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.