Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Vampiric Ambivalence: The Grating Dichotomy of Vampire Weekend (CD Review) by Alison Ross

Vampiric Ambivalence: The Grating Dichotomy of Vampire Weekend
by Alison Ross

I hate myself for liking Vampire Weekend. I don't think I have ever been so madeningly ambivalent about a band.

I have avoided them for years. They did not seem like my cup of tea. And I'm still not sure they are. Nonetheless, recently I have found myself falling in love with a few of their songs. I finally conceded to giving their two albums a whirl, because as ever, I am voracious consumer of music, and my tastes run wildly ecclectic. I do not shun music based on genre or image; I like most categories, although of course I gravitate toward the "indie" genre, whatever that means. Instead, I shun music based on quality. If the songs sucks, I shun it. Pretty simple.

I am clearly not alone in my nagging suspicions about VW. They are, according to some sources, one of the more polarizing bands on the indie scene today.

So yeah. Vampire Weekend has cultivated this Ivy League collegiate image that is thoroughly off-putting to people like myself with a decidedly bohemian bias. And yet, VW are also exactly as their image suggests: affluent trust-fund babies who attended an elitist university (Columbia in NYC) and who are now capitalizing on their privilege.

And this in itself would not be so bad if their lyrics didn't also extol this privileged existence. VW sing about bedding rich girls who tote Louis Vitton bags and shop at Benneton. And other nauseating topics germane to the Ivy League "ethos."

Other bands may have come from similar circumstances, but you don't hear them singing about it.

Of course, at the other end of the spectrum, gangsta rapper 50 Cent capitalizes on his ghetto image. All bands to some degree, even my beloved Cure, capitalize on an image, a brand. It's how music is marketed, for better or worse.

But the 50 Cent/Vampire Weekend analogy is especially pertinent because 50 Cent comes from poverty (allegedly - has this ever been proved or disproved?) and VW comes from wealth, and yet both are manipulating the image-machine to their shameless advantage. And actually, there may be more honesty in the VW image than in 50 Cent's IF it is indeed true that 50 Cent might not really come from the rough-and-tumble circumstances he claims to.

And anyway, 50 Cent's music does nothing to promote a counter-reality but instead engenders more problems within the lower-income community. He does not politicize poverty issues in an effort to eradicate them, but rather glorifies the gangsta life which has its basis in poverty, and this only further entrenches the problem.

Vampire Weekend, conversely - as well as similary - celebrates privilege in their lyrics, doing nothing to combat the sinister rich-poor disparity so wickedly rampant in our culture.

Even worse, VW plagiarizes African rhythms, without paying homage to the originators of these sounds. At least Peter Gabriel co-opted such rhythms by employing actual African musicians AND through lyrically honoring those who gave birth to such music.

VW does not seem concerened about the fact that the music they are imitating and integrating into their sonic palette actually has its genesis in deep poverty among those inhabiting the African continent.

Now, just to play devil's advocate against myself for a minute: So what if they don't seem concerned about it? Isn't ALL music a pastiche of sounds from different cultures and classes? Should it really matter if a rich band's music consciously apes sounds from poorer musicians without not acknowledging this fact?

To answer my own question: yes, and no.

You see, there's that annoying ambivalence again.

It matters because if music is to be a globally shared experience, then to borrow sounds from another culture without in some way attributing the music to that culture is finally just tantamount to stealing.

On the other hand, it doesn't matter because it happens all the time in music, implicity, anyway.

It just that this time it actually stands out; it's egregiously explicit. VW vaunts the white man's privilege using the vehicle of a poor black person's music. The original music has its roots in impoverished suffering. The co-opted music has its roots in affluent complacency.

Of course, one could argue that African music has also borrowed from other cultures' music, and doesn't necessarily attribute their sources.

In the end, of course, what matters is whether the music is in some way affecting. And, stunningly, VW weekend has some very affecting tunes. Indeed, many of their songs are irritatingly infectious. And they aren't infectious in that confectionary way, either - their tunes have actual depth and dynamic. They have a shimmering vibrancy even as their inane (if intellectually realized) lyrics threaten to obfuscate that music at times. But the songs can stand solidly on their own, as well.

And, to be perfectly fair, the songs do more than just "plagiarize African rhythms," as I so pendantically insist. The songs actually weave in sounds from all over the global and musical map. Huge hints of ska, calypso, mariachi, punk, post-punk, classic rock and even classical music permeate both Contra, their sophomore release, and their debut eponymous effort.

The best songs for me are the ones where post-punk and classic rock are most prevalent. I really like "Cousins," on Contra, which incorporates trippy indie-fied Van Halen guitars, and A-punk on the first album, which screams post-punk and even features dollops of hardcore.

But I do also enjoy the tunes that are more innately "world music," for lack of a better description. And that would describe the bulk of both album's songs.

I am more drawn to VW's first album, however; there is something a bit more organic and "honest" about it, and it features a crafty cohesiveness that seems to be lacking on Contra. The first album embodies a refreshingly naive straightforwardness, and a giddily eclectic offering of styles. And "M79" exemplifies the most invigorating ideal of rock/classical fusion.

Of course, just to flip back to my vampiric aversion for a moment, there is nothing particularly edgy in the sonics of VW. Like their lyrics, which are mostly breezy paens to privilege, the music is straightforward and sanitized. It does not induce the jerky kinesthetics in its listeners like, say, the sonics of post-punk progenitors Joy Division or the early spiky tunes of The Cure (refer to Killing an Arab). VW's songs inspire dancing motions, to be sure, but not the types of agitated movements associated with many modern indie and 80s post-punk bands.

I mean, wasn't the original purpose of rock music to promote physical and mental rebellion? Not to smugly revel in the riches, per se, but to aggressively antagonize against the stuffy establishment?

And, too, there is the issue of Ezra Koenig's voice. It's a prepubescent warble that can be grating at times.

But he has a range that when employed, redeems his faux falsetto.

And I guess It's this that disconcerts me so much. I wish I could just dismiss VW based on their preppy appearance, icky Ivy League lyrics, brazen borrowing of a poorer person's rhythms, and slick sonics.

But I can't. I'm too eagerly open-minded about music to just cavalierly toss aside good songs.

Someone save me from myself, please.

1 comment:

christl d. said...

its funny - i feel almost the exact same way about the killers.

we both hate how poppy and radio friendly our love hate bands are.

and yet it's soo.... OPPOSITE. the K's are working class (only one member went to college, the rest couldnt afford or dropped out) who embrace the glitz and glam and dust of their origins at the same time. and VW - well they embrace their wealth.

and they both have this 80s thing going on. both very dancey. and while their influences are really 80s... they dont have that dark edge their inspirations had

i was reading blogs - and they do talk about how VW dont acknowledge their afro influences. major tsk tsk to them for that.

and well, rock n' roll has to completely acknowledge blues and slave music - thats where it all started. so rarely they do take a nod to that