Out Alone Into America: The National’s American Portrait
Ahmed Ragheb grew up with an idealized vision of America, one very much at odds with the America of 2020. Read how the music of The National helped him form his own American identity.
This is a tough time for America; between the response to the coronavirus pandemic, to the person in the White House, to the deep-seated racism that recent protests have forced many to confront shamefully for the first time, it feels difficult to be a “proud American.”
This is true of myself as well. I first moved to the United States for university in 2014, confident that I made the right choice. Since arriving, however, I’ve been struggling to make up my mind as to how I feel about this country I’ve come to call home. Since the 2016 election I’ve found myself swinging between the polar opposites of intense patriotism and historically-informed, nihilistic self-loathing – and I suspect I’m not alone. I was born an American citizen (to an Egyptian-American father and European mother) but grew up in Cairo, Egypt and it was from Cairo, from a distance, that I experienced the United States as I grew older. I experienced it through social media, music, television and film that came to me via the internet and DVDs and CDs purchased during short vacations to the US. I attended an American international school, had American teachers and even developed a surprisingly strong American accent. I learned about George Washington and the cherry tree and the Civil War. I came to think of myself as an American that had simply been born abroad and once I was 18 I’d simply “return home.” After arriving, I found myself very much not at “home,” though. I immediately chalked it up to a lack of updated cultural references and a poor understanding of things like American sports terminology but now, six years later and in the light of everything that’s happened in 2020, I understand it as something else entirely. The America that I had experienced through all forms of media as well as school curriculum was not just romanticized, it was the American myth distilled in its purest form. This is to say that, by virtue of my location, I was unable to balance my virtual experiences with any concrete ones. So, here I am in an America that very much does not feel like “the greatest country on earth,” trying to understand how to think of it. I find myself trying to define America just as it is trying to define itself. In this challenge I have found an incredible resource in the very art and media that I felt misled me before. One such artist that has proved invaluable is Matt Berninger of The National.
Matt Berninger will be releasing a solo album this October titled Serpentine Prison and there’ll be time to discuss it when it arrives but it’s his work as the principal lyricist for The National that I’d like to focus on here.
It’s my opinion that, with Berninger at the helm, The National has delivered some of the most poignant and important political and social American commentary of the last 50 years. If one were to look to Bob Dylan’s music for an emotional understanding of the 1960s and 1970s (and arguably the ‘90s as well), then that same individual would be well advised to listen to The National for an understanding of America in the 2000s and 2010s, from 9/11 to Obama and the Great Recession to the 2016 Election. In fact, the period after 9/11 (in which The National began to take off as a band) bears some striking similarities to the period we find ourselves living through at this very moment. As was the case then, Americans are looking around at the world and at ourselves and trying to understand who we are and how well the myths surrounding America hold up in the face of crisis after crisis. It’s not going so well (it didn’t then either).
Berninger is by no means the first to sing about the socio-political status of America and he’s by no means the first to do it well. I will make the claim, however, that he is a master of doing so in an astoundingly casual and synthesized manner. In many ways Berninger leaves behind the role-play that sometimes mires the music of incredible songwriters like Bruce Springsteen, Randy Newman or Paul Simon. His lyrical style, combined with the musical genius of the Dessners and the Devendorfs, gives us something that is manifestly personal and genuine in its delivery. I had always felt that the music of The National fell into two distinct categories: deeply personal songs and deeply political songs. It is only this year that I’ve come to realize (and to appreciate) that that distinction was misplaced and actually did a disservice to their discography. The narrative voice of Berninger’s songs is so inextricably intertwined with the social and political state of the nation – as he understands it – that what we get is essentially not just a portrait of Berninger or his musical manifestation but a portrait of America.
I don’t want to put words in the mouth of Matt Berninger or suggest a specific intention to The National’s oeuvre but what I discovered in their music was profoundly civic emotionalism (once viewing it from a certain lens) that I’d never heard anywhere else. Again, just to reiterate, this is simply my experience with The National’s music and not some hidden agenda or concept I’m claiming to have sussed out.
So, if Berninger’s decades-long lyrical image of himself is a decades-long image of America, if he indeed doesn’t just sing about America but sings as America, what does that musical portrait look like? For starters, it’s contradictory: it’s deeply introverted and nervous (“Venom radio and/venom television/I’m afraid of everyone”) and garishly confident (“I’m put together beautifully/I’m a perfect piece of ass.../God is on my side”). It’s also a servant to the commercialism and materialism that boomed in the early 2000s, prior to the 2008 Financial Crisis (“Traded in my daylight for a career/I’ll suck off investors, I’ll suck off VCs/I’m losing my posture from time on my knees”). It’s paranoid, almost schizophrenic (“I think this place is full of spies/I think they're onto me,” “I had a secret meeting in the basement of my brain/It went the dull and wicked ordinary way”). It’s hopelessly romantic (“All the very best of us/String ourselves up for love”) and then very much not (“Karen, put me in a chair, fuck me and make me a drink”). It’s tired of violence it knows it’s supposed to glorify (“I gave my heart to the Army/The only sentimental thing I could think of/With cousins and colors and somewhere overseas/But it'll take a better war to kill a college man like me,” “We don't bleed when we don't fight”). It’s superficial (“No God/They took our fashion week/That’s a real bad thing/’Cause we’ve got scars to cover/Bad things never happen when you’re beautiful”) and aggressively bored (“Dear, we better get a drink in you before you start to bore us”). The metaphors and language is steeped in American iconography and terminology (“Your independent declaration sounded too much like a prayer,” “Picking apples, making pies/Put a little something in our lemonade/And take it with us,” “I’m Mr. November,” “All I see is black and white and red/...All I see is black and white and blue”). It’s desperate to prove itself as exceptional or worthy (“Someday, man, I’m gonna be no different than the other rivers/...Shallow frame and shaky sticks but I know there’s a river in me”). It’s apocalyptically pessimistic (“Ohio’s in a downward spiral/I can't go back there anymore/Since alt-right opium went viral”) and cautiously optimistic (“The system only dreams in total darkness”). It’s all of these terrible and opposing things; it’s as complicated as a human being and as complicated as nation.
Matt Berninger is able to deliver this so well because he doesn’t just sing about America but embodies it, riding national waves of fear and anxiety and absorbing them. This month, in anticipation of Berninger’s debut solo album, I have been recommending to people I know that they try to work through the entire National discography and pay special attention to the lyrics and how they pertain to our national moment of stress. I recommend that you do the same. The feeling you’ll get as America sings to you in first-person is unnerving and unsettling but keep listening because, as Berninger sings, “You’re never getting rid of me/You own me/There’s nothing you can do/...I think you made a big mistake/...You own me/Lucky you.” ▲
Ahmed Ragheb is an independent filmmaker from Cairo, Egypt. He is now based in Pittsburgh and, with his partner, Lily, he is working on a series of short films. You can follow along with them on social media at @dogdoorfilms!