Fifteen years ago, a mysterious top-hatted figure and a parade of circus performers interrupted a wedding in a music video with an unconventional soundtrack: an energetic pop-punk song with a bouncy, carnivalesque cello opening.
This is how Panic! at the Disco announced itself in the “I Write Sins Not Tragedies” video, the first from its 2005 debut album, “A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out.” Though the band has undergone many reinventions in the years since, it’s closely associated with its original aesthetic: a distinctive theatrical sensibility that drew on the sound of early 2000s pop-punk while also referencing vintage performance styles — burlesque, vaudeville, old Broadway musicals — to illustrate themes of duplicity, addiction and broken relationships.
The throwback theatrics had been attempted before by artists in the alt-cabaret space (the Dresden Dolls and the World/Inferno Friendship Society, for example), but never this successfully on a mainstream level: The album went triple platinum and is the best-selling LP in the Panic! catalog. On its 15th anniversary, it remains a unique feat in the world of pop — a commercial success built on a foundation of melodrama and spectacle that simultaneously satirized and celebrated it.
Panic! at the Disco formed in 2004 in an appropriately over-the-top city, Las Vegas, and was the first act signed to Decaydance, an imprint of the label Fueled by Ramen, that was run by Patrick Stump and Pete Wentz of Fall Out Boy. Fueled by Ramen’s aesthetic valued dramatics — not quite the full-blown bombast of screamo and indulgent melancholy of emo, but music that was playfully ornate, stylishly calculated in its cynicism and sorrow, in all the ways that 2000s culture was.
Even in 2005, a moment remembered for its artfully swept hair and heavy eye makeup, the members of Panic! stood out. In photo shoots, they wore outfits with a Baroque flounce: blazers and ruffled shirts, ascots and sleeve garters. Even their name came with a showy burst of punctuation. And in their videos, they leaned into the kind of storytelling that might unfurl on a Broadway stage.
The “I Write Sins Not Tragedies” video, directed by Shane Drake, introduces its setting piece by piece, in interrupted shots: a white wedding book propped up next to a white feather pen on a table; a pastor holding a Bible. The narrative is presented like a three-act play: A couple plans to marry, but when the ceremony is interrupted by the arrival of the groom’s side — clowns, a man on stilts, a bearded lady — chaos ensues and the bride’s infidelity is revealed.
The band’s charismatic frontman, Brendon Urie, is the ringleader and master of ceremonies, possessing all the omniscience and power (though with markedly more pizazz) of the Stage Manager, Thornton Wilder’s fourth-wall-breaking narrator in “Our Town.” Urie is mesmerizingly hammy: His eyes pop and his mouth shapes each word with ferocious emphasis, then just as quickly breaks out into a maniacal grin or a vicious sneer. He is pointed in every gesture, sweeping out the tail of his jacket or showcasing a fluid choreography performed by just his left hand: It rides the rim of his hat back to front, clamps over his mouth, strikes out to the camera, palm-first, then withdraws into a fist. Each minute pose is struck in time with the beat.
The band’s next single, “But It’s Better if You Do,” about a man who ignores his girlfriend’s warnings not to go sing at an illegal strip club, begins in black and white before dipping into color, “Wizard of Oz”-style, to show us the showgirls and lascivious patrons. It’s a completely stage-worthy set and costume change, from the conservative domestic scene to the risqué outlawed joint. The man falls for a mysterious masked woman at the club who is revealed to be his girlfriend just as the authorities arrive and haul them both off in the back of a police car. It’s a miniature performance with all the trappings of an old Broadway song-and-dance production like “Chicago”: vaudeville numbers, infidelity, intrigue.
The same is true of “Build God, Then We’ll Talk,” which introduced the idea of a “pornomime” (a mime that acts out sexual scenarios). In the video for this accordian-heavy song, a relationship between a woman and a pornomime sours when she confronts him for cheating with an imaginary lover; she retaliates by having a mimed affair of her own. It’s another, more exaggerated example of the band’s obsession with performative gestures: As Urie sings about a “wonderful caricature of intimacy,” the mime crudely thrusts and snakes his tongue out and around. The video uses mimicry to poke fun of the artifice of performance, how we all willingly invest in something we know is fiction, while simultaneously asserting how even performances, though “fake,” may reveal our true selves, and thus have real consequences.
Videos aside, “A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out” is filled with stagy interruptions and interludes. Its 37-second “Introduction” ends with an announcer’s voice proclaiming the album’s ethos: “Ladies and gentlemen, we proudly present a picturesque score of passing fancy.” The jarring electro-dance “Intermission,” is interrupted yet again: “Ladies and gentlemen, due to circumstances beyond our control, we are unable to continue our broadcast of dance music.” The instrumental track then turns into a gallant waltz on piano that would befit an old silent film. Intrusions strike at least twice more, on “I Constantly Thank God for Esteban” and “London Beckoned Songs About Money Written by Machines” — each of the band’s elaborate song titles its own petit show of drama.
In a musical, a character may get his own theme or a song may reprise throughout the production, serving as a reminder of the themes and tones that are at work. Each repetition is an assertion, drawing the audience’s attention to a figure or feature. “A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out” uses this same tactic, with the circus trope serving as almost a set piece or even a main character, inseparable from the rest of the album, even when it’s not center stage.
Urie’s rambunctious tenor is dramaturgical in its own right. Armed with an exuberantly boyish timbre, his vocals rollick through the album’s melodies with exaggerated leaps and dips. It should come as little surprise that the singer and songwriter has become a theatrical star-figure — he had a stint on Broadway in “Kinky Boots” and wrote a song for the “SpongeBob SquarePants” musical.
Occasionally, the band’s thespian flourishes are winkingly self-referential. On the chorus to “Build God, Then We’ll Talk,” the band parodies the melody and lyrics to “My Favorite Things” from the beloved Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “The Sound of Music.” “There are no raindrops on roses and girls in white dresses/It’s sleeping with roaches and taking best guesses,” Urie sings. This grim take, however, is not an appraisal of the merits of this musical itself; it’s a cheeky editorial on all forms of pageantry, from the stage to the lies we tell in real life. And what better way to approach an extravaganza than with a beautiful spectacle of one’s own?