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Vampire Weekend: "Look, Muffy, a band for us!”

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Does anyone remember The Official Preppy Handbook?

First published in 1980 and subtitled “Look, Muffy, a book for us,” Lisa Birnbach’s satirical overview of old-school, deep-pockets, upperclass WASP society was packaged as a straight-faced “reference guide” full of tips on how to dress (heavy on the golfer’s pants, pastel Lacoste polo shirts and monogrammed sweaters), where to study (Ivy League colleges the only choice, of course) and how to indulge in such typical demerit-worthy bad behavior as smoking and drinking (complete with “20 Verbal Expressions for Vomiting”). Noticeably short, however, were any picks for the perfect preppy music.

If only Vampire Weekend had existed when Birnbach was compiling her classic comedic tome: The New York quartet’s recently released, much-hyped debut album would have been the perfect CD to package between its garish plaid covers.

Vampire Weekend came together in early 2006 when guitarist-vocalist Ezra Koenig linked up with bassist Chris Tomson, keyboardist Rostam Batmanglij and bassist Chris Baio. (The band is now sometimes joined by additional guitarist John Atkinson.) All of the members are Columbia University graduates, with majors including English literature, music, Russian, film studies, math and economics.

“Some might think it’s a weekend where you sleep all day and stay up all night, but that’s not what we’re going for,” Koenig said when asked about the band’s name during an interview with The Blue and White, Columbia’s undergrad magazine. “Me and my friends from home made a movie after summer vacation with a plot that someone’s country is being taken over by vampires. [The character] Walcott has to go to Cape Cod to tell the mayor that vampires are coming.”

The buzz about Vampire Weekend began to build from its first gigs at university literary societies and frat parties, was fanned by D.I.Y. recordings widely floated on the Net and had become nearly deafening by the time the band played several shows at the CMJ Music Marathon last fall. Propelled by an appearance on the cover of the March issue of Spin (“The Year’s Best New Band… Already!?”), the group was the must-see act at the recent South by Southwest Music Festival. (Anyone shut out of Sunday’s sold-out show at Metro can console themselves with the fact that the band will be back to play the Pitchfork Music Festival in Union Park July 18-20.)

Having made no secret of my dislike for this band, several of my friends have accused me of class bias. Given that I survived this paper’s tenure under Lord Conrad Black, I have plenty of reasons to be wary of ostentatious displays of wealth, but I’m professional enough to check such biases. Others have suggested that I’m reacting to the hype, but hey, I’ve disliked this group since I first heard it via its MySpace page, and neither the hyperbolic blather nor the musicians’ pedigrees ever stopped me from championing the Stokes.

No, my beefs with Vampire Weekend are mostly musical and lyrical.

Jokingly calling their sound “Upper West Side Soweto,” Vampire Weekend builds a carefully constructed hybrid of Afro-Caribbean rhythms and melodies (Koenig has cited Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Kanda Bongomen, reggaeton and Bachata music from the Dominican Republic as his main influences) and well-mannered indie-rock or orchestral pop a la the Decemberists or Belle & Sebastian.

“The ideal avatar, preppy African with equal parts of fresh and clean,” Koenig said when The Blue and White asked him to describe “the ideal Vampire Weekend.” “Preppiness with West African guitar pop, a perfect fusion of happy world music with Western, New England preppiness.”

By no means are those disparate cultures natural bedmates. The best African and Caribbean pop is a joyful celebration of life issued in defiance of oppressive political forces, poverty and disease, or pretty much the exact opposite of the inspiration for the soul-searching of most preppy artistes. This is not to say that preppies can’t make great art. But Koenig is hardly following in the footsteps of J.D. Salinger, John Updike or John Irving by illuminating the profound emptiness hiding behind the cheerfully privileged facade; he is celebrating the superficialities.

“As a young girl/Louis Vuitton/With your mother/On a sandy lawn,” Koenig sings of an object of his affections in “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa.” “As a sophomore/With reggaeton/And the linens/You’re sitting on… Can you stay up/To see the dawn/In the colors/Of Bennetton?”

And let’s not even talk about the obsessions with Cape Cod and geeky academic trivia (“Oxford Comma” is a song inspired by the correct use of punctuation, while “Mansard Roof” pays homage to an architectural style famously seen on the Louvre), or the attempts to “keep it real” by contrasting such nerdy references with calculated name drops ranging from worldbeat pioneer Peter Gabriel to foul-mouthed rapper Lil’ Jon.

“Calculated” -- ultimate, that word is at the heart of what bugs me most about Vampire Weekend, and my gripes crystallized at SXSW, where the band members were ubiquitous, walking the streets wearing their Dockers and polo shirts, with white cardigans casually but carefully tied around their necks — in Texas, in the day time, with a temperature of 92 degrees.

Surely sweating a bit is preferable to being caught poorly dressed. “Oh your collegiate grief has left you dowdy in sweatshirts/Absolute horror!” Koenig sings at the end of “One (Blake’s Got a New Face).”

In the end, just as Kiss had its thunder, fire-breathing and makeup, the indie-rock heroes of the moment have their synthesized strings, guitars that sound like African thumb pianos and overarching preppy shtick. And me, I just like to keep my favorite comic books and satires separate from my rock ’n’ roll.

FACTS
Vampire Weekend, Yacht
9 p.m. Sunday
Metro, 3730 N. Clark
Sold-out

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11 Comments

thank you very much for writing this. hope you don't mind that i've linked to this post and quoted it on my own blog.

get ready for the backlash from hipsters for whom sincerity/pathos/wonderment/actual human heart and soul is the bane of existence.

"lighten up, jim!" they'll say. "this music's supposed to be fun! you're just bitter, old and out-of-touch!"

and of course, they'll be mostly right; the cultural moment dictates that it's sexy to hide behind irony and contradiction, and that taking a stand and believing whole-heartedly and without apparent self-awareness in something is an endeavor that belongs strictly to the province of fools, of those who don't "get" it.

it was inevitable that a band like this would take up the spotlight.

I believe this band is sincere. I think they're just too young and narcissistic to be troubled by the inherent contradictions of their "African preppy" style. Which is why I like them. A couple more years of life experience/humility and they never would have had the guts to make a record like this. It's a danceable snapshot of being 20 years old.

Bummed I missed their show.

Thanks for the thoughts Jim! After hearing a couple of songs by these guys on the radio my wife and I wanted to be sick each time. However, I had heard a thread of something that would have led me to wanting to hear more. Now that I know a bit about them I'm going to save that embarassment of checking out more for the rest of the country and stick to the Decemberists, Belle, and the new R.E.M.!

Dero you might FINALLY be on to something, I thought it was just me

This is the band that the characters from Whit Stillman's "Metropolitan" would be listening to when not attending Deb Balls or debating Luis Bunuel films they'd never seen. When the well of artistic ingenuity runs so dry that ironical send-ups of Paul Simon's "Graceland" become worthy of notice, remind me to stop listening to music.

I enjoy listening to their music when I'm in a mood for frothy pop, but I agree that these guys sound like total pills.

Jim,

Great read Friday. Regarding this band's use of African/Carribbean beats, I always am skeptical when priveledged whites emulate or mimick black America. There's been nothing more embarrassing than Jim Belushi and John Goodman whipping out harmonicas to "play the blues". Like George Carlin once said, what do they have to be blue about?, that Gap ran out of Khaki's.

I've not bothered to listen to Vampire Weekend but will reread your derisions from time to time.

My best....

I’ve heard the Vampire Weekend record and enjoy it, knowing that some out there would level accusations of ‘cultural imperialism’ at it, and at the band. I think this is a bit lazy, with all due respect. What pop band hasn’t borrowed from other traditions beyond their own backgrounds? And who can say which ones of those had a plan to “steal the music”(what a ridiculous notion) from the culture in question. The hubris there would be truly staggering. But even so, it wouldn’t really be the point. The fact is, they’ve made an interesting record that people are talking about in musical terms. That can only mean that Vampire Weekend have achieved what music fans expect of every group, whether you like the record or not. As you’ve said here, it doesn’t mean much to point out that they’re white, that they’re “preppy”, unless you’re talking about the contrast between musical influences and the musicians themselves, which is a striking effect that has been made to serve many bands. Talking Heads, anyone?

I personally don’t see much value in attributing music as being “owned” by one culture or another. I really don’t think it works that way. Elvis didn’t ‘steal’ the blues any more than Ray Charles ‘stole’ country music. When musicians and songwriters hear music they like, it gets thrown into the pot – that’s the reality. And it’s either good, or it’s not. But, I suppose another thing that this cultural phenomenon of ‘bands’ conjures up is about image and identity of those involved, possibly more so than the origins of the music itself. And that’s what we’re really talking about here, isn’t it?

Jim

Thanks a bunch - I kept hearing about this band and how I needed to check them out... and I'm still waiting for them to show me they have anything good to offer. Glad I'm not alone.

I could care less about their "cultural imperialism." I'm more interested in their "musical inadequacy."

Jim-

When did it become wrong for someone to put out a solid album? Sometimes I get the feeling it's not just about the music with you. Vampire Weekend is too preppy but Fall Out Boy is great....right. Next time listen to the album prior to reading the interviews and assessing the cultural awareness of the musicians. I also love how most of your cheerleaders admit having not given the album a listen.

Ra! Ra! Yea! Khakis! Frats! Sweaters! Those guys suck!

>>By no means are those disparate cultures natural bedmates.

And this is relevant how? It's music. Unnatural bedmates meet, they end up together, we all get a little taste of two flavors not usually blended, and it either works for us or it doesn't. Obviously, it's working for many. I respect Rob's opinion about their "musical inadequacy". But trying to throw a bunch of cultural arguments about what music and personalities should and should not go together...very lame. Perhaps like The Preppy Handbook, you could whip up some Pretension Handbook for us. Your thoughts about what's right and proper apparently are good enough to keep those who haven't bothered to listen to VW on the "right path" of snarky, condescension.

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