Death of a Bachelor, Birth of a Billboard-Topping Broadway Badass

How Panic! at the Disco’s Brendon Urie became one of music’s most-famous yet underrated success stories.

Brendon Urie (Credit: Shervin Lainez)

Brendon Urie got pretty sick a few months ago. Three days before the Panic! at the Disco frontman’s Death of a Bachelor tour was set to hit Oracle Arena, he lost his voice and his temperature soared to 103 degrees. But he was slated to perform for 11,000 fans at Oregon’s Moda Center that evening.

“Still gonna have fun on stage tonight,” he tweeted before the show. “Fuck a cancellation. Let’s do this, Portland.” The next day, he informed his followers that he’d received a steroid shot in the ass so as not to miss his sold-out Vegas hometown show. Then it was off to the Bay Area.

If there were any Oakland concertgoers unaware of Urie’s social media play-by-plays (unlikely), they would’ve had a tough time deducing that the Panic! frontman felt like anything less than a rock star. He belted out over 20 songs during the March 25 show, including covers of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” and Billy Joel’s “Movin’ Out.” He took over the drums to bang out a Bruno Mars/Rihanna medley, killing back-to-back renditions of “24K Magic” and “Bitch Better Have My Money.” He nailed his signature backflip during the band’s 2013 song, “Miss Jackson.” Then he packed up, hit the road, and completed 15 more stops around the country (including one in Duluth, GA on his 30th birthday). And then, one month later, he made his Broadway debut.

This is how Brendon Urie gets shit done. And this unrelenting energy and passion have made him one of pop-rock’s biggest success stories. Panic! at the Disco currently counts over 3 million and 2.29 million followers on Instagram and Twitter, respectively, and Urie’s amassed nearly identical numbers across his personal accounts. Panic!’s 2005 debut album, A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out, produced the instantly recognizable, irresistibly catchy earworm, “I Write Sins Not Tragedies,” which became a top 10 hit, peaking at No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart. Not bad for a group of recent high school grads who got their start as a Blink-182 cover band. A year earlier, Urie, along with pals Ryan Ross, Spencer Smith, and Brent Wilson formed Panic! and sent a few of their demos to Fall Out Boy’s Pete Wentz via LiveJournal. Within months, he’d signed them as the inaugural band under his Fueled by Ramen record label imprint, Decaydance.

Phoenix, AZ resident Sarah Fingold discovered the group early on. “I was a Fall Out Boy fan, and they did a tour in 2005 and Panic! opened for them,” she recalls. “It was one of their first tours and no one knew who they were. I just remember them being all flamboyant with their outfits and what I remembered as the ‘Shotgun Wedding’ song [officially known as “Time to Dance” from Fever].”

Fingold has attended 15 Panic! shows over the past 12 years and has, along with other early adopters, stuck by the group through a tumultuous decade. In 2006, Jon Walker replaced Wilson on bass. But two years later, Walker and guitarist Ross both left the band following the release of their sophomore album, Pretty. Odd. Urie and drummer Smith then recruited bassist Dallon Weekes while recording their third album, 2011’s Vices & Virtues, and the trio went on to create 2013’s Too Weird to Live, Too Rare to Die! But in 2015, Smith bowed out of the band and Weekes later downgraded his role from permanent to touring member.

And then there was one.

At that point, Urie had a choice. He could have retired from the music game altogether, content with the band’s solid decade together. Or he could’ve put the Panic! brand to bed and reinvented himself as a solo artist. But instead, he soldiered on alone under the Panic! moniker, writing and producing new tracks from his Los Angeles home studio. And while he recruited Weekes, guitarist Kenneth Harris, and drummer Dan Pawlovich for live performances, Urie himself recorded every instrument on the new material, aside from the horns (he’s mastered guitar, bass, keyboard, percussion, and synthesizer), and he even provided his own background vocals (courtesy of a four-octave range). In January 2016, he unveiled the band’s fifth studio release, Death of a Bachelor. As a one-man act, Urie earned Panic! its first No. 1 album and a Grammy nomination.

“Brendon Urie is an anomaly,” says producer and collaborator Rob Mathes. “He’s a young man who is an incredible drummer and singer with extraordinary range, but also a truly great bass player and a guitarist who can shred along with the best of them. Not only that, but he can do backflips and cartwheels on stage and perform seven shows a week with his voice remaining as powerful as ever.”

According to Mathes, Urie’s musical talent is just the tip of the iceberg, and this absurd amalgamation of attributes makes him an industry exception.

“Add to this no ego whatsoever — none,” he says. “It doesn’t really make sense. He was raised by Mormon parents, and though he has drifted from that tradition, I believe his kindness, politeness, and complete lack of pretension probably comes from that religious upbringing. He never thinks he is the most important person in the room. He’s one of my favorite people.”

Credit: Shervin Lainez

Los Angeles-based host and long-time KROQ radio DJ Ted Stryker has supported Urie since his early days. “I’ve been listening to Panic! and interviewing Brendon since close to the beginning — he was never off my radar,” he says. “The dude is a superstar. His stage presence, energy, vibe, work ethic, attitude, style, writing — he does not want to fail.”

And he hasn’t, despite the fact that Panic! could have easily succumbed to the fate of other pop rock acts of the MySpace era, written off as a one-hit wonder. Considering the young group’s quick and sudden rise to fame and the members’ gradual departures, it would have been understandable if Urie had felt entitled to coast on his early success until fans lost interest. But the musician has pulled off a rare feat, artistically experimenting and evolving enough to continuously attract new fans, but never veering so off course as to alienate his original supporters.

“Amazingly, the band has amassed a massive cult following, and in essence, are actually bigger now than ever before in their career,” says Live 105 music director Aaron Axelsen. “They sold out a show at the Oracle in Oakland back in March and continue to generate insane sales and streaming numbers here in the Bay Area.”

“You have this [older demographic] of generation-MySpace who nostalgically love Panic! and have been there since day one in 2004, fused with a new wave of younger millennial fans, basically creating an ideal band for soccer moms and their daughters,” Axelsen adds.

That universal appeal hasn’t just kept Panic! afloat: it’s catapulted them toward greater and greater success, even as the band members themselves have dwindled down to just one. That may be why Urie, while lacking the name recognition of an Ed Sheeran or a John Mayer, beat out both artists by having the highest-grossing tour of 2017 thus far.

It’s the combination of unconditional old-school fan loyalty and newbie devotion that’s kept Panic! thriving. “When the new songs came along, the younger audience took ownership of them,” Stryker says, noting that Blink-182 and Weezer have experienced similar sustained success thanks to the support of a millennial audience.

Case in point: 15-year-old Panic! fan Eva Goldthwaite from Boston. She became a dedicated fan a few years ago after discovering Urie’s outspoken support of the LGBTQ+ community in his lyrics and press interviews. “I’ve grown up in a pretty accepting environment,” she says. “I never realized the true, horrible things that were happening in the world.”

After launching the Instagram fan account @brendon.urie (which now counts 31.5K followers), Goldthwaite was shocked to read comments describing followers’ experiences with homophobia and prejudice. Moved to take action, she and a friend decided to pay tribute to Urie’s message of acceptance by distributing paper hearts in all the colors of the rainbow through the crowd at the band’s July 1, 2016 show in Mansfield, MA. Printed on the cutouts were instructions for attendees to shine their cell phone flashlights through the hearts to create a stadium-wide wave of rainbow colors. Audience members were instructed to start the spectacle once the band launched into the equality anthem, “Girls/Girls/Boys,” which includes the refrain “love is not a choice.”

Urie and his team were blown away by the grassroots effort, sharing their appreciation on social media. Fans in other cities took notice, like 20-year-old New Yorker Raquel DiGiacomo, who co-manages the Twitter and Instagram accounts, @PanicUpdating (16K fans and 17.8K followers, respectively). As Urie prepared to kick off the Death of a Bachelor tour, she and a team of fellow fans spearheaded a national effort to replicate the rainbow.

“We spent hours getting people’s information for each stop on the tour, writing our their handles, Tweeting templates of the hearts, telling people where to buy paper,” she says. “It got so big, the people in Houston managed to turn the entire arena into the pride flag.”

The nightly tradition became a testament to the loyalty of Urie’s fans, and he acknowledged the spectacle in a speech at each tour stop.

“The last tour we just finished was the most inspiring I’ve ever been a part of,” he recently wrote in a letter to Billboard commemorating Pride month. “Thank you to all of you for being who you are. You’re beautiful and I love you.”

Fans love Urie right back — so much that they’re willing to traverse the country to see him fulfill his lifelong dream of starring on Broadway. On May 26, Urie kicked off a 10-week run as Charlie Price in Cyndi Lauper’s Tony Award-winning musical, Kinky Boots. It’s a definite departure from his comfort zone, but the production is, in many ways, a perfect fit for Urie. Lauper’s rock-tinged numbers are reminiscent of Panic!’s theatrical influences, and one eerily prophetic lyric from Death of a Bachelor’s “Don’t Threaten Me With a Good Time” kind of says it all: “I lost a bet to a guy in a chiffon skirt/ But I make these high heels work.”

If the numbers are any indication, he definitely does. In the first week (during which he only performed four of eight shows), Urie boosted Kinky Boots ticket sales by 40 percent (or $315,000) and raised attendance by 22 percent compared to the previous week. His seamless transition from rockstar to thespian has wowed critics and colleagues alike.

“Brendon has been like a sponge soaking up everything-Broadway and putting it into his work,” says Urie’s Kinky Boots co-star, Taylor Louderman. “For someone with such a huge following, you might expect an equally huge ego, but this guy is as sweet as they come.”

Mathes says the new endeavor is an ideal outlet for Urie’s talent and enthusiasm. “He has never had more fun in his life than in Kinky Boots,” Mathes says. “He’s over the moon for it and has never been happier. We know he’s at home making blistering modern rock music, but he sure is loving Broadway.”

A Brendon Urie-signed Kinky Boots Playbill.

Urie’s temporary departure from Panic! hasn’t deterred fans. Goldthwaite’s mom will drive her six hours to see Kinky Boots in July and Fingold will make the trek from Phoenix that same month. DiGiacomo has seen the show twice already and plans to see it two more times before Urie’s final performance on August 6.

Each night Urie has appeared in the show, the stage door has been swarmed post-performance, with fans of all ages pouring onto the West 45th Street sidewalk and coming uncomfortably close to oncoming traffic. And each night, Urie has shown up for fans, smiling for countless selfies, signing an astronomical amount of Playbills, and expressing sincere gratitude for their support.

The fan devotion isn’t simply idol admiration; supporters say the musician’s unwavering commitment to his craft, his community, and the causes close to his heart have motivated their own personal growth.

“Brendon has really inspired me to be a better person,” Goldthwaite says, noting that many of her 31,000 Instagram followers are in search of solace or support. “I do mini-projects where I’ll have people compliment the person above them in the comments, which spreads a little bit of positivity to a lot of people,” she says. “Brendon’s positivity inspired me to become a better person and be there for his fans, just like he is.”

 

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