or: a lesson in masculinity by Matt Berninger
With fifteen minutes to kill, I stood in the precipice of a Ritz Carlton bathroom door, staring down a mirror adorned lavishly with a gold-plated frame. While my face looked stern and determined, my feet betrayed my confidence by tapping in a nervous cadence. Presumably, I saw some macho action hero do this in a movie at some point.
Appraising myself, I suddenly noticed the imperfections of the fit of the Men’s Warehouse suit my Dad helped me pick out a couple months prior. The chest of the jacket was far too big, hanging off my shoulders like loose skin, while the crotch hung too low. I felt like a little boy that broke into his dads closet to dress like him.
I was about to begin the vetting process for my first corporate job out of college. The evening at the Ritz, my meals and the mileage I took in driving up from Harrisonburg were all compensated courtesy of Deloitte, a high-powered consulting firm.
Although I had reservations about getting a job at a monolithic firm like Deloitte, I felt that landing an entry-level consulting job was a critical step in achieving my manhood. “Local boy with the middling high-school resume and goon-tier grocery store experience makes good”. My singular goal out of college was to live with financial independence, and a job with Deloitte was a means to that end. It was a goal that wasn’t necessarily driven by ambition, but by fear. Fear of being a burden. Fear of not becoming a man.
As good as I looked on paper though, I was self aware to my short-comings. As book-smart as I was, I was never as naturally confident or outgoing as a lot of my classmates at a highly social college like James Madison University. I knew I wasn’t naturally predisposed for all of the schmoozing and salesmanship involved with trying to land a career.
So, instead of being myself, I joked with friends I was merely method-acting a character that was the best version of myself: “Corporate Jake”. Corporate Jake exuded confidence, was highly articulate on a wide range of topics, and asked questions the betrayed a deep and genuine interest in everything. Playing this character made it easier for me to feel more at ease in the inherently phony sausage factory of corporate recruitment.
Thus, as I stayed behind in the hotel room, it was Corporate Jake walked down the marble staircase into the promenade and smiled wide, poised to stake his claim and realize his manhood.
Apropos of nothing, I asked my wife Marissa to describe Matt Berninger, the principal lyricist and lead singer of The National:
“An ex-professional blonde, bearded man with posture like a freshly starched shirt and the voice of light brown leather dipped in bourbon and honey.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself. In a genre predominantly defined by crippling indecision or spacey bedroom yearning, Matt Berninger exudes manliness in the realm of independent rock.
Matt Berninger’s singing—the most distinctive element of The National’s sound—is a grizzled baritone that exudes wisdom and authority such that he’d be equally suited hunting banditos as a sheriff the wild west. His physical presence is just as imposing: having seen him live, his tall frame hulks over the microphone as if his roadies could only rustle up a My First Rock Show playset to perform with.
Marissa, whose crush on Matt Berninger has clearly rubbed off on me, recently picked up Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers on vinyl, an album I admittedly hadn’t paid much attention to previously. The album was released at pivotal moment in the band’s career as they were shedding the last vestiges of an alt-country sound and deciding if they should drop their nine-to-five careers to commit to The National full time.
Matt Berninger specifically was working a corporate job as a Creative Director for a digital media agency, a job he felt empowered as “a grownup man in the world, paying his own rent, and buying his own TV”. Facing down his thirties on the precipice of such a life changing decision, Matt Berninger’s professional identity and therefore, his concept of manhood was in question. It’s this tension permeates the album.
The tone of Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers is set by the slow-burn opening track “Cardinal Song“, a song resembling “How To Win Friends and Influence People” as if it were written by Patrick Batemen. On it, Matt Berninger forcibly posits to the listener that a man’s ultimate act of seduction is to never “let her see your cardinal eyes” or, let on who you really are.
An hour later, Corporate Jake was in the dimly lit private room of The Palm restaurant, sitting at one of the many round tables covered in pressed white linen alongside other students and associates for the company. Deloitte claimed the purpose of the dinner was to make applicants feel comfortable before formal interviews the following morning, but in reality, the interview had already begun.
As the group dined on plates of expertly prepared NY Strip Steak and Chilean Sea Bass, the mixed company of employees and students had ephemeral conversations about inoffensive topics like the Washington Redskins and the Washington Capitals.
Corporate Jake, trying to feign himself as regular bro with charming jock-tendencies, pivoted to discussing his tribulations trying (and failing) at youth hockey, including the “hilarious” story of the time he got a concussion. The other applicants at the table laughed at the anecdote because it met the minimum threshold of being considered humorous. They too, wanted to seem like competent and normal adults.
Corporate Jake began to feel empowered as if he wasn’t interviewing for a job at all, but instead acting as a double-agent in a private game of espionage. Not even for a moment did he even hint at my actual distracting passions of writing, of playing narrative-driven video games, or of DJing at the college radio station. By parroting all of the right things and not betraying a single iota of my true self to the other agents, Corporate Jake was owning the room.
The night went on like this as waiters loomed between the tables, refilling glasses of wine and taking plates away, their actions muted by the dull roar of anxious chatter. After the meal was complete, they circulated after-dinner cocktails from their top-shelf collection of liquor. Even though I hated the stuff, Corporate Jake was the type of guy that would drink a whiskey straight, so he did.
With a single malt in hand, Corporate Jake started to work the room, chatting up any unengaged consultant in the room their life on the job. Despite having no practical experience to relate with, Corporate Jake regurgitated textbook best practices in the most natural form he could in attempt to appear as an equal that was already doing the basics of a career he had no practical experience in. His future interviewers seemed genuinely impressed.
By the end of the night, Corporate Jake considered his showing a success: he talked enough to be considered memorable, but also listened enough as to not seem like a blowhard.
He couldn’t remember a single thing he said and he couldn’t remember it even mattering. He went to sleep that night feeling the interviews the next day were but a formality. The job was already his.
On Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers, Matt Berninger questions concepts of manhood via the husbands and fathers that are the protagonists of his songs, showing the long-term pitfalls of stoicism and shying away from your true self.
On “Slipping Husband“, we hear a titular husband’s inner monologue as an intervention is staged against him by his own psyche as he addresses his private shortcomings as a man against an increasingly frustrated Greek choir. The song ends with a Wilhelm Scream from his subconscious urging him to “get a drink in you before you start to bore us!”. We’re only left to assume the husband will grab a bottle and continue his suffering privately instead of emoting any of his pain.
“Available” roars out the gate with a furious electric guitar, detailing a wife’s gradual intoxication, seduction and bedding of her emotionally detached husband. The song ends with a rage-filled coda where the husband explodes at the wife for “dressing him down” when her only crime was to trying to rekindle a physical intimacy in lieu of an emotional intimacy that is long dead.
The most haunting song on the album for me though, is “Patterns of Fairytales“, where sleepy keyboards and a campfire guitar bring to mind a moonlit McMansion in some Anytown, USA sprawl. Listening to it, I imagine a single lit room as a distraught husband listens to the mixes he made for his emotionally estranged wife decades prior, feeling a thousand miles of distance from the blood sleeping in the adjacent room. It paints a disturbing postscript for a lifetime of stoicism.
The concept of “Corporate Jake” was something I inherently learned from my dad when I was much younger. We’ll call him Blue Collar Bob.
During a Field Day in 8th grade, I got called into the front office so the administration could inform me that my mom was in the hospital. Since all of the adults were so calm and collected about it, I took the news in stride and went back outside for a water balloon fight.
When I arrived home from school later that afternoon, my dad had arrived earlier from work presumably due to the news about my mom. As I walked in to the house, the first thing Blue Collar Bob said to me regarding Mom’s health was “What, did you go and piss your pants?”, in reference to a water stain on my shorts.
Later that day, my dad apologized to me profusely for making a pretty asshole jab. He worked on a job site, he claimed, and ball-busting with the crew was just the language in which his work was conducted. In prior construction jobs, he’d been shorted by shady subcontractors and had knives and guns pulled on him.
While I understood the over-correction from a parenting perspective, even at the time I can’t honestly say I was bothered by his ribbing because on some level, I got it. I internalized that my Dad needed to be a hardened version of himself to provide for himself and his family.
My dad recently retired from his career at the beginning of the year after being diagnosed with prostate cancer. The cancer festering in his prostate is slowly seeping into his pelvic bone where it can eventually reach the blood stream, which at this point would be a death sentence. As a result, the doctor prescribed an aggressive treatment plan of six rounds of chemotherapy scheduled every couple of weeks.
I’m 600 miles a way in a city we moved to for purely selfish reasons and once a week I text him to see how he’s doing and he insists he’s fine. I try to set up weekly calls, some of which he will actually take, and when he does, he provides a cheery, optimistic update in a manner of five minutes before rushing to get off the phone. I hope for the best based on the reality he provided me.
At least, this is how I felt until I visited home last week. The voice that greeted me with “Hey JakeyP” when I walked into the house feels feint and belabored. The month or so of chemotherapy has aged him fifteen years as his previously thick hair is now a ghostly shadow.
You wouldn’t know it when talking to him, though. Sure, he’s a bit tired, but he’s fine! How am I doing? Any good new restaurants on my block? How is Marissa? How is the dog?
Later that evening, as he’s getting ready for bed, as we are continuing a similarly surface-level conversation, dad starts taking off his clothes as if I wasn’t even there. His body is a warzone; frail and blotchy as a poison tries selectively to kill another poison inside of him. By being nude in front of me, it was as though he was trying to show me a level of suffering that he didn’t want me to verbally empathize with, betraying one type of modesty for another.
I flew back knowing, despite being told the opposite, that things absolutely were not OK.
Coming out of college, I believed a cornerstone of masculinity was having a stranglehold of your emotions so they wouldn’t interfere with your public business. The mindset around “Corporate Jake” allowed me to get a good job (not at Deloitte, thankfully) and ultimately be a low-maintenance friend and family member.
As a husband that wants to be emotionally honest to his wife and eventually his family, I’m beginning to question that belief.
My entire life, I thought I knew the “real” side of my dad. I thought the hardened side of him that worked sixty hour weeks for fifty years was a facade. After seeing him in this state though, ill and emotionally closed off, I’m unsure now if I know the real him at all or just another edition of Blue Collar Bob, still applying for the job of being an immortal, omniscient provider that will always be there to protect me.
In light of this, I look at the mindset I put myself in to get that first job out of school and it frightens me. I don’t want to fall into the trap my Dad did. I don’t want to permanently alter my identity, be it professionally or personally, to cope with the traumas of adulthood. I don’t want to sacrifice the part of me that feels, and close off from those who love me, for the sake of antiquated definition of “acting like a man”.
As of late, I again feel like little boy in the too-big suit, sleeves dangling, trying to be act braver then I am, and I think it’s OK to start admitting that.
Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers ends in a different place where it started with the track “Lucky You“. Whereas “Cardinal Song” described manhood as wearing a perpetual veneer, “Lucky You” shows a protagonist cracked, bruised and bare, with all of their flaws on display.
“Lucky You” is unmistakably a break up song, however, it’s still optimistic within the context of the album. It’s a stark contrast: while the married man with the cardinal eyes dies emotionally alone, the dumped man from “Lucky You”, at least for a time, had a set of arms to collapse into that wholly understood him.
Matt Berninger ended up shedding his corporate veneer and pursued The National, indulging his emotional core at a pivotal time in his life. As I face down my thirties and my own litany of trying situations in my family, Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers an important reminder I should do the same if I too want to remain whole.