“Play music, asshole.”
The call went up from somewhere in the crowd, somewhere close to the stage. Having relegated myself to the cheap seats when I purchased my tickets five months earlier, I didn’t hear the request, however, not until Matt Berninger, frontman of The National, repeated it back to the crowd.
“Just play music, asshole?” he said, with a slight upwards inflection that hinted towards something like bemusement, mixed with bitters and molasses.
“Do you know what band you came to see, motherfucker?”
Nobody Else Will Be There
It had been a long day.
By the time The National took the Philadelphia stage on September 27th, it felt like my morning alarm—unnaturally brutal at 5 a.m.—had gone off decades ago. My 10-hour work shift, simply a memory from years’ past.
Even the weather seemed completely over it all, and finally gave in to the rain that had been pressuring her clouds all day, as Berninger walked around the stage like swagger in slow motion.
She would continue to give in to that exhaustion throughout The National’s 22-song set, and I can’t blame her for that. Because, beneath my poncho, I couldn’t help but see the hesitant rain as something a bit more than forecasted events.
And maybe it’s just my love of poetry, or my need to believe in a universe that strives for balance in its own entropy, but I couldn’t help but see the rain as a manifestation of all the tears the country—or, at least, parts of the country—had shed or swallowed or soldiered through just hours earlier.
Because it wasn’t the early morning that had set this exhaustion—this more-than-bone-tired kind of exhaustion—deep in my body. It wasn’t the long day that had tucked this heavy fatigue inside my pockets.
I was tired, soul-tired, from watching a woman unpack her hurt, all over again—on national television, no less—for an audience that never seems to care enough, or at all.
And I wasn’t the only one slightly preoccupied by it all, it seems.
Never an act to shy away from politics or civic engagement—with a history of supporting Barack Obama, and more recently, Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election—The National wasted no time at all in alluding to the drunken elephant in the room.
“I was napping all day,” Berninger said before opening the show with “Nobody Else Will Be There,” the lead-off song from Sleep Well Beast. “Did I miss anything?”
The System Sleeps in Total Darkness
Hours before The National, an Ohio-based quintet—affectionately dubbed “sad dad rock” in some corner of the internet—hit the Mann Center stage; hours before Berninger’s baritone mumble poured from the speakers to a sometimes-soggy audience, and vivid—if not entirely trippy—lights and images swirled and coalesced behind the band, like psychedelic coffee and cream that the audience drank down in delight, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford was speaking before the Senate Judiciary Committee in Washington D.C.
“I am here today not because I want to be,” she told the committee. “I am terrified. I am here because I believe it is my civic duty to tell you what happened to me while Brett Kavanaugh and I were in high school.”
I did not want to listen. I did not want to watch, as this woman, a research psychologist and professor of psychology, chronicled her trauma for a crowd of mostly old, white men. I did not want to think about anything that hurt like this. But I did. I had to.
History was happening. A Supreme Court nominee was accused of sexual assault, and whether I liked it or not, this moment was historical—another entry in the collective remembrance of humanity—and I had to watch, despite the familiar knot of dread and anxiety that nestled itself within my stomach as I listed to Ford speak.
A knot that did not, and perhaps never has, loosened.
Walk it Back
I’m not going to unfurl the events of Thursday’s hearings, they are easily Google-able and honestly, hard to escape. Within minutes of finding seats on the lawn, which promised a bit of safety—from the rain, and the day—I overheard a conversation about Ford and Kavanaugh.
One woman, huddled close to her friend, making the most of the thin strip of overpass we were all sharing, commented on the simmering hostility she saw in Kavanaugh. I took a quiet, deep breath and closed my eyes, ever so briefly.
She had seen what I had, too: an anger like a closed fist, an anger like a hammer, swinging indiscriminately and without fear of breaking, or being broken, or being held accountable for any of the damage done.
What some pundits saw as manly, I saw as a threat. And this difference in perception always gives me pause, no matter how often I am confronted by it.
It strikes me how, what some consider masculine—and therefore, strong, which is just another way of saying desirable, really—sets every muscle in my body on edge. My jaw tightens, my back straightens; my arms clench and constrict, like shy but confronted garden snakes.
I’ve tried to reteach my body over the years, too. Telling my tendons and nerves to just be cool, man; reminding my jaw to shake it out and relax, dude. I’ve tried to unlearn these reactions but, after awhile, I just gave up: I figured they were there for a reason.
In Kavanaugh, I heard a tone that I have learned to avoid in men, in anyone, really.
I saw his “fighting spirit,” as I heard it described by someone on my TV, as a sneer: personified and dangerous. He “came out swinging,” I heard a pundit say, but I could only see it as a challenge: to my basic instincts for survival, to my fight or flight.
And I am thankful that I have always been a fast runner, because I’ve never known what to do in a conflict.
In Ford, however, I saw a familiar hurt. A hurt that seems so unsurprising, it borders on obvious, like how the sky is blue, or how binge drinking remains an issue on college campuses. And yet, this hurt must be much less obvious than I thought, because we keep having to have the same conversations.
And I’m so very tired of having these conversations.
I’m tired of women having to quantify their hurt to qualify for empathy. I’m tired of women having to repackage their trauma into digestible sound bites and pull quotes, all in an attempt to be heard, and if they’re lucky, listened to.
I’m tired of women, of survivors, having to hurt at all just to have a purpose within a narrative that was never their own, and seems to only value them when it’s convenient or easy.
Just as the women in Kavanaugh’s testimony, which read like a list of every woman he has ever met, were reduced to two-dimensional names on a page— repackaged for convenience—I’m tired of women, and all marginalized or forgotten or ignored groups of people, having to flatten their edges just to be accepted.
Walk It Back
And if I seem angry, it’s because I am.
It’s because I’m just so fucking tired, and I’m not going to apologize for that. I’m not going to wrap my anger inside of cotton candy or dip it in chocolate, just to make it a bit more palatable, either. I’m tried of having to do that, too.
And while she was far less angry than me—God bless because could you imagine the optics of losing your temper in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee?—I recognized the same kind of tired, that soul-tired, in Ford.
This is not a criticism of Ford, of course. I don’t know anyone who isn’t soul-tired, these days. And while Ford was praised for being brave and courageous and inspiring—because she fucking is, and was, all before her morning cup of coffee—she shouldn’t have to be this brave or courageous or inspiring.
Women shouldn’t have to hurt to have value, and yet, here we are: neck-deep in a manic pixie dream that we just can’t seem to wake up from.
Don’t Swallow The Cap
From Anita Hill to Missoula, Montana, there are far too many stories that resemble Ford’s. Ones that are much quieter than the brutality often depicted in television and across movie screens, but no less violent.
To suggest that society isn’t entrenched in sexual violence against women, against men and all other’s who define themselves beyond such measures, is more than just disingenuous: it’s dangerous. It’s refusing to see the fire through the smoke. It’s even denying that there is smoke filling your lungs.
And, while drastically less violent—and I admit, this analogy is only slightly complete, forgive me, I am so tired—suggesting that politics has no place in music, as if art hasn’t been crafted out of revolutions and protests for centuries, is also, fundamentally, mendacious.
After swaying through five songs—largely from their latest album, Sleep Well Beast—Berninger dedicated “Bloodbuzz Ohio” to the man running against Republican Steve Chabot in Ohio’s 1st congressional district, Berninger’s hometown sitting somewhere within that boundary.
“Chabot is an asshole,” he said, and then began singing.
“I still owe money to the money to the money I owe / I never thought about love when I thought about home,” dripped through the speakers like rich honey. “I’m on a blood buzz / Yes I am.”
The final notes settled among the crowd, still anxious for more at only six songs in. But, before progressing much further into the set, which included the first performance of “So Far Around the Bend” since 2009, Berninger, once again, voiced his opposition to Chabot.
“He’s a douchebag.”
And it was around this time that the “play music, asshole” call found itself unmoored from someone’s mouth. After such a long, demanding day, here was someone demanding something of someone else.
“Do you know what band you came to see, motherfucker?”
I don’t begrudge this person of such an audible exhale of impatience, not really. It had been a long day, and we all need our releases.
After a few songs, Berninger even took a moment to note that, in the event of a miscommunication of intent or tone and in the spirit of coming together, that he wasn’t admonishing this individual for his request.
But honestly, dude: next time, read the room.
There was an obvious pall in the Philly air, whether a direct result of the day’s hearings or the nearly constant drizzle, it’s hard to say for sure. But there was a haze like heartbreak—or at least, heartache—clinging to the collective shirt sleeves of society, and humanity, by extension.
It’s hard to imagine an invested mind that wasn’t, at least partially, distracted by the world at large that evening. But, as the saying goes, the show must go on. That doesn’t mean you have go on in ignorance, though.
And despite the circumstances of such emotional weariness—and maybe it really was just me, though I hope I wasn’t alone in my wounds—Berninger and company charged on, playing a healthy mix of new and old.
Phoebe Bridgers, one of the openers on the “Sleep Well Beast” tour, even joined The National on stage for a beautiful rendition of “Sorrow” while the weather persisted in her own exhaustion, releasing raindrops when moved enough.
“I live in a city sorrow built / It’s in my honey, it’s in my milk,” Bridgers sang. “Don’t leave my hyper heart alone on the water.”
So Far Around the Bend
For better or worse, society—and humanity, by extension—exists within an ecosystem in which government and politics play their roles. To deny this symbiotic, if at times tumultuous, relationship, is to deny the air in your lungs. To deny this, and claim isolation, is to ignore how intrinsically we are all connected.
As Rebecca Solnit notes in “The Ideology of Isolation”:
“You can’t survive without taking air into your lungs, you didn’t give birth to or raise yourself, you won’t bury yourself, and in between you won’t produce most of the goods and services you depend on to live. Your gut is full of microorganisms, without which you could not digest all the plants and animals, likely grown by other people, on which you rely to survive. We are nodes on intricate systems, synapses snapping on a great collective brain; we are in it together…”
We are all in this together: it’s an idea worth repeating. Because it’s simple in its honesty, and humble in its truth.
Music, while permitted to be political—“You gonna vote?” Berninger asked near the end of The National’s set. “Just don’t vote for the asshole, whoever they may be.”—is also more than just a rally cry.
It is community, and connection; it’s a small part of a greater whole. And it’s healing.
As The National returned to the encore whistles and cheers, Berninger confronted this need for healing with and within music.
“There’s a dream that I see, I pray it can be / Look cross the land, shake this land / A wish or a command / Dream,” he sang. “We all do what we can / So we can do just one more thing.”
The crowd was reverent, which of course didn’t last for long, as The National ripped into “Mr. November,” one of their more raucous tunes, next. But there was beauty in returning to the stage with such calm, and courage in opening with a cover.
Cat Power’s “Maybe Not” is a song that Berninger returns to often, he said. It’s one of those “top five” kind of songs, the kind you listen to when you need that kind of comfort.
And comfort is what days like Thursday call for. They demand compassion and empathy; quiet and understanding—and maybe a glass of wine, or two—because there is no room for apathy in 2018, or at The National concerts, as that one guy learned.
Days like Thursday casually take so much from so many, and it’s all too easy to become exhausted—if you are tired, that’s okay. Forgive yourself for being so human, forgive your small parts for being so hurt.
“It all, all catches up to me / All the time,” Berninger sang.
You’re allowed to be hurt, you’re allowed to catch your breath.
It had been a long day; a long week, a long month. You get it.
And if The National felt that at all, they did not show it. Berninger climbed through the audience—as he often does—anchored only to the stage by his microphone’s cable. And any time he found himself among the crowd, I smiled.
Because I like to believe that he harbor’s a secret dream of fronting a hardcore side-project. I like to think that he would find comfort in a stage dive, or a mosh pit. And as Berninger’s usually measured and brooding vocals rose to a harsh scream on “Terrible Love,” just as it had done on several other songs throughout the night, I smiled.
“It takes an ocean not to break,” Berninger half-sang, half-shouted, while charging through the crowd, consumed by the audience and one with them in equal measure. Both crowd surfer and conductor, all at once.
And I smiled as this scene unfolded.
I smiled as I considered this hypothetical timeline in which The National moonlight as a screamo band, and apathy is out of fashion:
A timeline where women—survivors—are not only heard, but listened to and believed, goddammit; where they are not asked, so casually, to dress their trauma up in silk and march it before a panel, or a firing squad.
A timeline where a man’s ambition does not trump someone else’s right to exist, and “I don’t like getting political” isn’t the veneer used to coat “I’m ignoring this because I don’t like being uncomfortable.”
A timeline where strong doesn’t mean fists, and broken doesn’t mean unlovable; a timeline where it’s not asking too much to be considered whole, despite being hurt.
All the Very Best of Us
As the last notes of “Terrible Love” gave way to applause, The National moved to the edge of the stage, and Berninger invited the crowd closer.
“Do you know the words?” he asked in jest to someone close to the stage, and I can only assume such a direct question of musical knowledge from a frontman set off just a bit of fear within him. Because Berninger continued: “You look like someone I saw on TV today. Sweaty, scared…and male.”
And, despite this allusion to such hurt and history—to a thing so heavy in my chest—this moment of levity was like a centering sigh. And I laughed. It was quick, but surefooted, this laugh, and it was a wave breaking.
String Ourselves Up for Love
The National is one of my “top five” kind of bands, and there was healing happening as they dove into their final song: “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks.”
Largely unamplified and acoustic—the band only playing into microphones as Berninger shuffles around the stage, charade-ing his way along to the lyrics—this campfire-like, singalong version is something truly organic in its earnestness.
And seeing one of my favorite songs in this chamber of community is something that eludes definition for me, if I’m being honest. Because how do you describe sonic beauty, or personal healing: both small parts of a greater whole? How do you explain a song lyric like saving grace?
I’ll Explain Everything to the Geeks
At it’s most basic definition, music is a collection of small things—that carry with it larger points of politics and rebellion, love and loss; hurt and healing—working together to contribute to a greater whole.
Like atoms in a body, like a body in a house, like a house in a city in a state in a country on a planet in a solar system in a universe—that eventually returns those atoms back to the stars when we’re through with them—music is a collect of small parts.
Notes and riffs and melodies coming together and building something beyond themselves; growing and packaging entire ideals and ethics, emotions and community within its own form. Music is a band on stage, looking out at a sea of spectators, all singing their song back to them.
And, taken down to its most rudimentary foundation, that’s what society—and by extension, humanity—is, too.
We are all comprised of these small parts stacked one on top of another to make up a whole. And if we zoom out from ourselves enough, we can see that pattern repeated throughout nature and neighborhood, both locally and globally.
Vanderlyle Crybaby Cry
Speakers were entirely unnecessary during “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” because the crowd, made up of many, small and separate parts, joined together in a unified chorus. A moment that carried with it a small bit of comfort that I couldn’t ignore: Ford was not alone in her testimony, hours earlier.
Joined in spirit by countless women and men, survivors and allies, Ford spoke for so many who couldn’t, or wouldn’t be listened to, even if they did. It’s very easy to lose this sense of spirit, this idea of solidarity, in 2018, but as my Twitter feed proved during her hearing, you’re never alone as you feel. Somebody else will be there, somewhere.
And with that thought in mind, I sang along to “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks.” A small part working with others to make something beautiful, something empathetic and necessary; a whole far greater than my own wounded heart and exhaustion.
“Man, it’s all been forgiven,” the crowd sang. “The swans are a-swimming,” and even the weather relented in her rain. “I’ll explain everything to the geeks,” I quietly sang, and I smiled.
After such a long day, smiling felt like a victory.
Ashley Cline is an avid introvert and full-time carbon based life form currently living in south Jersey. Since graduating from Rowan University with her Bachelor's in Journalism, she can usually be found singing show tunes to her dog, drinking too much iced coffee and wearing beanies. Her personal best at all-you-can-eat sushi is five rolls in eleven minutes. You can find her yelling about Carly Rae Jepsen on Twitter and posting photos of her dog on Instagram.