Vampire Weekend: Hated On Mostly
Also: they own at least one Public Enemy record
There's a storm brewing. Or, rather, there's a storm already here. And nobody even seems to think it weird that critics are drawing battle-lines around one of the least confrontational new bands in recent memory, in part because that lack of confrontation is one of the prime reasons for those battle-lines. The four kids in Vampire Weekend have certainly done plenty to make themselves hater-targets. They wear pastel sweaters. They flaunt Ivy League educations. They jam obscure vocabulary tunes into keenly felt and observant little indie-pop jams that would've worked just fine without the verbosity. They swipe individual sounds from Afropop without attempting to master the form. During interviews, they engage in obnoxious useless-knowledge one-upmanship games. One of them is Scott Baio's cousin. And it's already been preordained that they're about to be fucking huge, or at least as fucking huge as an indie-pop band can be in an era where everyone downloads music instead of buying it: sold out two-night run at the Bowery Ballroom, 8.8 in Pitchfork, MTV ad-bumper video, Spin lead-review, Matt Sarasin dancing to "A-Punk" on Friday Night Lights a couple of weeks ago. This Idolator post about a recent Times article about the band is sort of notable mostly because of the sheer number of comments about wanting to punch them in the face; it must set some sort of record.
The VW haters' big problem with the band seems to be that they are in the business of selling a very particular form of fantasy. In her Voice takedown of the band, Julianne Shepherd draws a distinction between the band's form of Upper West Side snoot fetishization and that of Gossip Girl, claiming that she prefers GG because VW lacks the show's "performative self-awareness." I guess I can see that, but from where I'm sitting Vampire Weekend's version of that milieu is basically the same as Gossip Girl's; the only real differences I can see are the relative scarcity of drama-nerd cliffhanger plots and relative dominance of opaque asides in Vampire Weekend's songs. In any case, both VW and GG get off hard on the aesthetics, sartorial and otherwise, of rich-asshole society while still finding ways to poke insidery fun at its excesses. Gossip Girl takes most of its shots in the form of Dan Humphrey, the Williamsburg outsider kid who invades the prep-school scene and takes whatever opportunity he can to bitch about it. Vampire Weekend don't approach this stuff as outsiders, though I have no idea whether the people in the band can claim real firsthand knowledge of rich-folks inertia. Instead, they lazily poke fun from the inside. "Oxford Comma," after all, is a refutation of acid-tongued snobbery, as delivered with a vaguely snobby acid tongue: "All your diction, dripping with disdain / Through the pain, I always tell the truth." (And I have to wonder about the song's Lil Jon namecheck: Does Ezra Koenig know that Lil Jon is the one figure in rap born as rich as the character that Koenig is playing? And does it matter one way or the other?) In his counterpoint Voice article, Mike Powell mentions Whit Stillman, another WASP insider figure who uses the show-offy cleverer-than-thou language of his native culture to lightly mock the same, and the comparison rings true. Vampire Weekend might not be screaming fire on Babylon, but they're not always content to sit back and celebrate their own privilege either. Besides, the tendency to say "took an apartment" instead of "rented an apartment" might not be one I prize in actual human beings, but I've loved plenty of music that's expressed full-on loathsome sentiment, and there's something weirdly churlish in an inability to look past a few upper-class linguistic fripperies if you don't have big problems with, say, relentless rap misogyny.
And anyway, it's entirely possible to fuck with Vampire Weekend without actually knowing what an Oxford comma is, which is what I was doing until two weeks ago. (Said a guy I know: "It's a serious comma.") As far as I'm concerned, the band's lyrics and imagine-manipulations are entirely beside the point; what matters is the way they put songs together. Like Spoon, Vampire Weekend writes rhythmically inventive indie-pop jams that manage to be simultaneously prim and supernaturally precise. The band's much-vaunted fascination with Afropop might be entirely superficial, but that's fine with me, since so is mine. And anyway, the absolute cleanliness of the band's sounds (sparkling circular guitars, supple murmuring bass, percussion that actually works as its own instrument rather than as a simple time-keeping device) does wonders to set this band apart from their bajillions of faceless indie-pop contemporaries. There's a knowing lostness in Koenig's voice that just kills me, especially when he's after uncomplicated romanticism (see: "Bryn," right now my favorite song on the self-titled album.) This is a band that knows how to make its moving parts work together. Maybe that's not enough to get anyone the sort of attention that Vampire Weekend's been getting in recent months; maybe that's why all the distracting extramusical image stuff comes into play so heavily. But it's still cause for celebration.
In any case, I'm going to see them tonight, so tomorrow I'll have a report from the shitstorm frontlines.
Voice review: Mike Powell on Vampire Weekend's Vampire Weekend
Voice review: Julianne Shepherd on Vampire Weekend's Vampire Weekend