Members of Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Cincinnati natives The National knew they could lose fans if their band became vocal supporters of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama back in 2008.
“When we publicly started supporting Obama, we did have a lot of fans that were upset about that and just thought, ‘you should keep your political opinions to yourself,’ ” lead singer Matt Berninger told reporters before their Thursday GottaVote concert sponsored by the Obama campaign.
“And I actually totally understand that and in many ways almost agree. I don’t want to be preached to by the Rock bands that I like.”
The band drew a mixed crowd of 750 people to the intimate show at The Emery Theater on Thursday. The concert’s purpose was to encourage attendees to vote for Obama in the Nov. 6 election and encourage Cincinnatians to take advantage of Ohio’s early voting.
While the band’s support for Obama has drawn some vitriol (fans made comments like “fools” and “shame on you” on Facebook posts announcing the shows in support of the president) it didn’t stop everyone who didn’t plan on voting for Obama from coming to the concert. Adam Kesee, 25, is not an Obama supporter. He explained that he was at The Emery to see The National perform anyway — just as long as they didn’t devote the whole show to politics. "I do not think music and politics should mix," Kesee explained. "It's OK if you play to support a candidate you like, but don't expect everyone to share your views and do not bog down the concert with political views."
[Photo gallery: The National plays in Cincinnati Oct. 4]
Despite their recent outspoken support of President Obama and their series of shows dedicated to rallying support in 2008, 2010 and 2012, Berninger and guitarist Aaron Dessner said they never saw their band going in such a direction. “We didn’t want our band to be a political band … most of our songs are love songs or songs about drinking — we don’t think of ourselves as socially conscious songwriters or anything,” Berninger said. He said that during the George W. Bush administration, they started to feel a responsibility to get involved — even if their band took a hit. He cited his 3-year-old daughter as the context through which he sees politics — he’s worried about the way her world will be shaped. "Where our country is now is more important than our Rock and Roll band," Berninger said. "If it hurts our band, that's OK with us." Although some of The National's songs seem to hold political themes, including "Mr. November," the majority of the songs performed were rock songs written about love and loss including the popular "Bloodbuzz Ohio" and "Fake Empire." An intense performer, Berninger didn’t get so enthused about performing for Obama that he slipped "Vote Obama," into the lyrics, or devote the majority of the performance to campaigning. Aside from two young campaign volunteers speaking at the beginning of the concert, the president was not even mentioned until introducing the third song, "I'm Afraid of Everyone," written, Berninger said, about a desperate plea for the truth. In exchange for free tickets to see The National, attendees were expected to volunteer their time for the Obama campaign. Many concertgoers explained that they would gladly offer their time to support the campaign. Others said that they were strictly in attendance to see The National and do not plan on knocking on doors or making phone calls to support the president. "I don't really have the time and I don't really care about politics that much," said Kedharhneth Sairam, 24. The crowd may not have been full of Obama supporters, but they were still supporters of The National. The band’s GottaVote tour included a Wednesday stop in both Columbus and Cincinnati. Along with performing for fans, the band took to the streets with clipboards encouraging students on the campuses of The Ohio State University, Xavier University and Berninger’s alma mater, the University of Cincinnati, to sign up to vote.
CityBeat staff writer Andy Brownfield contributed to this report.