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Human (The Killers)

A beautiful enigmatic song. Can you work out what he is singing about? What are you, human or dancer?

Sing to the karaoke version here.

I did my best to notice
When the call came down the line
Up to the platform of surrender
I was brought but I was kind
And sometimes I get nervous
When I see an open door
Close your eyes
Clear your heart...
Cut the cord

Are we human?
Or are we dancer?
My sign is vital
My hands are cold
And I'm on my knees
Looking for the answer
Are we human?
Or are we dancer?

Pay my respects to grace and virtue
Send my condolences to good
Give my regards to soul and romance
They always did the best they could
And so long to devotion
You taught me everything I know
Wave goodbye
Wish me well...
You've gotta let me go

Are we human?
Or are we dancer?
My sign is vital
My hands are cold
And I'm on my knees
Looking for the answer
Are we human?
Or are we dancer?

Will your system be alright
When you dream of home tonight?
There is no message we're receiving
Let me know, is your heart still beating?

Are we human?
Or are we dancer?
My sign is vital
My hands are cold
And I'm on my knees
Looking for the answer

You've gotta let me know

Are we human?
Or are we dancer?
My sign is vital
My hands are cold
And I'm on my knees
Looking for the answer
Are we human
Or are we dancer?

Are we human?
Or are we dancer?

Are we human
Or are we dancer?

I DID MY BEST TO NOTICE= If you do your best to do something, you do everything you can to do it, you try really hard.

THE CALL CAME DOWN THE LINE= A telephone call, the telephone line. He’s using the metaphor of a telephone call because he’s asking the question (are we human or are we dancer?) and he’s waiting for an answer, but the telephone isn’t ringing, nobody’s answering that question. That’s why to the end of the song he says "there is no message we’re receiving". Maybe he's asking the question to God or to humankind in general. But there is no reply because that question must be answered by everyone of us.

UP TO...= The sentence would be "I was brought up to the platform of surrender" (I was taken to the point of surrendering, giving up completely). The preposition "up to" indicates destination point. If you go up to the river, you go to the river and stop there. It is to place the same as "until" is to time: "I worked until 4 o’clock", "I ran up to the house".

NERVOUS= /nɜ:*vəs/

HEART= /hɑ:*t/

CORD= String (see picture).

CUT THE CORD= If you are tied up with a cord you can't move, you're not free. So to cut the cord means "get free".

DANCER= As we explained in the Meaning section, this is grammatically "incorrect"; or better still, an innovation. He’s using the noun DANCER as an adjective opposed to HUMAN, like two different races or kinds of people, those who are human and those who are dancers. Since "dancer" is used as an adjective here, it has no plural. A dancer in this song is a person with no freedom, no choice, a puppet dancing a ready-made standard choreography. (note: if we used "dancer" in the normal sense of a noun expressing profession, the sentence should be "are we a dancer?" or "are we dancers?")

VITAL= Of extraordinary importance. He’s probably making a play of words with the expression "vital signs", that are the signs telling if a person is still alive (pulse, breathing, temperature, etc.). So when he says "my sign is vital, my hands are cold" he means that he’s physically alive (my sign is vital), but somehow he’s also dead (my hands are cold) because he’s not free, he’s not really human but a wooden puppet.

I’M ON MY KNEES= I’m kneeling down (see picture). He's probably asking that question to God, so he's kneeling in pray.

PAY MY RESPECTS TO GRACE AND VIRTUE= In this paragraph he’s going to say goodbye to many things he loves. If you tell someone to pay your respects to somebody, you’re sending your love or saying goodbye because they are away.
- Pay my respects to your mother, tell her than some day I’ll go for a visit.

SEND MY CONDOLENCES TO GOOD= Condolence is an expression of sympathy with a person who has experienced grief, misfortune or pain. If you send your condolences to somebody you want them to know you feel very sorry because they lost a dear person (dead).
- You know? John’s father has died.
- Oh really? That’s too bad. Send him my condolences.

In this sentence, the word "good" means "goodness, virtue".

GIVE MY REGARDS TO= This expression is not so formal as "pay my respects to" but it means the same, it means that you are not there, you are away, but want someone to tell them that you remember them.
- I’m going back home to Madrid.
- Ok, give my regards to your wife there.

If he gives his regards to soul and romance it means that those things are not here anymore, they’re gone and he misses them.

THEY ALWAYS DID THE BEST THEY COULD= Again we meet the expression "do your best" (= try hard, do everything possible). Soul and romance did the best they could, but no success, now they’re gone and forgotten.

SO LONG= An old-fashioned or poetical expression meaning "goodbye". "So long to devotion" means "goodbye to devotion".

DEVOTION= Ardent, often selfless affection and dedication, as to a person or principle.

WAVE GOODBYE= When you wave goodbye you move your hand up left and right in a motion meaning "goodbye".

WISH ME WELL= Please, wish the best for me.

YOU’VE GOTTA= (coll.) You’ve got to, you have to, you must.

WILL YOUR SYSTEM...= The complete sentence is "Will your system be alright when you dream of home tonight?". Maybe he means that since we’re not human anymore we are similar to machines, computers, so instead of a soul we are a system, and home is the place where we should be (but we aren’t), which is our human nature. We are not human, but mechanic, so he asks the question "is your heart still beating?" as a way to make us wake up and realize we’re not human anymore (and do something about it).

LET ME KNOW= This sentence often means simply "tell me", so "let me know, is your heart still beating?" means "tell me if your heart is still beating". If you're heart is beating then you are still a person, not a robot.

The catch of this song is the enigmatic and mystifying question "Are we human or are we dancer?". What does it mean? The question quickly gets our attention for two reasons: first, it's grammatically impossible, second, does it mean anything at all?. One thing is sure, there has been such a lot of discussion about it that the song popularity has naturally been boosted by it.

In fact, everything's a bit more simple than that. There's no profound hidden reason to it, the question is simply grammatically wrong. The author and lead singer of the band, Brandon Flowers, doesn't deny it, he simply says that he's free to use grammar however he chooses, and I quote his words: "I guess it bothers people that it's not grammatically correct, but I think I'm allowed to do whatever I want". Let's hope he doesn't set an example on that or everyone will be using his own grammar and talking to the only person who can understand them: themselves. Freedom is much more than doing "whatever I want", no matter how cool that may sound today.

Maybe he made that grammar mistake consciously, as he says, or to generate discussion (free publicity), or maybe he tried to produce a very clever sentence and later found out it was a mere mistake. But in any case, let's analyse what this sentence means. The word HUMAN can be a noun (Humans are intelligent) or an adjective (A human invention). He's trying to use the word DANCER in the same way, so here it is used as an adjective (which is impossible), so it has no plural. "Dancer" is treated here as a new species (still incorrect). The contrast between being human or being dancer is that of being a free person, intelligent, able to choose and take decisions, or being "dancer", just a puppet, part of the crowd, doing a choreography whose movements have previously been decided by other people. So, to cut it short, the question means "Are we free or not?". An interesting question indeed to pose in the era of mass media standardization and political manipulation.

This is most probably the correct interpretation since he said that the question was inspired on a quote from journalist Hunter S. Thompson: "We're raising a generation of dancers". What Thompson was talking about is the problem of modern American society (and many others), making people afraid of stepping out of place and following their own beat. He was saying that people were only following the steps they were taught, and were also taught not to change them.

I found another quote on the Internet that may be interesting: The Sunday Times November 16, 2008 asked Flowers how much this song is a critique of this tabloid celebrity era. The Killers frontman replied: "It's part of that. I'll say it's a mild social statement and I'm leaving it at that. I don't wanna be a preacher. The devotion part, I think of my parents being married for 45 years and how that's a dying thing and I'm trying to hold onto some of those things. I am very old-fashioned, I guess. And the older I get, the worse it is. But I dunno if that's what people want to hear!"

The first paragraph explains the situation: I was brought to the point of surrender [my freedom] but I was kind (I didn't rebel against it). Sometimes I get nervous when I see an open door (an opportunity to choose) because I'm not used to it. Against all that, the singer gives us this advice to stop submission: close your eyes (get in contact with your true self), clear your heart (put your true emotions in order), cut the cord (free yourself, like a puppet cutting its controlling strings ).

"Cut the cord" may also be a synonym of death, because in classical mythology the Fates controlling your life (represented by a thread) would cut the cord at the moment of your death. Since this song is based on Hunter S. T.'s thoughts and he finally committed suicide, we might consider that the second stanza is talking about his suicide. He was so disappointed by this meaningless society of dancers, where all the valuable things were gone, that he decided to kill himself, and so he's saying goodbye to all the good old things that once were, because those are the things he is going to miss: grace and virtue, etc. This way, the sentence "you've gotta let me go" would make sense. Or maybe it's not about Thompson's death, but about dying to this ruined world and getting a new life as a free person.

Because this song is in fact answering the question: now we're definitely dancers. That's why the singer says goodbye to all the good things that used to make us human: virtue, goodness, romance and devotion. Is your heart still beating? Cut the cord!

 
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