Ross seemed completely aware of the situation he and his bandmates were in—how easy they’d be to take advantage of and use for profit. That self-awareness and defiance, combined with biting lyrics, youthful exuberance, and synths that lend themselves surprisingly well to the hyper-pop generation make the album a sensation the band would never authentically recreate.
When discussing the band, Huntington Beach High School (HBHS) sophomore Chloe Stewart said, “[My] favorite song is ‘Build God, Then We’ll Talk’ off ‘A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out’.”
“Panic! at the Disco” didn’t have to wait for success, for the most iconic song from their debut, “I Write Sins Not Tragedies,” reached its peak position of 7th on the Billboard Hot 100 in August 2006—the album has gotten double platinum since its release in 2005. As “Panic! at the Disco” continued to invade airwaves and slots on MTV, members began to realize that bassist Brent Wilson was unable to consistently deliver during live performances. And due to differences in professionalism, Wilson became the first member to depart from the group on May 17, 2006. Jon Walker, a guitar tech for fellow Decaydance band “The Academy Is…”, joined as bassist shortly after; learning bass lines from home in order to play his debut gig at the KROQ Weenie Roast.
Walker would become a full-time member of “Panic! at the Disco” until he and Ross made the joint decision to leave three years later.
“You Are At the Tops of My Lungs”
When thinking of songs about friendship, Queen’s “You’re My Best Friend” and Randy Newman’s Childhood encapsulating “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” come to mind. With their psychedelic second album in 2008, “Pretty. Odd.”, “Panic! at the Disco” created a song so cryptic that fans are still haunted by the relationship it depicts. The song, “Northern Downpour,” expresses what “Panic! at the Disco” went through in their second album cycle. It acknowledges the pitfalls of fame, with Ross lamenting that life is, “fantastic posing greed.”
On a more sentimental level, “Northern Downpour” is the recognition that our relationships are fleeting; and it begs for the good times to stay a bit longer. It is a duet between Urie and Ross, whose vocals contrast, but together the two fill in the gaps that the ambiguous lyrics create. Urie sings, “I know the world’s a broken bone/but melt your headaches, call it home,” a lyric Ross wanted Urie to pay special attention to.
“Northern Downpour” was the final single “Panic! at the Disco” would release as a core group of original members. Jon Walker and Ryan Ross split from Panic! on July 6, 2009, citing creative differences as the reason for the separation. As the band was heading into making their third album, Urie’s penchant for pop music left no future for Ross’ retro-rock.
“Vegas Lights, The Lies, and Affections”
2011 was a large year for the group, as the band reinvented itself as a steam-punk power pop group for their third album, “Vices & Virtues”. To assist Smith and Urie in the songwriting process, Pete Wentz made a return to provide lyrics for the songs “Trade Mistakes”, “Always”, and “The Calendar.”
Although touring bassist Dallon Weekes would become a full-time member during the “Vices” album cycle, his contributions are not listed on the record.
At its best, “Vices” propels listeners with satisfying hooks, aesthetic dedication, and lush instrumentation. At its very worst, its charm was lost due to redundancy in the middle section. The unreleased track, “Oh Glory,” the single “Ballad of Mona Lisa,” and Ross-written, “Early Witches (Ever Since We Met)” are bright spots that hold up today. Nonetheless, “Vices” is still remembered as a substantial album for “Panic! at the Disco.”
However, the most exciting album from the post-split “Panic! at the Disco” came in 2013, “Too Weird to Live, Too Rare to Die!”—an homage to the extremes of their native Las Vegas. Bathed in synths, sugar-sweet choruses such as “Collar Full,” and hedonism, “Too Weird” is a relatively successful move toward a full-blown pop project. This can be attributed to Dallon Weekes bringing a new perspective into the studio.
Songs like “This is Gospel” and “Far Too Young To Die” are jubilant pieces that explore Las Vegas’ excess. They follow a central theme of darkness that leaves fans with a cohesive album to enjoy. Simply put, Weekes is a more naturally gifted songwriter than Urie. Urie writes lyrics, but Weekes crafts an atmosphere.
Spencer Smith officially left the band on April 2, 2015, after taking a leave of absence in 2013 due to substance abuse issues. Smith left the group amicably, stating that he had been supported throughout his journey to sobriety and needed time to prioritize his health.
“Just Another LA Devotee”
Their fifth album, “Death of a Bachelor“ came in 2016—with Urie trading electronica for Sinatra-inspired ballads. It is the first album entirely written and composed by a single “Panic! at the Disco” member. Outsiders and career songwriters Jake Sinclair, Morgan Kibby, Sam Hollander, and Lolo collaborated with Urie. Despite its title track and a couple of other enjoyable cuts, “Death of a Bachelor” is abrasive at times.
For example, “Crazy=Genius” and “Golden Days” are miles apart in energy for songs written for the sole purpose of over-the-top delivery. “Golden Days” finds Urie attempting to pick up lackluster verses by shouting at the chorus; throwing performance dynamics to the wayside. On the opposite side of the spectrum, “Crazy=Genius” is music fitting for a Harley Quinn and Joker cosplay, complete with patchy face paint and cheap dye, with the upbeat rhythms incorporated into the song.
A tenth grader at HBHS Morgan Drotter, says, “ I could sing [Death of a Bachelor] all day long.”
When asked, Christian Richards, a sophomore at California Virtual Academics said, “I was introduced to them by my friend, but I really liked the older music and thought Brendon Urie had a really good voice. I don’t have a favorite song, but my favorite album would probably be ‘Death of a Bachelor’.”
The next “Panic! at the Disco” release in 2018’s “Pray For the Wicked“ was similar to “Death of a Bachelor” in many ways. It had an overabundance of brass instruments and piercing choruses—but a fewer number of listenable songs. The main offenders are, of course, “High Hopes,” “Hey Look Ma, I Made It,” and the bulldozer-like “The Overpass.” Urie’s sonic inspiration appears to be his ten-week stint at Broadway’s “Kinky Boots.” Every song tries to emit Broadway-level gravitas with no substance behind it.
Urie got his longest charting song, “High Hopes” as it spent over 31 weeks at No.1 on Billboard’s rock chart. But the issues with Panic! operating as Urie’s solo project were evident; the lack of authenticity and disposable lyrics made the band unrecognizable from what set the group unique in 2005.
“Shut Up and Go to Bed”
Urie released his last album “Viva Las Vengeance” on August 19, 2022. It is forty-three minutes of Urie recreating pop-rock from the 70s and is entirely live recorded—creating a muffled soundscape. “Viva Las Vengeance” is best seen as an album where everything that had been working for Urie previously, his vocal range and extroversion, no longer satisfy audiences. His once well-known voice is strained, compounded with demanding notes and poor production. Urie gives his worst performance on “Sad Clown.” His poorly hit note at the end of the opener “Viva Las Vengeance” give listeners a hint that, “Panic! at the Disco” is ending on a whimper.
“Panic!, Meet the Press”
In the past five years, the group has experienced controversies outside of the music. In September 2018, touring guitarist Kenny Harris was removed from the lineup following allegations of sexual misconduct from underage fans. Two years later, longtime Security Manager Zack Cloud Hall was fired after his history of verbal and physical assault came to light. Hall’s removal was kick-started by allegations from Dallon, who left in 2017, and Breezy Weekes in July 2020. The environment of assault surrounding “Panic! at the Disco” has been traced back to Urie. Interactions with fans, dating back to 2009, have been scrutinized for Urie’s inappropriate conduct. In addition, his past comments on wishing he was “born black” and comparing transgender people to trans-racial figure Rachel Dolezal are strange and have not aged particularly well for him or his career.
“It makes me sad to think that high-profile celebrities would say things that would potentially hurt large groups of people,” said Drotter.
“Can’t Take the Kid From the Fight”
Urie’s decline from a generational vocal talent to internet villain has not been surprising following the allegations. But when it comes to the music, “Panic! at the Disco” will be remembered for their unrealized potential. Scenarios in which Ross and Walker never left, or Urie continued on as a solo artist under a different name are preferable for fans—whose favorite teenage band never truly recaptured the excitement of their first album.
Urie finally announced the end of “Panic! at the Disco” on January 24th, 2023 stating that he will be taking time away to care for his pregnant wife and focus on family. He played his last show on March 10th in Manchester. Urie’s final setlist here.
Bringing it back to Ryan Ross, the astutely titled, “The Only Difference Between Martyrdom And Suicide Is Press Coverge” says everything an article cannot express. The self-implosion of “Panic! at the Disco “has left a stain on their legacy. Escapees like Ross and Walker have kept their acclaim from the band’s early days. But, in a karmic sense, Urie will be best remembered for eliminating the best aspect of Panic! at the Disco.