Today’s young adults are plagued by a trend of depression unseen in past generations. In America, Generation Y, or millennials, are more stressed than any other current living generation, with suicide being the third leading cause of death among college students. One possible cause of this trend is that college degrees now require a loan that can burden an individual for their whole life and no longer guarantees a job after graduation. Another reason is that young adults see their voice in politics going unheard because of machiavellian tactics and the interests of lobbyists usurping the public. Combined with an outlook that any attempt to change these factors is futile, it is understandable why depression is growing in young adults. Dealing with an immovable wall of depression, whose roots are anchored by factors that you and your peers have no control over, is cathartically expressed in the music of The National.

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With lyrics such as, “Well, my mind’s not right, my mind’s not right” off ALLIGATOR’s “Abel,” to, “Oh, you wouldn’t want an angel watching over you / Surprise, surprise, they wouldn’t wanna watch / Another uninnocent, elegant fall / into the unmagnificent lives of adults,” off BOXER’s “Mistaken For Strangers,” The National’s music explores self-loathing, a distaste for society’s expectations, and an overall hatred for the state of the world. The National’s music explores dealing with a depression whose roots one has no control over, and bringing some sense of catharsis to the listener.

The National performing live

Track 4 off The National’s album BOXER is “Squalor Victoria.” The song deals with the depression of working a job that you don’t care about and becoming another mindless drone in the workforce: “Underline everything, I’m a professional / In my beloved white shirt.” Within this lyric, the speaker repeats to themselves a kind of prayer, that they are a professional, and have fulfilled society’s expectations, and they’ve been rewarded with a white shirt that they should hold dear. However, the manner in which Matt Berninger sings it is muted and dull, almost like the speaker isn’t fulfilled, but is trying to lie to himself that he should be happy about his profession. The next line is, “I’m going down among the saints,” where it seems with this new profession, clad in a white shirt, the speaker doesn’t see himself as being elevated, but becoming lost in a sea of saints, his coworkers.

In these two lyrics, we see that the speaker, despite becoming a professional and meeting society’s expectations, is feeling unfulfilled and that they are losing their individuality. Many young adults encounter this depressing reality when they enter the workforce. Because of mountains of debt, the youth are often left to accept the first job they come across and are robbed of the opportunity to get a job doing something they love. The manner in which Berninger sings the songs is sad and sighed, conjuring an air of disappointment. The chorus shows the speaker begrudgingly embracing this unfulfilling profession: “Raise our heavenly glasses to the heavens / Squalor Victoria, Squalor Victoria!”

Considering Berninger’s delivery of this line, it comes off as the speaker drunkenly toasting a depressing victory. The use of “squalor,” combined with the Latin word for victory, shows the speaker hesitantly acknowledging how unfulfilling his job is, yet understanding the hollow victory in gaining one.

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As explored in “Squalor Victoria,” today’s young adults can relate to this phenomenon of losing your identity due to your job. Today’s youth are robbed of the opportunity to find a position that can be fueled by their passions. Most of today’s young adults are economically pressured by their student loans to find any job at any costs, and hold on to it for dear life, even if it is something they despise. The air of rhetoric surrounding this trend is for the youth to be quiet and be grateful for the job they have, silencing any dissenters and dreamers and ensuring every cog in the wheel is operating smoothly. Thus, young adults are applauded by society for occupying a job and rewarded with a white shirt, yet may feel themselves losing their identity and becoming another faceless cog. Despite society saying they’ve risen on the ladder with their new career, young adults may find themselves feeling demoted.

Receiving a job that society says you should be proud to have but remaining unfulfilled was the case for Berninger, who quit a healthy career in advertising to form The National. Speaking about this transition, Berninger states, “I was well into my thirties and I was creative director at a new-media company… I was doing well. 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.”

Within “Squalor Victoria,” The National call out the horrible trend that bright-eyed youth face in entering the workforce: because of the debts they have acquired just to get a college degree, young adults are forced to accept any job that they come across, no matter how unfulfilling it is, and in doing so are robbed of their individuality.


The National’s most famous song is track 1 off BOXER entitled “Fake Empire.” As explained by Berninger, “Fake Empire” deals with the apathy and emotions one finds themselves feeling “when you can’t deal with the reality of what’s really going on, so let’s just pretend that the world’s full of bluebirds and ice skating.” Written in the dust of the Bush administration, “Fake Empire” deals with trying to ignore the state of a world that you don’t have any effect over. To ignore the motions of reality, you blind yourself into thinking everything is alright with immediate pleasures. These sentiments are echoed in the following lyrics: “Put a little something in our lemonade and take it with us / We’re half-awake in a fake empire / We’re half-awake in a fake empire.”

It is within these lyrics that the speaker brings forth the image of lemonade and America, yet tarnishes it by spiking it with alcohol. Berninger alludes to the plight many Americans faced when they didn’t approve of the wars enacted by the Bush administration. Many Americans, to avoid thinking about the lives uselessly taken by their country, needed to numb themselves to a point of apathy. This use of apathy just to cope and live one’s day to day life is still true today, as many Americans have to avoid thinking about lives needlessly lost in drone strikes, or how prevalent poverty still remains in a developed country, as seen within the speakers urges:

No thinking for a little while

Let’s not try to figure out everything at once

It’s hard to keep track of you falling through the sky

We’re half-awake in a fake empire.

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Within these words, the speaker broadly touches on the apathy one feels when trying to avoid thinking about an impending demise. Asking the listener not to overthink everything and embrace apathy, if anything just to be able to move throughout the day and go to bed. It is with “Fake Empire” that The National provides a soundtrack to the apathy one might feel in recognizing how bad the state of the world is, and how we sometimes need to stop thinking about the ills of life just to live our lives. “Fake Empire” calls out the corner we find ourselves in when living our day-to-day lives, despite issues like student loans, a broken political system, the continued inflation of wealth within the upper class, the death of innocent people in the middle east, ISIS and rampant unemployment lingering in the air. “Fake Empire” recognizes that despite such atrocities, we can’t think about them every minute of every day; apathy to these issues is a necessity for daily life and it’s a sad state of affairs that this is the case.

The National’s music does well to explore depression onset by the way of the modern age, but to see that music actually have an effect and cause a stir in people can only be seen when it is blasted outright into a sea of faces.

The Greek Theatre located at UC Berkley

The National Live at The Greek Theatre, Berkley, CA 7/29/16

On July 29th, The National performed in front of a sold out crowd at The Greek Theatre. The audience was primarily composed of young adults, couples, and college students. Throughout the show, the audience was calm and composed, attentive to the band and every word sung by Berninger. In fact, the band themselves were more active than the audience. The setlist was heavily composed of new songs as well as the more somber songs in The National’s catalog. Additionally, the setlist focused mostly on songs off BOXER, HIGH VIOLET, and their last studio album TROUBLE WILL FIND ME.

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Walking on to The Smith’s “Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want,” The National began the evening on a somber, romantic note, before jumping into “Bloodbuzz Ohio” which began to get the crowd moving. The National began to delve into new, unreleased, material. Of the 21 songs played that night, six were new songs. What characterized these songs was a heavy electronic influence, which shows the band has begun to explore new territory for their next release. Pensive love songs occupied the evening, such as “I Need My Girl,” “Slow Show,” and “Pink Rabbits,” which provided a lovely soundtrack for the couples on date night. 

Matt Berninger of The National

However, it was songs like ”Squalor Victoria,” “Sea of Love,” and “England” that lit a fire under the crowd and the band. During these higher energy songs, Berninger would angrily pace the stage, throwing wine into the crown, slamming his bandmates’ mic stands, and shrieking lyrics with a fury unheard of on their recordings. Aaron and Bryce Dessner played off each other, creating a cacophony of sound that fueled the crowd’s desire to let loose and use the event as a chance to escape from the monotony of day-to-day life. Bryan Devendorf’s drumming brought a sense of ordered chaos to the theater; it’s rare you’ll see a crowd recognize a drumbeat, but that was the case as the crowd cheered when the beat to “Bloodbuzz Ohio” began.

It was songs like “Sea of Love” and “Terrible Love” that, visually and physically, brought out the emotion in the crowd. Though love songs and new unfamiliar songs heavily composed the set, the crowd would let loose as the band delved into their higher tempo works. From Gen Xer’s to bright-eyed millennials fearful of entering the workforce, both became one in a storm when The National began to delve into their more emotional, higher-energy, material, like “Bloodbuzz Ohio” and “Mr. November.”  The purging catharsis of the show could be felt all around by sensing individuals assigning this concert as the moment where they can, for once, escape everyday doldrums and cathartically scream their anger at being cornered by the world. Young or old, all empathized with Berninger’s lines, and that they have fallen into the disappointment listed in “Mistaken for Strangers”: “Another uninnocent elegant fall into the unmagnificent lives of adults.” While the audience screamed such lyrics back at The National, Berninger emphatically screamed and shouted the same words with the same tenacity at the crowd, pacing the stage, drunk on white wine.

As the band returned for their encore, during “Mr. November” Berninger delved into the crowd, reaching as far back as those who were seated, and getting lost in the crowd. It was during this exploration of the young crowd, where you could hear others signing into Berninger’s mic, shouting the lyrics at the top of their lungs, treating the words of “Mr. November as their own: “I’m the new blue blood, I’m the great white hope / I’m the new blue blood / I won’t fuck us over, I’m Mr. November / I’m Mr. November, I won’t fuck us over.” With this gesture of losing himself in the crowd, Berninger wanted the crowd to take those word as their own, or at least show them he’s no different or more special than them, and that we’re all Mr. November.

Matt Berninger of The National

Berninger delving into the crowd during “Mr. November,” alongside the admitted themes of apathy and depression within songs, shows that the band empathizes with the listener’s depression and sadness at the state of the world. The National’s music serves as a point of catharsis for individuals who recognize how lousy the world is but are frustrated and sad that they are unable to make it better. The National’s songs aren’t necessarily political, but just an acknowledgment of how sad society’s state of affairs is. Berninger, in introducing “Fake Empire” to the audience at the Greek, showed how prevalent the songs’ themes still are today: “This next one is for Don Trump….asshole. It’s a drinking song, not a political one.”

The National’s performance at The Greek Theatre put theory to paper and showed that their music has a cathartic effect on their listeners. With how rapidly information travels today, being constantly bombarded by the ills of the world seems more like a curse than a blessing. Despite being able to acknowledge how lousy the world is, the frustration lies in being unable to change it. However, the music of The National gives us a venue to purge these frustrations and helps make day-to-day life, with the failures of society still lingering in the air, a bit more bearable. The music of The National acknowledges a universal depression and provides an avenue for listeners to cathartically express their frustrations with an immovable sadness.

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