Open My Country

Discussed in this essay:
  • Trouble Will Find Me (The National: Matt Berninger, Aaron Dressner, et al. 2013)
  • Shaking the Habitual (The Knife: Karen Dreijer Andersson, Olaf Dreijer, et al. 2013)
“…in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

—Harry Lime in The Third Man

I

It’s tough out there for white American guys. Expectations are high. The price of the best first-class berth on spaceship Earth is that society – and by that we chiefly mean other white American guys – is pretty quick to turn on you if you don’t seem to be availing yourself of all the benefits: wealth, power, respect, fear, the obedience of others. Every white man in America is expected to enjoy these things and as much of everything else as money can buy. Which, at the capstone of the socioeconomic pyramid, you are expected to have a lot of. Not for the purchase of flashy frivolities – that’s for the other male races, the seekers, the triers, the movers-on-up – but for the distribution of patronage and the projection of power in the form of providing for others. If an Englishman’s home is his castle, an Americanman is expected to be the castle himself: an entity which both envelops and makes possible the domestic; upon whom others can depend, can draw out of a limitless reservoir of strength.

And solid though they may appear from the outside, the walls of fortress Americanman are hollow with angst and battered by the loneliness and precariousness of that dependence – of his wife and kids, in the classical formulation; of the company, of the relatives: everyone needs a piece, financial, material, emotional, of something that is expected to continually replenish itself under its own power with no help from outside. For about a hundred pop music years, the soundtrack to this terrible privilege has been The National, whose music thrusts with the necessary outward virility of postmodern Americanman while their lyrics scream his panic:

I carry the dollhouse safe on my shoulders
Through the black city, nightlights are on
in the corners and everyone’s sleeping upstairs
All safe and sound, all safe and sound
I won’t let the psychos around
I won’t let the psychos around

or

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”

Both of these are from Alligator (2005), the moment in their oeuvre when Americanman’s stage boner probably came closest to being a sword for him to fall on. Taken out of context, the lines of the first quotation, from Mr November, seem like the hardest of hard-man trumpetings that he has everything under control here. But consider why he repeats himself at the end of the stanza, and then notice the refrain that immediately follows it:

I won’t fuck us over, I’m Mr November
I’m Mr November, I won’t fuck us over
I won’t fuck us over, I’m Mr November
I’m Mr November, I won’t fuck us over

This isn’t a boast or a war-cry, it’s a mantra, a desperate prayer uttered under the narrator’s breath: Please don’t let them notice that I have no idea what I’m doing. What does Americanman lay awake at night (in the second song quoted above, “Baby, We’ll Be Fine”) hoping for? No – sorry – this is America – praying for? What does he want most in the world? Not just the approval of his boss, but approval coupled with outward signfiers of affection. And those are more imporant; they come first. After the family is safely tucked in bed and the ‘night lights are on in the corners / and everyone’s sleeping upstairs’, family-Americanman is so hollowed out that he can only moved by the emotional overtures (‘lay my head on his shoulder’) of even more powerful Americanmen. He could never be the one to reach out, to nuzzle, or to express these needs in broad daylight. He – and this is the essence of Americanman – has something to prove.

II

Sweden, in case you didn’t know, or in case your image of it was colored in by the tropes that their Eurovision halftime number wonderfully and with surprising arrogance at an enormously sensitive time condensed into a single blissful montage, is on fire.

The causes are multifaceted – neither immigration nor unemployment nor poverty is alone sufficient to cause a riot – but what happened in Sweden this summer is just another eruption of a toxic cocktail that bubbles under Europe all the time, seeping out variously in London, in the Paris suburbs, in Greece, and even sometimes Germany (though they’re better at leveraging their ancestral brutality to plug the dike). The toxic cocktail is a combination of inequality (status, money, discrimination) and the demand that Europe makes of its outsider populations that they conform while at the same time denying them any chance of ever achieving that conformity: you must become Swedish to live here, goes the thinking, but it is impossible for anyone not born to Swedes with blond hair, blue eyes, and a silver Ikea screwdriver in his mouth to ever be Swedish. Every outsider in Europe stands, mutatis mutandis, in front of the same cliff.

Let’s sweep aside Americanman’s problems from Part I by saying that Americanman can go lay his heavy crown-wearing head on a psychiatrist’s couch if he’s so worried about society not letting him express his precious affection deficit to his satisfaction. As real as his dilemma is, and as much as I personally like the music it produces with Matt Berninger as the bard of put-upon Americanmen from Allston to Ypsilanti, it’s probably fair in view of what’s going on. The country is on fire.

One person – two people – who can’t take it anymore are Karen Dreijer Andersson and her brother Olaf Dreijer, who are, by current events, snapped out of their examination of more fashionable expensive-fundraiser social problems (Like a Pen) and quite entirely out of the party mode of their even earlier work (Heartbeats) and into a new album which begins with what is quite frankly the finest six minutes of music that The Knife have ever produced. Here’s how it begins:

Under this sun
Look what we have got
And those who haven’t
Bad luck
We’ve been running ’round
Pushing the shopping cart
January 2012
Even in the suburbs of Rome

Look on our wealth, ye lowly, and despair. Interesting is that even as they protest the boasting excesses of the society they live in, they admit their own complicity: we is a broader accusation and a deeper confession than self-centered Americnaman is capable of. And the dagger sticks so perfectly: the crime – our crime – is constituted by ‘pushing the shopping cart’. For all the ruthless efficiency of empires past, the modern European citizen – sorry – this is Europe – consumer – can oppress the world from the comfort of the airy aisles of Ikea, perusing what all the shitty human underclass has toiled to lay at his card-wielding feet.

Border’s lies,
the idea of what’s mine,
a strange desire
Drawing lines with a ruler
Bring the fuel to the fire

Conquest doesn’t happen by lines moving on a map anymore. Rumsfeld knew that: it happens in ‘hearts and minds’: in the broken will of the poor, the black, and the female; made possible by the pleasure-intoxicated indifference of the privileged watching Netflix (now available in Scandinavia!) on the wall of Plato’s cave while the decisions – the lines drawn by rulers (double entendre of the year)–are made somewhere else.

Karen seems a bit upset about this, and her outrage climaxes at what I think, even though it comes in the first song, is probably the most important moment in the album. It’s at the end of the quotation above, which I have sort of mislead you by rendering in sober print like that. She doesn’t sing ‘bring the fuel to the fire’; she reaches the peak of the diatribe that “A Tooth for an Eye” undoubtedly is, and, frustrated with reading Sweden and Europe the riot act, explodes in outrage:

Drawing lines with a ruler
Bring the fuel to the fiiirrrrrreeeeeeeeeeaaaaaaaAAAAARRRRGGGGHHHH

That scream is important because of what fuels it: outrage, striving, and action are all products of (and only of) suffering; and even bold pronouncements about the abolition of injustice are spoken by the voices of its victims. Consider this, from Jürgen Habermas’ On the European Constitution:

In this day and age, it is impossible to read the words “No one shall be subject to torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment” (Art. 5, Universal Declaration of Human Rights) without hearing the echo that rings through them: the cries of countless tormented and murdered human beings. The invocation of human rights lives on the outrage of the violated at the loss of their human dignity.

Shaking the Habitual rattles with the screams of immigrants, women, workers, and the poor; offers an invitation to deconstruct whole skyscrapers of oppression. It is difficult to listen to; it is, at moments, ugly, harsh, and hard work. But then again, so is sewing H&M jeans in Pakistan for 18 hours a day.

III

Meanwhile, back in Vegas, or at the Western White House, or at this great new bar I just discovered in Brooklyn, Matt Berninger has said something alarming: The National “don’t have to prove their identity anymore.”1 This is troubling because, even as good as Americanman has it, his entire essence is that he must urgently, constantly prove himself.

What does it sound like when Americanman no longer feels the need to assert his dominance? The force of songs like Mr November is that even the insecure narrator, trying so hard to convince himself, rides across the spectrum of sound on a triumphant, take-no-prisoners melody that combines the shock and awe of Americanman’s prime positon with the stonewalling inarguability of closing movie credits. Unmotivated to claim dominance, Americanman withers. I Should Live in Salt, the first track of the new album, is limp, without force or even tension. The slow dad rock songs like Demons and Heavenfaced lack the overconfident sleaze of their ancestors like Karen or Slow Show, which could be the soundtrack to every sex scene involving a straight white American man with a college education.

At its worst, Trouble Will Find Me is just plain lazy, exhibit A and B for which are the songs Fireproof and I Need My Girl, one of which you can sing to the music of the other, like the anthems of East and West Germany. Which isn’t to say that the old National doesn’t peek through: for about 9 minutes, on Graceless and Pink Rabbits, they rediscover their striving youth and lay down two genuinely manly tracks. But mostly, Trouble will Find Me, is streamlined, spit-polished, and car-commercial-ready; or, to be less charitable about it, overproduced and boring. Berninger’s baritone is now a whole octave higher on average than it was on Alligator: testosterone, after all, is the hormone of both hardons and baldness. The Dessners’ music has all the edgy throb of a Vegas lounge act on a rainy Tuesday lunchtime in February.

I’m going to follow Americanman on his journey from the young man and his date at the reception in Apartment Story out of that rosy-minded fuzz and into the rest of his life: they are married, financially more secure, even if they still owe money / to the money / to the money they owe, and as the words TEN YEARS LATER appear on the bottom of the screen, Americanman puts down the New York Times, where he has been reading about how intense the competition is to get in the good private high schools. He is worried about whether Leo and Emma are going to be able to get in, so he calls his bandmates for a writing session, to put their angst into song. Everything is just perfect. This is the album that comes out.

We still dance on whirling stages

Seeing the Knife

Discussed in this essay:
  • The Knife (Karen Dreijer Andersson, Olaf Dreijer, et al.)
  • Berlin, Columbiahalle
  • 11 May 2013
Then the lights came on, it was all a scene
Bend back, give head it’s not pornography
If you do it with lights then it’s art you see
If you do it with a twist, yes, artistically

When I went to see The Magnetic Fields at the Babylon cinema in Berlin in 2010, there were many quiet moments of violin-tuning and sheet-music-adjusting between the songs. Magnetic Fields concerts are generally quite low-key affairs. During one of them, as Stephin Merritt was twisting the knobs of his ukelele, the voice of a young American woman surged up from the rows in front of me:

“Play ‘Love is Like a Bottle of Gin’!” she screamed.

“Shut up!” yelled Merritt. And after another second and a half of ukelele-tuning, he mumbles, “…savages.”

Why did that woman yell that? It’s a question I often ask myself when people do something I would never dream of doing, because identifying a purpose makes incomprehensible behavior comprehensible and forestalls less charitable reactions. A lot of incomprehensible behavior, at least to me, involves people screaming things. At The Knife’s concert in Berlin last night, which they opened about 35 minutes later than the advertised starting time and without an opening act to speak of (a glittering man, poodle-haired, lithe, and black-skinned, did a crowd-warming interactive dance routine he called “deep aerobics” from the side of the hall for about ten minutes before his headset mic stopped working), there was a little bit of time spent standing idly before the blue-lit stage between entering the venue and the time the concert began. This is, for those of you who have ever arrived at anything before its scheduled start time, an expected stage of the process. So why is this young man next to me screaming and whooping? Because he is excited. Why does he follow that screaming and whooping by cupping his hands around his mouth and projecting toward the stage that “WE ARE TIRED OF WAITING!!!”? The only explanantion I can find is that he is an impatient, pubescent, fit-throwing sack of shit, and that is not very charitable.

Then again, it has been seven years. (The screamer would have been, I dunno, eleven when Silent Shout was released?) But in my attempt to be charitable to the boorish people around me, I started to ask myself why people come to these concerts. ‘To see a band they like,’ right. But presumably not to lay eyes on Karen Dreijer, like you might on the Stockholm subway. If it’s The Magnetic Fields, you come to the concert to see them get out their instruments and sing and play their songs for the experience of a singlular version of them: Busby Berkeley Dreams louder, sadder, more in a church, and with more beer bottles klinking than listening to 69 Love Songs on your headphones on the way to work. And because the version, the song, you hear, disappears after it is made: having enjoyed the Rodin-scupture-beauty of the album, you come for the expensive-bouquet-of-flowers-beauty of the gig. Or at least you do if it’s The Magnetic Fields. You’d be a fool to expect that from The Knife, and just to go ahead and spoil it for you, when I came out, ears ringing, into the Berlin evening after the show, I overheard an American with a beard and a knit wool hat and tight pants complaining that “they didn’t really play any of their songs, they just kinda performed them”. Tilt your head back to stop the nosebleed getting on your keyboard.

The Knife’s show is a medical-school lecture, a dissection of the pop concert; instead of the Columbiahalle, they should have booked an eighteenth-century operating theater, so that we could all watch down from tiered seats as they took out the organs one by one. (Fans unprepared for this could have taken a cue from the latest album, Shaking the Habitual, in which they take their previous oeuvre, slice it open, and spread the entrails out over twice the length of Silent Shout.)

At first, this openness is startling: if Fever Ray performed behind a thicket of smoke and lights and plague-doctor masks, The Knife shed their hooded robes after the first number and stand there, faces plainly visible, limbs bare, lit head-on, before the audience. The lack of obfuscation is startling: is this the band whose only press photos are in makeup and masks? Whose children’s names are not publicly known? And now, they’re standing in front of me, genuinely playing instruments and looking at me with their eyes?

That is the situation, the convention, of the beginning of every concert. Of course you come to hear live versions of their songs, but you also come to see them make live versions of their songs. The Knife proceed to do it for about five minutes, until, suddenly, they stop in unison, face the audience, and hold their hands over their heads, perfectly still, and the music keeps going. At the moment they do this, the light switches from above and in front of them to behind and below, replacing the people on stage with blank silhouettes. We are not going to play our songs, the Dreijers make clear: we are going to perform them.

Well, we aren’t, strictly speaking. There are ten people on stage, and Karen and Olof can’t really be located. They are there, but other people take the lead: knowing that The Knife is a brother and sister outfit, you might mistake the frontman and frontwoman for that brother and sister, but the woman on whom the energy and the attention of the audience is focused for much of the concert – who plays out the tropes: the head-banging, the tongue-wagging, the HELLO and THANK YOU BERLIN – is not Karen Dreijer Andersson, and the man on whom she lavishes her dirty-dancing attention is not her brother. The openness is not revelation; it is transparent, but only like the surface of water, which misdirects. Karen is behind the moving spotlights on a platform on the back of the stage shaking a giant torch-shaped maraca.

Even when they established a layer of interrogation of the pop concert, they would attack it. A dance choreographed to One Hit in which the entire company participated was done to a recording of the song, ironing out any musical spontaneity and moving the performance into the physical, a series of relatively literal tableaux based on the song’s lyrics. By the end, they have moved through a song in which the dancing is done by a young, beared man with trendy hair and glasses who exists only on a canvas screen and is rocking back and forth in place (the abyss, dear audience, is gazing back at you) into one dance that consists of the entire company, back in their hooded robes, standing entirely still for the length of the song. The anticipation is agonizing, as if Dr Frankenfurter had held on to the last syllable forever.

More than many, The Knife was a band positioned to bring all 1,100 people in the Columbiahalle to orgasm at once. All they would have had to do was break one of their intros down into the unmistakeable tin pan riff that begins Pass This On, and the tidal wave of ecstasy would have resembled that vulgar scene in Scary Movie scaled up to crowd-size. For any artist, even one with a relationship to his audience that is as torturedly love-hate as Olaf Dreijer’s or Stephin Merritt’s, the temptation to do that must be incredible. Merritt routinely gives in to it, acting annoyed but lapping up every squeal fired across his bow during the intro to Papa Was a Rodeo. The Knife threw their audience very few bones – maybe only one, Silent Shout, and even it was musically indistinguishable from the “album version” (I went back and added quotation marks because I just made an ugly connection between that phrase and talking about “the movie” and “the book” of something), the dance accompanying it done to backlighting that beamed across the stage and out over the audience, blending performers and audience into a single group, all just dancing along to the same music being played over the speakers. And this was the finale: by the time it ended, The Knife was gone from the stage and the DJ in the sound booth began her post-show set. There was no bowing, no clapping, no encore, because when Silent Shout began, the concert was over: at the moment at which the audience is given what it wanted all along, The Knife cease to be performers and the audience ceases to be the audience, because if we have all come here just to hear our favorite song played, this is not a Knife show anymore.