Among questions that immediately make me begin to nervously sweat, “What are your hobbies?” is still number one (mainly because I don’t think food or Twitter are hobbies in the classical sense). But a close second is “Who’s your favorite band?”
Don’t get me wrong, I love music. I got that honestly from my dad. I can remember scores of records filling the built-in cabinets of my parent’s den, music filling the air as they had friends over for dinner most Friday nights. Tom Waits. Van Morrison. Paul Simon. The Grateful Dead. Your taste in music said something about you, your warmth, your depth. It not only stirred your soul, it reflected it. That moves the criteria beyond “good,” “bad,” and “ok.” Do you connect with it?
These days I’m not sure there’s a band I connect more with than The National. They’ve become my answer to the second most dreaded question anyone asks. I actually saw them open for Arcade Fire 6 years ago, which makes me sad because I didn’t appreciate them then like I do now. So last night when I couldn’t sleep, I rented Mistaken for Strangers instead (if anything could help me get to sleep it’s a documentary on The National).
It’s hard to describe the film. It feels like an accidental Spinal Tap, shot by lead singer Matt Berninger’s struggling little brother, Tom. As themes begin to emerge from the random (often goofy) footage, the biggest is Tom’s fears of being a failure in the context of his brother becoming a huge success. At one point, through tears, he tells the camera that all he wants is to make something good, something that will make his brother proud. He hopes it will be this film.
The turning point is a conversation between Matt and Tom. Tom’s at a low point with the film, feels like it will be one more notch on the belt of his failures. Then Matt, trying to encourage him, opens up about his early struggles with The National. Playing the Mercury Lounge to a completely empty room. Coming home after shows, locking the bedroom door, and quietly sobbing (which ironically is my favorite way to listen to The National).
And Matt shares something profound. He says we took all those anxieties, fears and insecurities, and starting working them into the music itself. That’s when people started noticing The National. Here’s a band that isn’t afraid of talking about being afraid. Here’s a band that’s vulnerable in the best sense of the word.
Songs like “Mr. November” hit on our tendency to live off of past accomplishments, feeling the pressure to be perfect. Then there’s “Afraid of Everyone,” a song about anxiety, and our fear of intimacy, with that chilling line, “With my kid on my shoulders I try, not to hurt anybody I like.” Or Matt Berninger confessing his insecurity in “Demons” as he sings, with Dylan-esque voice, “When I walk into a room, I do not light it up.” And introversts everywhere said, "Amen."
This is what The National have to teach us about vulnerability. That it's not something to fear, but something to share. Because underneath the surface we’re all afraid. Afraid of rejection. Afraid of failure. Afraid of not being enough. We all crave to be deeply known and deeply loved, but are afraid to take the risk.
This is why speaker and author, Brené Brown, must be a huge fan of The National. She writes about vulnerability, “Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”
The National get this. So they write songs about it. And a funny thing happens when they do. Through the sharing of weakness, insecurity and fear, they connect with people. And they invite them into the friendship, courage, healing, and even joy that happens when we share the parts of ourselves we don't particularly like.
Vulnerability in the name of intimacy is worth the risk. Running away from it only seems to make things worse (see “Fake Empire”). Embracing it, however terrifying, is the key.
In the words of Berninger himself, “All the very best of us string ourselves up for love. Vanderlyle Crybaby, cry...Man, it's all been forgiven, the swans are a-swimmin’. I'll explain everything to the geeks.”