Back in 2006, blazer-clad frontman Ezra Koenig described Vampire Weekend's music as "a fusion of happy world music with Western, New England preppiness" to the Columbia University undergrad blog. (The band met at Columbia when its members were all students there.) But after its debut was released in January, plenty of skeptics immediately sniped at the band's self-conscious combination of indie-pop melodies, Afropop sonics and rich-pop aesthetics. This balanced the multitude of converts, like Pitchfork reviewer Nitsuh Abebe, who thought Vampire Weekend made "one of the most refreshing and replayable indie records in recent years."
In advance of the band's show on Wednesday, September 10, we asked bitter, aging punk rocker Jason Toon to make the anti-Vamps case, while music school dropout Ryan Wasoba takes up the defense.
Jason Toon: Rich kids ripping off poor kids' music is a tradition as old as the gramophone. And it's produced some pretty great music at times. But Vampire Weekend's Afropop swipes represent a qualitative leap into new territory for a couple of reasons. First, the gap between creators and appropriators has never been so wide. We're talking about the music of the poorest people on the planet, played by people who are among the richest on the planet. That might not be so off-putting if it wasn't for the second reason: Nowhere does Vampire Weekend seem to recognize its shaky position. Eyes may roll when Mick Jagger tries to howl like a sharecropper or Peter Gabriel swans around in a dashiki. But at least those guys tried to show some kind of solidarity with the originators of those sounds. (Or had the decency to fake it.) Far from being intrepid cross-cultural explorers, Vampire Weekend reduces Afropop to one more bauble in a rich kid's toy box, along with the "devastating backstrokes" and "shiny, shiny cufflinks" it sings about, or the sailboats and chandeliers on their record covers.
Ryan Wasoba: Vampire Weekend's yacht-club fascinations may be the most immediately unlikable aspect of the group, but the shtick is at least honest. Most fortunate sons in rock & roll downplay their affluence, like the trust-fund kids of Animal Collective, who disguise themselves as crusty noise punks, for the sake of furthering the misconception that only the disadvantaged are licensed to make great art. The culture police throw up red flags if some rich white kids use Ivy League resources to study arranging, engineering and mixing, and then focus these skills into a critically acclaimed, Afropop-influenced indie rock record reminiscent of Paul Simon's Graceland instead of becoming lawyers. Furthermore, the stylistic inaccuracies that keep Vampire Weekend from completely aping the Afropop genre (the Fruity-Loops bleeps in "One," the Wes Anderson movie strings of "M79") are also the quirks that keep its tunes accessible for fans of modern indie pop. Those quick to hate seem to be incapable of separating the band's concept from its music. Perhaps the most telling aspect of the backlash is how many detractors begin sentences with "They have some good songs, but...."
JT: Well, they do have a couple of decent songs, but let's talk about this "honest" thing for a minute. There's presumably a lot more to the members of Vampire Weekend than a pair of neatly pressed khakis. They're clearly well-educated, cosmopolitan guys who, at the very least, have listened to a lot of music. An "honest" image could have taken any number of directions and still been honest. If its boarding-school aesthetic is a conscious choice (which it clearly is), it's fair to talk about what motivated that particular choice. From interviews, I get the impression that those polos and loafers evoke a lighthearted, carefree and wry — but essentially happy — mood to the Vamps. Problem is, for some of us, it's a party that we're not invited to. It feels more like a celebration of privilege than anything to do with our lives.
It's not that meaningful art can't be made with this upper-class Northeastern milieu as its subject matter. But, say, J.D. Salinger and F. Scott Fitzgerald took those particular anxieties and emotions and made them universal. That's what I feel is lacking in Vampire Weekend: any reason why, exactly, we should care that Blake's got a new face.
As for "separating the concept from the music," I'm sympathetic to the argument that Vampire Weekend was sort of ambushed by notoriety, and is being judged by standards most young bands never have to meet. But I'm also of the opinion that, if you want to score points with a crafted image, you also have to accept the penalties. It's just not "honest" (heh heh) to say, "Hey, check out our distinctive style, but if you don't like it, well, never mind, just focus on the music." Music, pictures, interviews, videos, PR — it's all one persona-package now, and it all matters. That's what keeps promo photographers and one-sheet writers in business.
RW: The "one persona-package" is a very real circumstance of an oversaturated market, which is more proof that Vampire Weekend's miraculous journey from cyber-buzz band to Saturday Night Live musical guest over a few short months is the result of excellent songwriting and a uniquely universal sound.
It's peculiar and hilarious that indie press will embrace boring noise-drone bands or harp-plucking nymphs, but a group of Ivy League chaps have taken everybody out of their deceivingly specific comfort zone. The rules and stigmas of this are as premeditated as the shirt collars poking through the band members' sweaters — even though as the band's defendant, I cannot stand behind keyboardist Rostam Batmanglij's ridiculous scarves. One must wonder if the emphasis placed on Vampire Weekend's preppy visuals are a conscious decision of the band or of the aforementioned one-sheet writers whose job it is to fit thousands of bands into dozens of niches.
JT: So what about the music, then? Vampire Weekend has jumbled together some interesting sonic ingredients, and they come up with a few strong melodies on their debut album. (I'd like to see what Belle & Sebastian or the Essex Green could do with a tune like "M79.") But nowhere on the record do I get any sense of why they bother, why this matters to them. Somebody somewhere said that people listen to music to hear strong emotions being expressed. The closest this album comes to emotion is a kind of vague, gauzy, detached wistfulness. In the right hands, that might be enough. Or with the right songs. Not here.
RW: Deep emotional content is just one of a myriad of reasons people have put a needle on a record or plugged earbuds into an MP3 player. Vampire Weekend may not have Dylan's density or be able to wrench a gut like Elliott Smith did, but when the three steel-drum simulated chords of "Mansard Roof" open the door to the band's self-titled album and Ezra Koenig debuts his breezy tenor, the listener is offered a valid, if calculated, sense of escape. This isn't to say that the track is intended to force one into a Hudson River yacht fantasy, but the song's open air is symbolic of all of the places we'd rather be, a "detached wistfulness" from our lives, and its propulsive drumbeat gives the urgency to get there quickly. At the height of my fascination with "Mansard," it conjured images of Seattle's magical rolling hills and conveyer-belt sushi restaurants. It was my eleventh-most-played song on iTunes, and not once was I inspired to enroll at Harvard. Or even take my online community college classes seriously.
Critics and cynics and purists may never get over the band's image, but kudos for putting its most unlikable foot forward; nobody wants to like these spoiled brats, and those who do just can't help it. Vampire Weekend writes simple tunes for complicated times, and no amount of rich-kid snobbery or blogosphere backlash can strip the undeniable merit from these songs.