Any band that experiences such a meteoric rise in popularity like that of Vampire Weekend is bound to provoke a backlash. And that’s exactly what’s happened. Since their new release rocketed to number one last month, a veritable arsenal of pen-ink has been directed against the group. It’s certainly an odd about-face. This time two years ago, the New York-based quartet were the darlings of the indie world. Their 2008 self-titled debut, with its fresh injection of African pop, made almost every "best of ’08" list one can locate (including at Rebel Frequencies).
So why the hate? What is it that has caused the same basic contingent that launched the group to prominence to turn on them? The answer is messy, but it also speaks volumes of the changes that the world has endured over the past two years.
Clash fans are bound to take special notice of the new album’s title: Contra. While the punk legends’ 1980 triple-album Sandinista! was named in solidarity with the left-wing revolution in Nicaragua, Vampire Weekend have strangely chosen to reference the U.S. backed death squads seeking to overturn it.
At first, it might seem just a weird coincidence. After all, it’s a word that has more than one meaning. But the band has been quite forthcoming in the influence the Clash had on the album’s name and content. And in some ways, the group’s incorporation of non-western influences takes a cue from the Clash’s work in the early ’80s. In a recent interview, singer Ezra Koenig says that groups like the Clash "couldn’t be pigeonholed as western guitar music, but it was also incredibly natural in the way it came about."
In this respect, Vampire Weekend certainly deserve some points. Pop music has always remained fresh by appropriating non-white musical genres. It hasn’t always been pretty (plenty of black artists have been screwed in the process), but it does speak to the innate ability creativity has to cross borders with relative ease. At least Vampire Weekend are honest about what they do, and have made some pretty damned interesting music in the process.
So once again, why the hate? Music today is probably the most multi-racial it has ever been. The indie generation are acutely aware of how much non-white music has been wrongfully appropriated to suit a white audience. And VW are hardly the only group influenced by the likes of Fela Kuti, Bob Marley or Youssou N’Dour.
It’s here that Vampire Weekend’s own fashion aesthetic comes into play. Pleated slacks, nicely parted hair and (shudder) Ralph Lauren polo shirts. Hardly the attire of most indie kids. But the look, as well as Koenig’s lyrics, have spurred many a writer to label the group as a bunch of preppy kids. Couple this with their strongly "world beat" sound, and you have an image of Vampire Weekend that, as the New York Times says, "smacks of cultural tourism."
As Jessica Hopper of the Chicago Reader points out, "it comes down to class." It would be one thing if the boys in VW were singing about going round the corner shop and nicking a candy bar to ease the boredom. A context like this would make their sound all the more universal. As it is, though, the group’s apparent upper-crust origins simply sit with folks the wrong way.
True, the group did all graduate from Columbia University. Ivy Leaguers they most certainly are. Still, in a recent piece in the Guardian, Koenig insists that critics are "attacking a version of [Vampire Weekend] that doesn’t exist." And the blue-blooded lad image isn’t quite as clear cut. "My dad grew up in a working-class Jewish neighborhood," he says, "and I got a scholarship from my dad’s union to go to college. I went there to get an education, not as an extension of privilege." The vehemence with which many writers are willing to peg VW as a bunch of privileged lads might be a little overzealous.
And who really cares, right? In the end, it’s not the class you come from that matters–it’s the class you represent. Rebel music’s history is filled with artists originating in the upper-middle class who in the course of their own work ended up embracing radical social change. Chief among these examples would have to be none other than the Clash’s Joe Strummer, who attended an elite UK boarding school before becoming a squatter and radical. A few dogmatic class-baiters aside, nobody can glean anything but a deep commitment to the liberation of the oppressed and exploited from Strummer’s actions and music.
Unfortunately, the same can’t really be said about Vampire Weekend’s work. Though Contra drips with the same Latin influence that moved Strummer thirty years ago, Koenig’s lyrics truly make him sound like a privileged brat. The same theme returns time and again throughout the album: rich women. Specifically how sick Koenig has become of them.
Tracks like "White Sky" feature images of expensive Wolford tights and downtown Manhattan apartments. The woman here is obviously someone tiring of their life’s persistent idleness, and Koenig seems content to point it out. It’s an attempt at satire, but the whole affair is simply painted with too much sympathy to come across very clear. Hopper’s Reader article describes the whole process well when she says that "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."
Hopper may be one of the many who paint Koenig’s origins with too broad a brush, but she definitely hits the nail on the head here. Contra‘s lyrics seem to know their subjects too well to have fully shunned the world they parody. So while the attacks against the group may be blunt, they’re also perfectly understandable.
For his part, Koenig has weathered the criticism with anything but grace. He may have the upper hand when he rebukes the accusations of white-bred privilege, but when it comes to the content of his songs, the singer resorts to the snarkiest of comments. He claims that people resent the group for using "obscure words" (a thinly veiled way of saying "workers can’t read"), and pins the wave of criticism from writers on a deep-seated need to be "activists" (as if there were something wrong with that).
If these comments make Vampire Weekend sound snide and snobbish, if makes them sound as if they first heardContra‘s sounds on a Caribbean cruise, then that just about says it all. While there may be blue collar beginnings to Koenig’s story, he’s now positioned himself as the kind of person the Dead Kennedys lambast in "Holiday in Cambodia" and M.I.A. speaks of robbing in "Paper Planes." (Ironically, Contra samples M.I.A. as a roundabout way of referencing that she did the same with the Clash’s "Straight to Hell." In this context the band can almost be heard saying "neener-neener-neener.") Maybe Contra is the right name for this album after all.
When Vampire Weekend released their first album, the financial panic of ’08 was still almost eight months away–as was the devastation it would bring to ordinary people’s lives. In the year-and-a-half since, the myth of "classlessness" has been punctured big-time. Even in the midst of a supposed "recovery," unemployment and foreclosures continue, and the indie generation is probably the most frustrated it’s ever been. While many of these same people are trading in the "hope" of last year in for a healthy dose of anger, Vampire Weekend seem to be still saying "Look! The president is black! Isn’t that great?"
Is it harsh to say this? Sure, but only because VW have always held so much musical promise. Hell, they still do. But the question "which side are you on?" holds a lot more water than it has in a long time, and that’s why Vampire Weekend’s image and lyrics have provoked a bit more ire than they might have otherwise. The Clash understood this and created themselves accordingly. VW clearly don’t, which doesn’t let them off the hook. The version of Vampire Weekend being "attacked" does indeed exist. Koenig should know; he built it himself.
Alexander Billet, a music journalist and activist living in Chicago, runs the website Rebel Frequencies (http://rebelfrequencies.blogspot.com), and is a columnist for the Society of Cinema and Arts. His articles have also appeared in Z Magazine, SocialistWorker.org, New Politics, CounterPunch and PopMatters.com.
Contact him or subscribe to his mailing list at [email protected]
This article first appeared at the Society of Cinema and Arts website.