Brendon Urie has been in the music game a long time. But the Panic! at the Disco frontman couldn’t help but be taken aback by what he saw on July 1, 2016. That night, as Urie took to the stage to sing his song, “Girls/Girls/Boys,” pops of color began to illuminate the Xfinity Center in Mansfield, MA. By the time Urie belted out the chorus, which includes the refrain, “Love is not a choice,” the amphitheater was bathed in the light of cellphones shining through scores of paper hearts. Collectively, the nearly 20,000-person crowd had formed an electrified rainbow pride flag.
The grand-scale flash-mob was entirely fan-orchestrated and replicated at each stop of Panic!’s 2017 Death of a Bachelor tour. At the helm of the tribute were two teenage girls.
“You made that tour,” Urie is seen telling one of the organizers, now-16-year-old Eva Goldthwaite, in a video of their first meeting. “That show was so great. The first time I saw that, I couldn’t believe that. Thank you for that. Every night, just a little bit of tears. Everything I could do to not cry. It was so beautiful.”
While the DOAB tour concluded last April, the tradition has lived on. And when Panic! plays to a sold-out Staple Center on Wednesday night, the hearts are guaranteed to surface. It was Urie’s outspoken support of the LGBTQ+ community that first inspired Eva to launch what’s now officially known as The Hearts Project. Though “Girls/Girls/Boys” was originally written as Urie’s personal ode to early sexual experimentation, fans co-opted it as an equality anthem. The adaptation made sense, as it lined up with Urie’s personal and political views, which he’s shared openly and frequently via social media.
“I always knew Brendon cared about his fans a lot, and you can tell by the way he hugged me and talked to me that he didn’t think of me as just a ‘fan,’ but he genuinely appreciated me as a real person, and that’s how all his interactions with his fans are,” Goldthwaite says. “He treats everyone with lots of respect and he is always kind. It’s something very special to see that in a celebrity.”
The fact that a young mega-fan like Goldthwaite (whose Instagram account, @brendon.urie has over 43K followers) could coordinate a colossal grassroots homage to her idol is impressive to say the least. But not entirely surprising, given Urie’s track record.
It all started in the early aughts when the Utah-born, Nevada-raised youngest of five agreed to fill in as lead guitarist for his classmates’ Blink-182 cover band. The stint was never meant to last, but Panic!’s original line-up—Spencer Smith, Brent Wilson, and Ryan Ross—dug Urie’s vocals so much, they made him frontman. As legend has it, the Las Vegas crew created original material, sent a few demos to Fall Out Boy’s Pete Wentz, and within months, found themselves signed to his label.
Panic!’s debut album, A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out, debuted in September, 2005, and within a year, peaked at number 2 on Billboard’s Top Rock Albums chart (and went on to sell over two million copies in the U.S. alone). The album’s hit single, “I Write Sins Not Tragedies” remains a main staple on alternative radio stations, and is perhaps the song most of 31-year-old Urie’s contemporaries still associate him with. But what many outside the Panic! fandom don’t know is that “Sins” was just the tip of the iceberg.
“One thing I wish people knew about Panic! is that they are far much more than ‘I Write Sins, Not Tragedies,’” says 23-year-old L.A. resident, Vanessa, one of the co-owners of fan site Panic! Updating (Instagram follower tally: 46.3K and counting). “They have many more albums that people outside the fandom should get to know and fully listen to in order to experience their awesomeness.” Vanessa should know: she’s seen the band 45 times since 2014.
But “the band” as it currently stands isn’t what it was when Fever debuted 13 years ago. In fact, it’s not exactly a band at all—it’s Urie. One year after the first album hit, Jon Walker replaced Wilson on bass, and two years after that, Walker and Ross both broke off following the release of Panic!’s sophomore album, Pretty. Odd. Bassist Dallon Weekes joined Urie and drummer Smith for 2011’s Vices & Virtues and 2013’s Too Weird to Live, Too Rare to Die!, but Smith exited in 2015, and Weekes downgraded his role from permanent to touring member before departing entirely in 2017.
In a literal sense, today’s version of Panic! is very much a one-man show. Rather than bring in new permanent members following TWTLTRTD, Urie relished in his newfound independence, personally recording every instrument aside from the horns on 2017’s Death of a Bachelor. He retained the Panic! moniker, becoming his own backup guitarist, bassist, and percussionist. Urie co-wrote the lyrics to every track, and as a pseudo-solo artist garnered Panic! its first number 1 album and Grammy nomination. In June of this year, he released Panic!’s sixth studio album, Pray for the Wicked— it debuted at number 1 on the Billboard 200 Albums Chart.
“He had been unrecognized in the popular category for a long time,” says 29-year-old Toronto resident Chelsey, owner of the Brendon Urie Vines YouTube account (261.5K subscribers). “I feel like that’s starting to build up now! Older fans listen to him as well, fans that have been around have also changed with every album and grown with the band.”
Catch that? “The band.” Despite Urie’s solo status, Panic! very much remains an entity—a thriving community of collaborators, friends, and fans. Urie is the necessary nucleus, but Panic! has taken on a life of its own. The obvious key players are the musical talents onstage and behind the scenes—the current touring band includes guitarist Kenneth Harris, bassist Nicole Row, and drummer Dan Pawlovich, and Panic!’s most recent albums have been expertly produced by contributors like Jake Sinclair, Rob Mathes, and Dillon Francis. But the Panic! family runs deep—fans have welcomed horn players Jesse Molloy, Erm Navarro, Chris Bautista (a.k.a. The Horney Boys) and Kiara Ana, Leah Metzler and Desiree Hazley (The Wicked Strings) with open arms. And beyond the music, there are integral members of the Panic! empire that foster the familial feel through direct fan interactions, both on social media and IRL—everyone from Urie’s wife of five years, Sarah Orzechowski, to longtime friend and road manager Zack Cloud Hall, to tour photographer, Jake Chamseddine.
That’s what’s stunning about Panic!’s sustained success—while Urie hasn’t technically achieved universal household name status, he’s constructed a kingdom with his nearest and dearest and artistically evolved enough to keep attracting waves of new fans, while staying true enough to his roots to retain the OGs.
“You can’t help but fall in love with Brendon Urie,” says KROQ host, Megan Holiday, who interviewed Urie earlier this year at the KROQ Weenie Roast. “He gives 100 percent to each and every performance with his perfectly coiffed hair, on stage backflips, and one of the most incredible vocal ranges of our generation to back it all up. He’s willing to take risks, to bend genres, and to be as theatrical as he wants to be on stage. He is a true entertainer.”
Urie’s four-octave range and boundless energy indisputably laid the foundation for his career longevity, but what he’s done with his public platform has been arguably as significant. Coming off the success of DOAB, Urie made his Broadway debut as Charlie Price in Kinky Boots, the musical embodiment of equal rights for all (the start of his run boosted ticket sales by 40 percent). Shortly after the release of this year’s PFTW, the musician launched human rights organization, Highest Hopes Foundation. “All of you show me strength, courage + motivation & as a result it felt important to create something to show you that I see the wonderful things you’re doing out there in the world,” he tweeted. “With that being said, I want to join in on the fight for those who cannot fight for themselves.”
It wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume Urie drew some inspiration from fans in the creation of his nonprofit. In April, 16-year-old Dylan from Sacramento, a.k.a. @urieelectric, organized a donation drive in honor of Urie’s birthday, eventually raising over $2,300 for the Human Rights Campaign Foundation. “Panic! has changed me as a person,” she says. “I’ve met so many different people from all around the world and made friends, all because of this band. The entire Panic! crew from the band members to the technicians and stagehands have hearts full of love.”
In many ways, The Hearts Project encapsulates the reciprocal admiration between Urie and his fans like nothing else could. “The Hearts Project to me symbolizes that you can be whoever you want to be without caring about what other people think,” says 14-year-old Mia from Sun Valley (who says she’s been a fan for 14 years because “I’ve been listening to them since I was a baby”). “I think it shows that the Panic! fans truly support each other.”
“The Hearts Project for me is something amazing for me [since I’m] bisexual,” says 17-year-old Angela from TIjuana, who is traveling to L.A. for her first Panic! show on Wednesday. “It was so difficult to tell my parents that I also like girls. When I told them, they said it was okay, and I’m so grateful to see my parents accepting me. But I know it’s not the same with everyone. Love will always be love, and the world has bigger problems than girls who kiss girls and boys who kiss boys.”
“Entering the Panic! fandom taught me a lot,” says 14-year-old Cloe from Hemet. I was raised kind of conservative, but going into the fandom, I became a much more tolerant person because of this band who preaches love and equality. This year, when my friends and I see Panic!, we are actually hoping The Hearts Project makes my friend’s mom more accepting of my friend who recently came out as bisexual.”
The significance of Urie’s impact is felt by those within the Panic! family as well. “This experience has opened my eyes to so many examples of self-expression, love and ultimate acceptance,” says touring violist, violinist, and singer, Kiara Ana. “Whether I’m walking through the arena before the show, dancing and playing onstage, or connecting with fans via social media, I return again and again to gratitude. I feel it from the fans, I feel it for the fans. I am so so grateful to be here and to partake in this magic.”
After Wednesday’s show, the magic will endure for two more stops on this leg of the PFTW tour before Urie and company go overseas. A second round of U.S. dates kicks off next year, with stops in Anaheim and Inglewood in February. But for fans around the world, Urie’s influence will continue to propel their actions.
In addition to her continued leadership of The Hearts Project, Eva Goldthwaite has begun selling personalized hearts to raise money for Highest Hopes Foundation, and compiled a book of contributed messages that she delivered to Panic! at a tour stop earlier this year. “I asked fans from all around the world to write a couple sentences about what The Hearts Project means to them,” she says. “I expected maybe 100 to 200 people to respond—750 people entered their responses! Seeing the hearts in person, it hits me hard every time. The feeling of ‘I did this’ is incredible. It’s pride, happiness, love, unity. It’s incredible what a small group of people can do!”
Panic! at the Disco, plays The Los Angeles Staples Center Wednesday, August 15, with opening acts Hayley Kiyoko and ARIZONA.