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“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.”
The National’s Boxer came out on May 22, 2007, 101 days after a junior senator from Illinois named Barack Obama announced his intention to run for the Democratic nomination for the Presidency of the United States of America. One was a long-shot senator hoping to gatecrash the election that seemed all but preordained to be won by Hillary Clinton, and the other was a New York-based band with a small-but-loyal fanbase, trying to move up to a level of indie stardom that would allow them to never think about working a day job ever again. Sixteen months later, in September 2008, the National would be one of the most critically lauded and beloved indie rock bands on earth, while Obama would be running against John McCain for president after securing the nomination. At that weird juncture, their worlds collided forever. “Fake Empire,” the opening song on Boxer, was in a national (pun intended) campaign ad in support of Obama. The ad was the most powerful in Obama’s national campaign, and can still give you goosebumps, nearly 10 years later:
It’s one of the weirder politics-music pairings in recent memory. Usually, when you hear a politician is using a certain song, it’s a story reporting that James Taylor or whoever is upset that a politician they don’t agree with is using their song without permission (which is technically legal, but bad PR), and it was even weirder that it wasn’t just limited to that ad. The National eventually joined Obama on campaign events in 2008, with “Fake Empire” serving as the centerpiece of their short sets. Here’s video of them playing the song in the important battleground state of Ohio in 2008:
But the pairing wasn’t over, by a longshot: the group occasionally popped in on Obama speaking engagements during the 2010 midterms. In fact, during the tour in support of High Violet, I saw them play the Orpheum Theatre on State Street in Madison just a couple hours after they played before an Obama speech down the street on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. It was a surreal happening; I still remember what it felt like to walk around downtown as it was getting closed off for Secret Service transports, and then watching the National play on the local news at a bar before heading off to see them play a giant theater. The band couldn’t get over how surreal it was; they kept commenting on how they opened for Obama.
Even today it’s not hard to see why “Fake Empire” was such a good song to pair with a political ad campaign; the lyrics about feeling paralyzed by not being able to change anything felt like a musical representation of what it felt like to be alive in 2007 and 2008 and considering politics in America. It spoke to a feeling of helplessness, and of wanting to escape the cycle of just doing what we’ve been doing, and of wanting to give yourself fully to something.
Those characteristics also made the song ripe for a group of Ohio State students who used the song in a pro-Mitt Romney ad when Obama was running for re-election in 2012. The ad was removed for copyright claims, but still, it shows that even if a band is literally performing with another politician, people can still try to use their songs (again, legal (except in the case of YouTube videos), but bad PR nonetheless).
That Romney-related kerfuffle more or less of closed the book on the weird second life of “Fake Empire” as a political protest song. But 10 years after it came out, and nine after it soundtracked a presidency, it still feels prescient, still makes the heart swell and is still a towering song on a towering album.
Andrew Winistorfer is Senior Director of Music and Editorial at Vinyl Me, Please, and a writer and editor of their books, 100 Albums You Need in Your Collection and The Best Record Stores in the United States. He’s written Listening Notes for more than 30 VMP releases, co-produced multiple VMP Anthologies, and executive produced the VMP Anthologies The Story of Vanguard, The Story of Willie Nelson, Miles Davis: The Electric Years and The Story of Waylon Jennings. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.