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The National Helped Elect Obama, but Don't Call Them a Political Band

I read 27 interviews with the National to prepare for my time with them. There were six questions that every interviewer asked.
December 14, 2012, 1:48pm

How many bands open for the President of the United States? Maybe a lot of high school marching bands, but only one band that anybody cares about. In 2008, the Obama campaign highlighted the National's song "Fake Empire" in an election video. It played just before Obama took the stage for his victory speech. In 2010, the band opened for the president during the critical mid-term elections. By 2012, Obama's re-election campaign knew enough to reach out to the National again. They had the band carrying clipboards and registering voters in the key battleground state of Ohio. The National helped rally the burgeoning youth vote by performing before Obama again, this time in Iowa. The youth voted. Obama won. The National did their job.


I tried to see one of their six, sold-out shows at the Beacon Theater in New York City last year, but I couldn't get a ticket, so I cleverly manipulated my editors at VICE to let me get close to the band for an interview. I read 27 other interviews with Matt and Aaron to prepare for my time with them. There were six questions that every interviewer asked. If you want to know why Matt doesn't scream in his songs anymore, if they think they're a literary band, and what it's like to play music for almost a decade before gaining success, Google it. Matt and Aaron and I talked about how it feels to help get a president elected. And then get him elected again.

VICE: I know you're cool and brilliant. We don't need to rehash that. What I want to talk to you about is why the National were opening for Obama. You aren't an openly political band. You aren't shoving a message down your audience's throats. You aren't writing "Power to the People." But Obama used "Fake Empire" in his 2008 campaign and chose you to open when he stumped in Cincinnati and Iowa. Why?

Matt Berninger: I'd love to think that the president plays us somewhere around the White House when he's drinking or depressed, but I don't think that's the case. I don't know if Barack Obama has ever really listened to our music. He's been forced to, but I don't think he's got us on his playlist in the Oval Office.

Aaron Dessner: Jim Messina, Obama's campaign manager, is a big fan. We also have an old friend who was one of Obama's videographers. She asked to use the instrumental version of "Fake Empire" for Obama's video, "Signs of Hope and Change." I think they felt like it was appropriate.


Why did people on his staff connect with "Fake Empire?"

Matt Berninger: In reality, the lyrics of that song are about not wanting to think about politics. It's pretty critical of the way our country works. But the music is uplifting and grand. It has an emotional weight to it. It worked really well with the promotional video and the video led to us being invited to open for some of his speeches.

Aaron Dessner: We never had any hesitation supporting Obama. We find him really inspiring. He seems like a real compassionate, and intelligent person. That being said, we have criticisms of him. But the alternative was frightening.

NPR said that, other than black and hispanic votes, it was the 18 to 25-year-olds who made the election. Specifically in Ohio, the young votes tipped the scales. The National put in a lot of face time in Ohio. The math is there.

Matt Berninger: We like to think that we're pretty much the reason. We're expecting cabinet positions.

Aaron Dessner: If we made a difference in Ohio and in Hamilton County, where we're from, then thank God. I don't know what I would have done in Romney had won.

Matt Berninger: All joking aside, our tiny bit of involvement was relatively minor compared to the people who spent months and months knocking on doors. We did it for a few days. The credit should obviously go to those volunteers.

Did students recognize you while you were registering voters on their campuses?

Aaron Dessner: A lot of them didn't know who we were. I think they just appreciated talking to outgoing people with clipboards. It was pretty cool to be out there on campuses, trying to help people participate and embrace their roles as citizens. I wish I had done more of that when I was younger. Now the stakes are so high.


Did you alienate some of your audience by openly supporting Obama?

Matt Berninger: We have a lot of fans that are conservative. I get it. I don't want my rock band to be out there preaching. Rock 'n' roll is an escape from all that stuff. But the rules that are being written now are going to set my daughter's life. The idea that old, white men are going to tell my daughter who she can and cannot marry makes me very, very angry. We didn't care how it might reflect on us. There are some things that are more important than our indie rock band.

Aaron Dessner: If helping Obama was the only thing our band ever did, I'd feel good about it.

Do you feel like you're a political band? Songs like "Fake Empire," "Mr. November," and "Afraid of Everyone" are politically charged. How much of that is intentional and how much appears in the music naturally?

Matt Berninger: We don't think of ourselves as a political band. If you read into the lyrics of any of our supposedly political songs, they aren't partisan messages. They aren't protests. We made t-shirts for Obama that said "Mr. November," but that song was actually written about John Kerry and how uncomfortable it must be to run for president. It must be so stressful and annoying to constantly play that role.

But there are a lot of different types of political music. You guys aren't writing propaganda songs, but the political climate informs the lives of the characters in your music.


Matt Berninger: A high percentage of the characters in our songs are actually very well off. They've benefitted greatly from our system. I didn't come from a working class family. I was financially comfortable. Our songs are putting a mirror up to our own middle class.

Do you think political songs make a difference?

Matt Berninger: If they did, our country wouldn't be as behind as it is. America is the home to Woody Guthrie and Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. Look at the amount of political music in the United States over the past 50 years. You would assume that women would have an equal pay level in 2012. They don't. Can a protest song change things? The evidence says no. I don't know if that's depressing or if it makes me realize I need to do more than write a song.

The radical right has co-opted patriotism. The National play an important role in making it OK to be a progressive, liberal-minded American again.

Matt Berninger: I'm very critical of this country but I also have a deep, deep love and respect for its history and its potential. The conservatives and the Tea Party were just playing a con game. They were blurring reality to make it seem like they are somehow more American or care more about American values. They aren't. They don't. Young liberals are just as American. They pretended they somehow represented the true America. We just proved to them that we aren't that stupid.

During the election, all my liberal friends said, "If Romney wins, I'm finally moving to Canada." What is it with liberals and threatening to move to Canada? If Romney won, we'd need people to stay and fight more than ever.

Aaron Dessner: I understand how someone would be very dismayed if Obama has lost. I can imagine there must be some people on the Republican side feeling that way now. I've heard stories of people flying flags at half mast after Obama was elected. That's just completely ridiculous and narrow-minded.


Matt Berninger: Now we have conservatives who want to defect or secede. Sometimes I think, "Would that be so bad?" But people just don't understand that the world can change significantly in our lifetime. It's a stupid and obvious thing to say, but a lot of people feel like nothing ever changes.

A lot can change in an eight year period.

Matt Berninger: We're still feeling the effects of Bush's presidency. To a 19-year-old, eight years feels like an eternity. But it's a short amount of time. Things can change dramatically. People after us will be living with the consequences of the choices we're making now.

Aaron Dessner: The reality is that we have a Democratic system that works. If we get involved and organize, we can shape the future of this country. There is amazing potential for it to move in a pro-social, compassionate direction.

How did you feel about the Occupy Movement?

Aaron Dessner: My wife and I had a baby around the time it erupted last year, so we were lost in babyland. But I respected it on so many levels. A lot of those people would be anti-Obama because he's beholden to corporate interests. People in his treasury have connections to the same Wall Street companies that bankrupted this country. What I'd like to see is the Republican part disappear and a new party to the left of the Democratic Party emerge. We need that counterweight. That would be cool, but unlikely.


Has the Republican Party screwed itself by pushing too far right?

Aaron Dessner: I know the history of the Republican Party and where it is now. They're out of touch with what people want and need in this country. Today's Republican Party is so far removed from the pre-FDR Republicans like Lincoln or Teddy Roosevelt. Roosevelt was the one who put the National Park system in place. He was the first to get unions established and fight industrialists. It's interesting to see how things have shifted over the last century. The Republican Party has splintered and marginalized itself by caring about these radical, social agendas. Meanwhile, it's the same rich, white male contingent that doesn't want to help anybody. They want the least amount of taxes so they can hide out in their mansions.

You guys are probably in positions to start worrying about how much you pay in taxes.

Aaron Dessner: We're successful. We could worry about our tax bracket. But I'd much rather live in a country that treats everybody fairly and provides basic services for its citizens. I've seen how it works in Europe. I don't think we should be a European country, but there are amazing models out there. If you provide a great foundation for society with health care and education, people prosper.

Do you feel like opinions of Obama change when you are talking to people in Europe?

Matt Berninger: People in America complain that Obama is a Socialist. In Europe, it's the opposite. They say, "How can you support Obama? He's too conservative." I don't agree with every single one of his policies. I wish he was more progressive. I wish he was less hawkish. But he is pushing things in the right direction.


Aaron Dessner: Relative to George W. Bush, Obama is beloved in Europe. They can't believe that a cool, intelligent guy is president of the United States and not some rich, idealogical neocon. On that level, they're psyched. But then, looking back at the past four years, people realize that there are certain behaviors and foreign policies that haven't changed radically.

I hope that Obama's eight years can create enough momentum to keep people working to push the country in the direction they want.

Matt Berninger: We're still way behind where we should be. But, that said,you have to fight the fight that's in your front yard. You can't stand and look out the window when you see your values being attacked. You have to dive in and fight with everything you've got. This last election was like that. It was awful, but it was necessary. We're seeing a significant shift in the balances of America. This country is different. For the first time ever, it feels like the wealthy, white establishment can't pull the wool over our eyes or reap the gains like they used to. I don't think they will ever be able to, again.

It's nice to be on the other side of the election.

Matt Berninger: The debates were hard to watch. Especially the first one, because Obama got his ass kicked. But even the other ones were difficult to handle. All anyone was paying attention to was who could get a zinger in and make the other guy trip up. No one talked about the blurry misinformation that Romney was throwing around. It was about his style.


After the first debate, Obama clearly had a meeting where someone said, "You don't understand what this is about. You need to make Romney look like a fool. It doesn't matter how smart or how right you are." Obama fought the fight that was there. It was all he could do.

Aaron Dessner: People said that Obama's election in 2008 was a historic, sea change moment, but I think his re-election is a bigger deal. It means he's not a one-term president. He'll have a significant legacy in terms of policy and legislation. If I have a chance to talk to him again, I won't say anything except for, "Please do some cool shit, now. And stop firing drones at people." Those will be my two things.

For a band that doesn't consider itself political, the National help make politics cool.

Matt Berninger: Politics aren't cool! They're disgusting and awful. Especially this last election. But the National never claimed to be a cool band anyway. I get why people hate politics and don't want to think about it. I'm sick of it all, too. But it's the fight that's there. And when it's in your front yard, you have to jump into it.

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