All the wine — The National and the make-believe of the middle class
If you’ve ever listened to The National, you’ve probably wondered what in the world the songs are even about. With lyrics like “we’re half-awake in a fake empire”, “we’ll run like we’re awesome, totally genius”, and “if she knows your paper, you know she’ll have to burn you”, the band takes you along euphoric, obsessive, and often prurient escapades of people trying and failing. The band’s singer and songwriter, Matt Berninger, lays out dreamlike wordplay, ambivalent metaphors, and the narratives he composes, brought to life by his distant baritonal hoping, feel anecdotal and confessional.
But the band’s music isn’t as vague or pablum-filled as they sound. In the collective of the lyrics, a cityscape is being painted, a sort of spatiality shared by miserable people who don’t want to be but can’t have anything else.
The signs of their suffering and sad attempts at fulfillment have a middle-class and American character; the scattering of nouns and references to customs, situations, and rituals construct mania and dysthymia, of being stranded in relationships, orbiting or effected by workplace issues. In every song, through Berninger’s disaffected, off-beat rambling or authorative, full-toned descriptions of abandonment, there is a class character being sketched. A middle class, an urbanity, a house-wife-child ideal that cannot fulfill its promises of happiness.
Consider Berninger’s switch from advertising to music:
“I was doing well [in advertising]. But, once I entertained the thought that maybe I wouldn’t ever have to go and sit in conference rooms with MasterCard to discuss web ads again, I couldn’t shake it.” — Matt Berninger, 2013
The precedent of leaving a financially-comfortable white-collar existence for something more thrilling and fulfilling isn’t a new one. There are countless western movies and novels about the dreadfulness within the emergent affluence of postwar life — for all his masturbatory Weltschmerz, Charles Bukowski’s testrionic superficiality did describe a cultural malaise imparted by droning socioeconomic conditions hidden behind ‘growth’. Moreover, in the 50s and 60s, there was a phenomenon of Japanese white-collar workers working in financial, administrative, advertising, and service sectors who just quit their jobs to start a bar, food cart, or restaurant (datsu-sara; 脱サラ). The stagnancy and mind-killing roteness of work is a historical one, framed by advances in financial capital, and it’s hard to blame anyone for desiring something more.
Of course, the move away from white-collar work is a privileged one. And in art, especially, this anguish is a nifty narrative device that allows the most privileged people in society (men, especially) to adopt a stance of real suffering through the inadequate lens of boredom. A middle-class presupposes having a stable income that allows for big purchases and vacations; the partaking in a culture of hedonistic spending. It has to be said, then that the fragments of these experiences are disproportionately more difficult to access to the lower classes.
The National writes from this background — from beyond this ‘leap’. But their aesthetic and lyrical content don’t celebrate having ‘escaped’ their boring lives. They write about the ‘un-magnificent lives of adults’ — the floundering emotional stresses and undisclosed struggles carefully hidden by people who seem to be ‘doing fine’. It is not merely the crashing of unsatisfying loves and their latent disappointments, it is marking the social and economic dragnets cast over the (rapidly waning) middle-class. Their subject matter, I’ll argue, is not an American dream. It is a dirty, American waking. Also, they’re my favourite band and I just wanna write about them.
NB: I’ll just be talking about the albums ‘Alligator’ and ‘Boxer’, because those are the juiciest source matter for this. Also because no one’s paying me.
Songs about debt
One of my favourite songs ever, not just by them, is the fuzzy-sounding, mid-city anthem ‘Apartment Story’. One of their happier tracks, the song describes keeping up appearances, the various obligations an adult couple might find themselves stricken in, and making it through all of this alright. It sounds hopeful, but the sentiments are too fragile to be genuine. The first verse sings as follows:
Be still for a second while I try and try to pin your flowers on
Can you carry my drink I have everything else
I can tie my tie all by myself
I’m getting tied / I’m forgetting why
It’s established that two people are dressing up for some important gathering — the flowers on a dress, the pre-party glass of social lubricant, the puckish reaction to being offered help to tie a tie. It’s fancy, it’s going to be a whole thing, but neither of the two seem really excited about it. With the last line, these clothes seem almost ill-fitting and restrictive as the narrator admits to not really knowing what the point is of these commitments. The point of attendance, then, isn’t to see other people, but to merely show up and get it over with. Never saying no, it’s a bit toothless:
Oh we’re so disarming darling / everything we did believe
Is diving diving diving diving off the balcony
The party they prepared for in the first verse isn’t relevant anymore, as the ‘apartment story’ moves into their place. They “hold [themselves] together with the arms around the stereo for hours” and “do whatever the TV tells [them]”. This ‘embracing’ (reliance) of radio and television signals that any entertainment they get in their lives doesn’t actually come from their lives. The obligations are out of the picture, begrudgingly gotten over with, and, glued to the screen, they get their kicks vicariously from the voices and faces that aren’t in their lives. Through media, they at least manage to find themselves distracted enough to not worry about anything.
Reality comes knocking on their door in the second, extended chorus:
Tired and wired we ruin too easy
Sleep in our clothes and wait for winter to leave
But I’ll be with you behind the couch when they come
On a different day just like this one
There is an interruption, another obligation, that takes them out of the humdrum routine. They seem to know exactly what this is, because the narrator points out a designated hiding spot. The couple is in deep shit, and they effort to keep up appearances to people who mean very little to them, regardless. What the danger actually might be is kept vague, but I’ve always taken it to mean ‘the landlord is here and he wants to know when you’re going to pay’. This seems to add up with the dire picture painted by “diving off the balcony”. Hiding yourself in order to avoid the confrontation of the ‘keeping my house’ kind isn’t uncommon. Rent is a lot and it is scary.
That might seem a reach, but the bridge underpins this reading:
So worry not
All things are well
We’ll be alright
We have our looks and perfume
The fact that the bridge is placed at the end of the song feels almost cynical, clarifying in an ironic sense that things absolutely aren’t going to work out this way. But despite that, their concerns remain fixated on their ‘looks and perfume’. These tie back to the first verse, where they establish their outward appearance as something well-off and stable. They’re smart enough to know that they can’t hide behind the sofa or stay glued to the television; these lines are the final bit of self-deception in a song that’s full of wishful thinking. Financial precarity and keeping up (rich) appearances regardless.
The middle class appeals to the higher strata in the vague hope that they will be accepted by them — that class does not, per se, exist for them. They buy the myth of meritocracy and social mobility, distracted by cultural narratives that propogate the same: as long as you partake in ‘wealth’ as a cultural ritual, it will come to you as a financial reality. Of course, the middle class is clamped in a vice. Yet, as economic conditions falter, the obsessions with attaining greater heights (the intense self-doubt of a middle child) begin to accelerate inversely. In this cultural thinking, happiness is conflated with stability and relief.
Pretending to be rich when you aren’t is something of a psychosis that is entrenched in the idea that wealth is everything. The apartment story echoes the trope of the father who spends money on expensive suits for fancy parties while no one at home has to eat. To invoke feminist scholar Sara Ahmed, ‘happiness’ under capitalism is treated like a commodity checklist, culturally determined or formed by the wealthier classes. When money is the goal, obtaining a lot of it seems like a logical decision as to what to permanently belabour for; living like the people who already do is one corollary. The provisions for happiness offered and accessible are mainly commodities, if not commodified. What is said to ‘make happy’ is often fleeting gratification and never-ending dependency. Fulfilling such ‘conditions’, of course, speaks nothing of personal fulfilment and elation, but makes it seem as if the unhappy person is somehow incorrect despite having everything.
In ‘Secret Meeting’, the narrator describes a chance encounter with someone they recognise and the abject social paranoia they experience as a result. The first sentence, “I think this place is full of spies”, is a worry about being ‘found out’ — a warning without premise, a danger lacking consequence that social anxiety transmits, there is just the overwhelming feeling of surveillance. Surveillance requires people, and already we have the first suggestion of a ‘space’: a crowd. Whether it’s about a city or a party, it will be equally asphyxiating. The narrator relies on their ability to disappear, i.e., remove themselves from the context. The ‘mass’ acts simultaneously as the trap and as the escape route.
The economic character of the song is found at the start of the chorus: “I know you put in the hours to keep me in sunglasses, I know”. Echoing the spy motiff from the first couplet, this corroborates their ability to ‘blend in’ as it were, like the comical sunglassed trenchcoat reading a newspaper. “Put in the hours”, however, is a phrase that tends to be used for talking about a job. Sunglasses, in the cinematic imagination, are symbols of fashion, of esteem, status, and wealth. With this in mind, ‘to keep someone in sunglasses’, can be construed as a more literal, material relation. As in, ‘Working long hours to make sure you get to keep wearing your luxuries’.
What, then, the exact dynamic between narrator and the ‘you’ character is becomes complex. Their encounter is stressful, clearly unwanted. With their anxieties about being discovered in mind, the protagonist is intent on hiding something that is intrinsically related to ‘you’. (“I’m sorry I missed you / I had a secret meeting in the basement of my brain.”) The ability to disappear becomes synonymous with the delayal of an encounter. The repeating of the sunglasses, the luxury-commodity, declares its centrality in both characters’ relationship.
To ‘owe’ something, or rather, to be indebted to someone feels like a restrictive bond. The capitalistic ascription of personal responsibility instills a psychology of self-flagellant autarky: you should be theoretically capable to obtain anything yourself. So to ask for aid from a friend or stranger or at all feels like an admission of weakness and vulnerability, needing to be compensated by the samaritanism of others. But the methods of money, so easily quantifiable and enumerative, is established as a zero-sum game, one that always requires renumeration. ‘To repay your debts’ is a moral focus that mostly finds fiscal expression. The social anxiety of the narrator is in part caused by the stifling guilt of financial dependency, leading to seek refuge in an impersonal, amorphous crowd. Depersonalisation, not in favour of anything, just to escape the spooks of an economic encounter.
Songs about work
The track ‘Baby, We’ll Be Fine’ approaches the situation in ‘Apartment Story’ from a more drastic, sadder confrontration with the realities of the middle class. Rather than premise itself on the idea that everything will turn out okay, because the subject can emulate an idealised life, the ‘space’ this song takes place in is a fugue state between the home and the workplace, and how scarcely independent the former is of the latter.
All night I lay on my pillow and pray / For my boss to stop me in the hallway
Lay my head on his shoulder and say / “Son, I’ve been hearing good things”
The narrator literally can’t sleep at night, appealing religiously to the chance the next day that his boss gives him a compliment. White-collar culture is a male-dominated space, a network of masculinity-contests where one vies for the favour of the manager or boss. Needing approval from the hierarchical higher-up is a reassurance that your stay at the company will be continued, which is always massive relief. This reassurance is literalised: laying someone’s head on your shoulder is an intimate gesture, mostly accompanied by a sobbing hug. If your boss is the one you need to go to for such emotional support, something isn’t right (for you — for the boss, that’s perfect).
The rest of the song is strewn with ‘middle-class’ descriptors — Sauvignon, argyle sweaters, Jack and Coke. With the character established, heavily dependent and in social starvation despite having a career, it makes sense that he has a mental breakdown each couplet. In the second verse, he has a panic attack the moment he wakes up (presumably after a full night of hoping). He takes a good look in the mirror and tells himself, the title track kicks in, “baby we’ll be fine.” The third verse sings him putting on a nice sweater and a smile at himself. He says he “doesn’t know how to do this”. And this is true that he simply doesn’t, and it is breaking him.
In the last verse, he (finally) seeks emotional support from another person, probably his lover, and even then he is disjointed and cannot fully detach himself from his work. He had a “stilted, pretending day”, and “needs entertainment”, which acknowledges his job as having a toxic effect on him, but also proves that it is toxifying his other relations. Using someone merely as entertainment is an exploitative thing to do, and since this remains the only example of interaction between him and the other person, it can be assumed that is the full extent of their relationship. The stress of his job is so unbearable that a small mistake causes him to freak out, even when he is able to ‘relieve himself’:
I pull off your jeans
And you spill Jack and Coke in my collar
I melt like a witch and scream
There is an almost typical insidiousness to the song — a man doing anything he can to look favourable to another man, and requiring absolute care from his partner. A similar pretension is given: that as long as you toil and keep toiling, working your ass off for rewards like anger issues and bipolar disorder, you will finally ‘make it’. There is nothing in the lyrics that suggests anyone will make it in this white-collar life. The song is brutally honest about workplace conditions and how this will easily ruin more than one life. The hierarchy at work is replicated at home, with the woman being exploited for her care. Patriarchy and capitalism join hands in this song about destruction.
The last song I want to examine is Racing Like A Pro, which opens with a guitar plucking I can only describe as frantic and morose. It calls into question the very purpose of trying to climb the corporate ladder, sadly narrating the gradual loss of joy and meaning matching the amount of years spent at the company.
Indeed, the first line, “you’re pink, you’re young, you’re middle class / they say it doesn’t matter” establishes the life of the character as middle-class. The socioeconomic conditions of the protagonist are given to us clearly. They are concretised, but at the same time, inescapable. The ‘you’ form the text uses corresponds with the accusation by ‘they’. As if whoever’s saying this is coming to their defence, a self-justifying tautology for whatever ‘they’ may be thinking. What we can also gleam from the text is that there is almost no song by The National that doesn’t describe a wardrobe of some sort: “fifteen blue shirts and womanly hands / you’re shooting up the ladder.” The run-of-the-mill look of your white-collar worker. Our protagonist: a completely, average white (pink) guy.
The chorus kicks in:
Your mind is racing like a pro now
Oh my god, it doesn’t mean a lot to you
One time you were a glowing young ruffian
Oh my god, it was a million years ago
Successfully having risen in the ranks is met by a fatalistic nihilism. There’s so much responsibility (mind is racing), so much more at stake, and yet there is no tangible emotion or connection to the required labour. There is a distinct sense of alienation accompanying the corporate achievements. The ruination involved puts it in a perspective where it seems almost laughably sad. We can easily view this song as being a sequel to ‘Baby, We’ll Be Fine’ — the mirror, none other than himself, is finally talking back: this is what you did it all for? The last two lines memorialise the forlorn time the protagonist was a distinct person, when he could look back at his life and claim he was someone.
The second verse describes his situation at home, fluctuating between a manic mood (sometimes you bake a cake or something) and one depressed mood (sometimes you lay in bed). After the second chorus, the song begins repeating to ‘you’: you’re dumbstruck baby, now you know. All that’s left is a slew of mental disorders and an insalvagably unfulfilling life, achieved through the prioritisation of work over anything else. Oof!
This song is a sardonic response to the death drive most young careerists are pressured into: work yourself to the bone before your twenties are over, so you can have a satisfying life. But all this is is vampirism, siphoning the capabilities of youth and converting it into capital, which, for all of The National’s protagonists, is something wholly meaningless.
It’s easy to conclude that these songs are about capitalism, and to a large extent that is true, but I’ve also handpicked these four songs. Nevertheless, Matt Berninger writes about the destructive ripple effect that white-collar life imparts on its actors. What he pressingly describes is the emotional starvation that lingers within its relations, almost anecdotally, having come from such a background himself. In these songs, there is no love, just a delirious pursuit of happiness, moments of brokenness, and unreciprocated care. In “About Today”, a couple lies in bed and tries to have a conversation for the first time in forever, awkward and painful, as if they’ve forgotten how to. “All The Wine” is an ego trip that splinters more and more. “Green Gloves” follows a man’s vicarious, invasive attempts on his friends to gain access to what he considers to be truer and more fulfilling relationships.
Making us aware of this class character lets us achieve a simple, but often forgotten thing. Capitalism is impersonal, and it affects relationships and creates new one after its own perversions. The National portray characters that are, in some way, wandering the space between these sublime perversions, travelling in the only direction their middle-class habitus is concerned with: ‘up’. The dramatisation rings true like the bells on ‘Gospel’. The so-called road of success can just as easily be a path of sacrifice, slowly being hollowed out yet believing you’ll be whole at the end of it.
If the Alligator — Boxer era hammers on the emergent nothingness within white-collar life, then it starts making sense that from High Violet and beyond, their lyrical content had completed the progress into a nadir. “Trying” becomes a past verb, “losing” attains its theme.