Picture someone sitting down and listening to their favorite band, the National. Returning from the mildly lucrative job he tolerates, he turns on Boxer, loud enough to drown out precursory thoughts of a dawning midlife crisis, but not so loud it wakes the kids. It took too long to get them to bed. Maybe you see a beard, or some thick semi-luxury glasses to hide the subtly thickening lines around his eyes? Is he drinking a glass of snobby whiskey, head resting on his wife’s tired, spit-up stained shoulder, cracking a poorly timed pun? Details aside, you’re probably picturing a Dad, a Sad Dad, or in some cases, perhaps a Daddy.
Culture and media apply the term “dad rock” to far more acts than just the National—every generation of dads seems to produce its own culturally appropriate brand of Certified Dad Jams—but a perplexing strain of it can be characterized by late 2000s indie rock made by older males, particularly of the depressing variety. Half joke and half truth, the label often seems to accompanied by a judgemental smirk. Matt Berninger even addressed the “dad rock” label and their initial aversion to it in an interview with Billboard six years after they made Boxer, while promoting the release of 2013 Trouble Will Find Me:
"For the 12 years we've been making records, we've always been trying to prove something, and avoid being labeled as dad rock, or depressing," Berninger says. "We figured out how to fight so much over the years… This time around, we didn't care."
A fair share of dad rock remains safely within the dad rock realm, existing only to appeal to the hearts of fathers and to become the butt of jokes for young people that “just don’t get it.” By any measure of reason, the National should be one of them. The last thing people who haven’t experienced “adult” life want to confront is unromanticized realities—of committed partnership, working a day job, climbing a corporate latter, pondering life’s meaning—that the future might hold, many of the themes Boxer tackles. But to say the fanbase of the National hasn’t permeated well beyond 30-year-old middle-class suburbanite dudes that may relate best would just be inaccurate.
I’m 21 years old, I live in a college flophouse with six other people, and between the chipped paint and questionable stains and empty PBR cans there are a few pressings of various Certified Dad Band albums—the National, Bon Iver, Arcade Fire—and several posters devoted to the bands. A massive portion of my peers’ Designated Crying playlists contain at least one the National song, despite having never lived lives that even remotely resemble the lives depicted in the music they create. A bunch of 20-year-old women are likely not who you’d picture Boxer is for. And yet, I don’t think the popularity of the National among people a decade or more younger than the band itself is unique to my peer group.
Not to suggest that someone needs to personally relate to art to enjoy it, or that the complex and moving musical properties alone aren’t enough to listen to an album like Boxer; clearly this is a large piece of why the National has been met with such widespread success. But the question still remains: when dad rock exists as a joke, and in some ways as the antithesis of Coolness, why is it that certain bands permeate the label of dad rock and still became and remain an artistic voice and influence to many young people?
“We expected something, something better than before We expected something more... I'll get money, I'll get funny again”
One reason for our affinity for the National might be rooted feeling like we were being let into an often-unflattering look at our assumed futures. I was 11 years old when Boxer came out, and by the time my peers and I hit peak adolescent musical discovery years, the High School Indie Rock Cool Kid phase, if you will, the National was fairly widely listened to.
When you’re in high school, you’re a sub-pseudo-adult; you have the illusion of understanding adulthood and the entire world for that matter, when in reality, the only first-hand encounters most teens have with the “grown-up” world is through our parents or other adult community members. Other than that, the vision of adulthood given to us from birth is strained through a societal, political and corporate narrative of what we should be, what we should strive for. So when an album like Boxer exists in your coming-of-age, it’s like getting a look into an intensely familiar world, from a perspective that’s often hidden from young people getting ready to take on a world that can make no sense and be pretty cruel, even in the best of cases. Finally, someone was willing to let us in on a truth we could believe.
And the more we grew, even into a seemingly more hopeful political environment, the evidence for Boxer’s truths continued to grow. Made by the very people that seem to have achieved (on paper) what we were coached by parents, teachers and the world to strive for, the album questions the illusion of the American Dream and shattered contentment, even among the luckiest. Every single day, it seems another idiot pundit asks of our generation: Why aren’t you going to college? Why don’t you buy a house? Why don’t you get married? Why aren’t you having babies? Why are you all so fucking depressed? Hint: The answer truly isn’t avocado toast. Maybe we’ve realized that these empty symbols of being contentment and personal achievement, so increasingly and intensely economically unattainable, might not actually satisfy us in the end. But that’s not an easy truth to face.
”My angel face is falling Feathers are falling on my feet”
The National isn’t condemning or writing off choices or the pursuits of happiness; their depictions of their lives are often filled with passion, beauty, joy. But they’re honest, going through great lengths not to obscure their truth. Boxer begins to dissolve through personal testimony the capitalist myth that the American Dream is void of discontent, doesn’t free us from our responsibility to the world at large, and isn’t the solution to our dissatisfaction. And when you’re standing at the cusp of the time in your life when you’re expected to pursue these ideals, the dispelling of these dreams is both a freeing comfort and a heavy truth, for which albums like Boxer can be a strange friend. The sporadic percussion echoes our anxiety and the lulling drone of Berninger’s voice practically sounds like the chemical absence of serotonin in our brains. And yet, there’s beauty and hope among it.
“One time you were a glowing young ruffian Oh my god, it was a million years ago ...You're dumbstruck baby, now you know”
Ultimately, the reason the National is one of a handful of bands to transcend demographics and bust through the “dad band” wall, is that—despite their pointed specificity—their angst, their dissatisfaction feels universal. That’s the point, isn’t it? That no matter who you are, you’ll be able to find company in the unlikely voice of those before us, those after us who did everything right, were dealt the right hands, and still feel like dumbstruck babies. And whether you’re skipping class from your fourth hungover morning in a row or buttoning up your blue blazer or turning the key on a house you’ll be paying off until you die, there’s a dark relief in knowing, either way, you’ll probably always feel like a dumbstruck baby.
Amileah Sutliff is a New York-based writer, the Head of Editorial at Vinyl Me, Please and an editor of the book The Best Record Stores in the United States.