“We’re half awake in a fake empire.”
Tonight I realized something: “Fake Empire” by The National could qualify as the best snapshot of postmodern angst and disillusionment in my entire music collection. Beringer and Co. always seem to hone in on darker themes with their lyrics, but there’s a juxtaposition with this song’s tempo and lyrics that really resonated with me recently. I’ve always found the opening piano melody and ensuing percussion line to be off by about a half beat; “Fake Empire” is one of those songs that seems to always be elusive, just beyond the reach of the rhythm and pentameter of your typical rock song. And nowhere is all this half beat misfiring more prominent than in Beringer’s deliverance of the song’s thesis: half awake in a fake empire.
I love this song because I think that’s an apt description of the life many of us choose for ourselves. We live half-lives in these worlds of our own creation, these virtual universes where we stand as god-like figures, our every dream, desire, and fantasy finding gratification. Substance abuse, pornographic addictions, the gaming culture…our world is full of these tranquilizers that place us in these half-awake, half-comatose states of being, often times without our realizing it, real life passing us by while we watch a screen or shoot up. Is it any accident that The Matrix is one of the highest-grossing pictures of our time? Doesn’t the film’s box office prowess merely reinforce the point the filmmakers were trying to make? Wake up from your fake empire, your virtual reality, and embrace life to the full.
“When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” Postmodernity’s take on this pithy saying might well add this rejoinder: “But it’ll go down a lot easier if you spike it.” Or, as the National say, “Put a little something in our lemonade and take it with us.” But all these efforts at numbing the pain are simply a waste. So too our Cinderella games, our playing dress-up, our Zip-A-Dee-Do-Dah flightiness, even some of our relationships — the greatest currency of our age; in the end, fake empires every one. With escalating guitars, blaring horns, and that incessantly squirrely piano, the closing cacophony sweeps through as if there is some meaning to be found here. But there isn’t. Only a discombobulated beat that never convalesces the way we’ve been trained to expect. How’s that for a great take on your theology of story? Who knew existential theory could be reduced to three minutes?
Simply put, this is a great song. Check out the live performance from Letterman a few years back.