Thursday, January 7, 2010

Vampire Weekend: Old News...Old Essay

I wrote this essay right after Vampire Weekend came out with their first album. Don't be offended...

For most Americans, an iPod is a simple means of escape from the world, a distraction to keep runners from stopping and realizing that for some odd reason, they are actually running. For most Americans, the car radio is no more than the obvious way to kill the monotonous silence of a long drive. For most Americans, music is simply something to be mindlessly consumed. The populace willingly laps up whatever garbage the record companies spill onto MTV’s TRL or the Clear Channel airwaves. It is only for a small minority that music is something more than prescribed pleasure. These facts seem to upset a fair amount of people. And these people often turn their anger towards the record industry and media monopolies like Clear Channel and Ticketmaster, seemingly forgetting how culpable the American public is for the dire state of pop culture. Although fifteen dollar convenience charges for concert tickets get me a little steamed, and although I’d certainly prefer the days when the most popular acts were still required to pass some sort of litmus test of artistic integrity, I prefer to plug in my ear phones and rock out perfectly oblivious to the horrid state of popular music than to paint signs and form picket lines.

“Why such apathy, Brooks?” one might ask. Well, if the status quo negatively affected me, I would be more inclined to fight the power, so to speak. But the truth is, plenty of quality artists, from varied musical genres, veterans as well as newbies, continue to produce amazing albums each year. While the majority of these albums, mostly produced by independent record labels, don’t register on the radar screen of the average American, or even the average college student, they receive adequate attention from the New York Times, NPR, websites like Pitchfork Media and NME, hundreds of music blogs, and dozens of other publications. Lately, a young band called Vampire Weekend, comprised of four Columbia grads, have made some serious buzz in the music world—featured on the cover of Spin before even releasing their first album, playing David Lettermen and Saturday Night Live only weeks after their virgin album debut, and most recently performing as the must see act at the South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas.

These New York preppies describe their sound as “Upper West Side Soweto,” a mix of Afropop rhythms and melodies, Western classical synth-strings and keyboard, indie rock, and collegiate inspired lyrics about “oxford commas” and “Cape Cod.” The result is not something mind blowing, but something fresh, clean, and something you can come back to over and over again. Vampire Weekend make clever pop songs, free of clutter and complication, sound exceedingly easy. And although their self-titled debut has received considerable critical acclaim from a myriad of publications, their loud entrance onto the music scene has garnered a serious backlash of disdain. Their image—nicely ironed oxford shirts, Lacoste polos, boat shoes, and cardigans combined with an Ivy League education and well-advertised, privileged New England backgrounds—has certainly inspired some of that animosity. As well, their clean, peppy sound has not sat well with many within the music critic community that hoped to see indie rock take a grungier, riskier, less collegiate approach. As for myself, I enjoyed Vampire Weekend’s first album, and find myself listening to it over and over. But I understand the dislike many have. Lyrics about English lit courses, keffiyehs, ivy-league life, and the tackiness of money can come across as insincere and pretentious. And I have serious doubts about the simplicity of their sound being able to carry the weight of another album without being the same old.

But I write not to herald nor condemn Vampire Weekend. Instead I wish to point out a truer reason for many people’s annoyance, including mine, with Vampire Weekend and all their hype. Vampire Weekend, much as the Strokes did in their debut, threatens to break down the wall between the contained indie rock world and more general outside popularity. We, the annoyed, have grown comfortable in our musical taste superiority. I stack my artistic fancies into a throne to sit upon, high and mighty over the masses. It is scary to imagine this throne knocked from underneath me, sending me plummeting to the ground, forced to mingle with the musical tastes of my peers—the ones who opted for Mae, Gym Class Heroes, and the Ying Yang Twins to perform at our school. But such fear is silly and immature. We music snobs should welcome success stories as encouragement for more quality bands.

The critical and popular success of “There Will Be Blood” and “No Country For Old Men” didn’t bother me. Unlike music, which is relatively inexpensive and easy to produce (and disseminate through the internet), films must have potential for commercial success before they’re even considered for production. But practicality shouldn’t govern my snobbery. I can handle enjoying the same band or movie as the average Joe, Besides, my philistine friends who enjoyed “No Country,” also thought “300” was a “sick film,” and the new Vampire Weekend fans will still revel in the mediocrity of Dave Matthews and OAR. No need to worry. You still have poor tastes, and I like weird stuff.