Despite not being an explicitly political band, the New York-based indie/post-punk/alternative rock band The National frequently refer to the political issues and changes in their music, as well as use their band image, lyrics, and songs to support presidential candidates (such as Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton). Some of the songs (e.g. Fake Empire, The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness) were used to express negative or neutral feelings with the current political regimes, the President, and political movements in the country.
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Signs of Hope and Change
Although it is difficult to call the National an overwhelmingly popular and well-recognized band, one of their songs has significantly contributed to the increasing popularity of the band. Fake Empire from the National’s album Boxer released in 2007 was used in Barack Obama’s Presidential Campaign in 2008, in the video titled Signs of Hope and Change. Furthermore, the band also performed some of the songs before Barack Obama’s speeches to voters in Cincinnati (Ohio) and Iowa (Donaghey, 2012).
According to one of the band members, Aaron Dessner, Obama’s campaign manager found the instrumental version of the song suitable for the campaign video (Donaghey, 2012). Nevertheless, despite the band’s support of Obama, the real meaning of the song relates to the individual’s unwillingness to think about politics and general tiredness of it, according to the band’s lead singer Matt Berninger (Donaghey, 2012).
The lines “Stay out super late tonight picking apples, making pies…/We’re half-awake in a fake empire…/Let’s not try to figure out everything at once” express the protagonist’s approach to the country’s politics he/she lives in and his/her unwillingness to think about it (Berninger & Dessner, 2007). In my opinion, the phrase “fake empire” refers to the US media and international image of a powerful, wealthy, and dominating empire that is unable to deal with the internal issues and has some doubtful foreign policies that could be perceived as imperialistic. Berninger also points out that “it’s pretty critical of the way our country works” (Donaghey, 2012, para. 11).
The use of the song in the video also led to the invitation of the band to one of the Obama’s speeches. According to Donaghey (2012), the votes of the younger generation in Ohio were decisive and tipped the scales. Thus, The National’s involvement in Obama’s speeches in Ohio possibly moderately influenced the voters’ choice for the Democratic candidate.
Another song that was also used with regard to Obama’s presidential campaign was Mr. November from the album Alligator released in 2005. Initially, the song was about John Kerry during his presidential campaign in 2004, when the Democrat lost to the Republican George Bush. The song lyrics are quite specific and contain obscene language; at first, Berninger confidently states “I’m the new blue-blood/ I’m the great white hope”, but later in the song he expresses his (Kerry’s?) anxiety about the outcomes of the future elections: “I won’t f*** us over, I’m Mr. November/ I’m Mr. November, I won’t f*** us over” (Berninger & Dessner, 2005).
As it seems, the song reflects the burden of responsibility that the presidential candidate has to bear and the fear that he will be unable to do it. Furthermore, it also reflects citizens’ anxiety with the course of elections and their influence on the country. As the band’s guitarist, Aaron Dessner, stated, it was also about the lead singer’s attitude toward the upcoming events, “the anxiety and pressure leading up to the election” (Hogwood, 2005, para. 11). After George Bush won, the band “couldn’t work for a couple of days as we were too depressed” (Hogwood, 2005, para. 12).
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Despite the fact that the song was written about another presidential candidate, the phrase “Mr. November” was used to support Obama as a presidential candidate. The band printed gray T-Shirts with Obama’s portraits on it and blue-red inscriptions “Mr. November”. The line “I’m the great white hope” also perfectly resonates with the famous posters of Yes We Can campaign, where Obama’s portrait also contained an inscription HOPE. Therefore, the fear and anxiety expressed in the song can relate both to Kerry and Obama and their responsibility as presidential candidates (and, in Obama’s case, the President’s responsibility as well).
It would not be precise to call The National’s songs extremely political or protest songs because they rarely protest against anything explicitly. Still, as Street (2012) points out, rock music tends to reflect its times and social issues as well, even if not in an explicit form. Music and lyrics are forms “of news reporting”, and musicians can be perceived as “political commentators” (Street, 2012, p. 48).
In this section, I aim to analyze the political aspect of lyrics from the band’s album High Violet released in 2010. The social issues triggered by economics and politics are reflected in the band’s song Bloodbuzz Ohio: “I still owe money to the money to the money I owe”; it was released in 2010 and presumably displayed how the 2008 financial crisis affected Americans, leading to loans and debts (Berninger & Dessner, 2010b).
The song Afraid of Everyone is significantly more clear about the character’s perception of the world: “Venom radio and/ Venom television/ I’m afraid of everyone” (Berninger & Dessner, 2010a). The lyrics refer to the endless information flow that the character absorbs from the media and due to their content labels them as venom, implying that they poison his/her life or provide him/her with bad news only.
The next lines reveal the character’s anxiety more deeply: “Lay the young blue bodies/ With the old red bodies/ I’m afraid of everyone” (Berninger & Dessner, 2010a). It is evident that the red color represents Republican politicians and voters, whereas blue color refers to Democrats. Berninger describes the indifference toward both political parties, and the character’s uncertainty or even anxiety related to the party’s aims, objectives, and beliefs because he/she is afraid of both.
Considering the band’s support for Democrats, one can also conclude that this song addresses the band members’ disappointment in the Democratic Party or their criticism toward it. The general anxiety toward the future of the individual’s family and the country is expressed in the following lines: “With my kid on my shoulders I try/ Not to hurt anybody I like…/I defend my family/ With my orange umbrella” (Berninger & Dessner, 2010a). The orange color of the umbrella is likely to refer to the homeland security advisory system, where the orange level is the second-to-highest one and indicates a high risk of possible terrorist attack.
There were several terrorist attacks and shootings in 2010 in the USA, which probably influenced the lyrics. The future of the country and its impact on the children’s life of band members is also addressed in the upcoming album title Sleep Well Beast, but in this song, Berninger expresses one’s fear for the child’s future where everyone (especially political parties) remain unreliable and evoke fear in the song’s character.
Another hint on political parties and disagreements is expressed in the song Little Faith: “Leave our red Southern souls/ Head for the coast” (Berninger & Dessner, 2010c). Neither the song nor the lyrics explicitly comment on any of the parties but rather reflect the band’s personal experience: all of the members are from Cincinnati, OH, where the number of Republicans present in the state government is higher than the number of Democrats. Still, the word “Southern” implies that the lyrics refer to southern red states where Republicans are more supported. The coast, in this case, can represent the East Coast, i.e. New York or a more liberal state/city where the song’s characters are heading. It should be noted that the band is also New York-based, although its members are living in different cities now.
The National and Trump Era
The National is sometimes referred to as an indie-rock band; the genre “indie-rock” is interpreted differently, and bands that have little similarity still can be labeled as “indie”. Bennett and Strange (2015) point out that the importance of independent, alternative bands is in their link to “the idea that independence might contribute to the formation of different and better ways of organizing cultural production and consumption, and society itself” (p. 95). The role of such bands is to translate specific agenda that might (or might not) influence the society and its choices.
The band’s frontman, Matt Berninger, explicitly expressed his attitude to Hillary Clinton by stating that he was “a little bit in love” with her (Strauss, 2016b, para. 1). Therefore, it is not surprising that the new album Sleep Well Beast will also reflect on the USA under Donald Trump’s presidency. Berninger took part in a side project called EL VY that recorded a song Are These My Jets.
It is included in the 30 Days 30 Songs anti-Trump project and contains the lines “I like to mix ladies drinks with my fingers”, which refer to the Trump’s accusations of harassment and sexual assaults (Strauss, 2016a, para. 2). As for the new upcoming album (release date 8 September), it was stated in a Pitchfork interview that the name of the newly released track The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness relates to darkness before dawn or hibernation, it is “an abstract portrait of a weird time we’re in” (Sodomsky, 2017, para. 9).
The album title refers to the future of the USA, namely, the younger citizens, including the band members’ children: “They’ve got a challenge ahead of them, but I feel positive about the future. The beast is like, wait until the youth wakes up” (Sodomsky, 2017, para. 12). The band stated that the next album would be political, but there was not any intention to make it more political than the previous albums (Sodomsky, 2017). Therefore, it is possible to assume that the theme of politics will be reflected upon in the same manner as it was before: not explicitly, but with attention and a variety of details.
Although it is difficult to label The National as a political band, controversies and issues that arise in the USA are constantly reflected in their lyrics in an implicit, vague manner that intertwines with the daily lives of characters who also have to resolve the problems in their personal lives. The band examines politics as a significant part of anyone’s life that is often embedded in one’s personal story.
Bennett, J., & Strange, N. (2015). Media independence: working with freedom or working for free? London, England: Routledge.
Berninger, M., & Dessner, B. (2005). Mr. November. On Alligator [CD]. London, England: Beggars Banquet.
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Berninger, M., & Dessner, B. (2007). Fake Empire. On Boxer [CD]. London, England: Beggars Banquet.
Berninger, M., & Dessner, B. (2010a). Afraid of Everyone. On High Violet [CD]. London, England: 4AD.
Berninger, M., & Dessner, B. (2010b). Bloodbuzz Ohio. On High Violet [CD]. London, England: 4AD.
Berninger, M., & Dessner, B. (2010c). Little Faith. On High Violet [CD]. London, England: 4AD.
Donaghey, R. (2012). The National helped elect Obama, but don’t call them a political band. Web.
Hogwood, B. (2005). Interview: The National. Web.
Sodomsky, S. (2017). The National on the “Anything Goes Spirit” of new album Sleep Well Beast. Web.
Strauss, M. (2016a). EL VY (The National/Menomena) share new anti-Trump song. Web.
Strauss, M. (2016b). The National’s Matt Berninger: “I’m a little bit in love with Hillary Clinton”. Web.
Street, J. (2012). Music and politics. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons.