VAMPIRE WEEKEND CONTRA (XL)
Indie rock, after 20 years or so of mining mostly its own cloistered scene and/or the Pavement discography for ideas, has turned it sights on the non-Anglo world. A few years ago freak-folk and dance-punk artists latched onto Brazil’s tropicalia and favela funk, respectively, and now the underground is slouching toward Africa. Vampire Weekend is the best of the mess, though that’s not saying much—a lot of Afropop-trending indie bands sound like weak-sauce VW, as though they’re taking inspiration from one another rather than directly from the continent. (There are actual Africans in Extra Golden and the Very Best, so they don’t count.) Given that Vampire Weekend’s second album, Contra, debuted at number one earlier this month, the trend seems unlikely to wane anytime soon.
The curious thing about Vampire Weekend is that many of the same music critics and bloggers who helped the band achieve this coup are discomfited by prominent aspects of their aesthetic. Almost every review of Contra makes this clear. The New York Times notes that Vampire Weekend’s pairing of preppy panache and Afropop dabblings “smacked of cultural tourism.” The Village Voice observes, simply, “This band drives people nuts.” The New Yorker points out that despite their popularity Vampire Weekend are widely perceived as “avatars of bourgeois lameness.” Pitchfork proprietor Ryan Schrieber describes the image the band projects as “Globe-trotting sons of distinguished men, clumsily exploring distant cultures despite only being passively, naively invested.”
A mostly white American band dipping An American band without any black members that dips into traditionally black sounds from the Congo, South Africa, Jamaica, and the Caribbean isn’t something most people bother being offended about. [Editor’s note: This sentence has been changed to better reflect the author’s original intent, which was simply to point out that no one in Vampire Weekend shares a culture with the African and Caribbean musicians who have inspired the group.] Rock ‘n’ roll was built on overt and covert appropriation of black music—R & B and blues in particular. So why does Vampire Weekend catch this kind of flak? What makes their crime more egregious than, say, Led Zeppelin’s? Willie Dixon had to sue the band to get his due. The press release accompanying Contra, by contrast, is polite and forthright, detailing the band’s sources of inspiration song by song. They’re even careful to note that the Auto-Tune on “California English” was inspired by non-Western music, even though the effect is ubiquitous on the charts in the America.
It comes down to class. Would the reggae tinge of “D’yer Mak’er” seem like an offensive affectation if Jimmy Page had gone to Oxford instead of art school? Would Vampire Weekend get a free pass if they weren’t Ivy Leaguers singing of the woes of the American leisure class?
Indie rockers are supposed to be grubby proles, not graduates of Columbia University, and front man Ezra Koenig obviously knows it. Yet he made an album about rich girls and vacations—so when he struggles to downplay the band’s background, it’s sort of like if Jay-Z tried to claim that growing up in the projects didn’t have shit to do with Reasonable Doubt.
Koenig’s strategy is to point out that, hey, he’s not that privileged. He’s so not-rich he still owes on his student loans at age 25, and his home state of New Jersey (as he helpfully informs British journalists) is known for being a shithole, derided by the rest of America. Of course he skips the part about how Jersey has the second-highest median income of any state in the country.
The explanation he offers the New Yorker for his love of Ralph Lauren Polo shirts gets points for creativity: For him they’re a cultural emblem because Lauren, recently ranked the 224th richest person in the world, started out as a poor Jewish tailor in the same Bronx neighborhood Koenig’s dad grew up in. When he wears them he’s repping for the brand’s humble immigrant roots, not the country-club world it’s now synonymous with. He bandies about the ethnic heritage of Vampire Weekend’s members (he’s Jewish, Rostam Batmanglij is Iranian), but “One of my bandmates is Iranian-American” has got to be the Pitchfork-nation equivalent of “Some of my best friends are black.”
Koenig plays dumb on the class issue, suggesting to the Guardian that the public hates Vampire Weekend for “using obscure words” and that critics are eager to take the band down a peg because it’s a rare chance for them to be “activists”—apparently confusing freelance writers with Supreme Court judges.
On Contra Koenig launders his privileged perspective by casting a series of nameless women with high-class aspirations as the protagonists of his songs. In that same Guardian article he cops to making fun of rich girls—the sort of sport few object to, since women who want it all are such easy targets. But what does it say about you when your eyes are trained on a girl who’s set on movin’ on up? On “White Sky” Koenig sings of a woman who imagines her Wolford tights (they run about $50) balled up on the sink inside a piece of prime Upper West Side real estate that looms above the two of them. He disdains her desire for luxury and comfort, but he wants it just as badly—on the album’s best song, “Run,” he suggests to a girl that they skip town with her trust fund for a permanent vacation. It’s like a sheepish sequel to Mungo Jerry’s “In the Summertime.”
Koenig is trying to have it both ways—to be the mocking outsider while telegraphing his exact position as an upper-class white aesthete through references that connote unfettered living and heavy beach play. If this all makes Contra seem like a fuckless episode of Gossip Girl written by Jimmy Buffett, then I’ve made my point.
Nevertheless, Koenig insists that Vampire Weekend are not what they seem—that their lyrics are pure satire. Well, maybe the fact that so few people can tell the difference between their supposed lampooning of affluence and genuine fascination with it is a sign that they need to sharpen their game.
The music on Contra is easier to untangle than the lyrics. “First-world concerns set to third-world tunes,” to paraphrase a half dozen reviewers, isn’t entirely off-base (“California English” mentions condos over a riff that leans toward Congolese soukous), but Vampire Weekend are still very much an indie-rock band—something their lead-footed drummer invariably ensures. Their ska tunes barely manage a skank (and “Holiday,” another pro-vacation song, name-checks a typeface and a mosquito repellent—hardly typical rude-boy fodder). The band’s Afropopisms are flourishes, no more central to the music than its whiffs of late-80s electro; their best songs are like Camper Van Beethoven B sides without the Reagan-era angst. Vampire Weekend are about as African as Animal Collective is rave—parts are there, but not the whole.
The most interesting thing you can say about Vampire Weekend’s music is that it bears the wounds of America’s crisis—it’s stocked with cheap imports, a bit too sure of itself, and trying to bullshit its way out of trouble. As the Washington Post suggests, the record works as an escapist fantasy for the recession—though exactly who will recognize themselves in that fantasy is debatable.