Class revolting

Pub date September 17, 2008
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features

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Americans are allowed to talk about class on the condition that we say we are all middle class — never mind if your ‘rents pay for an out-of-state, private college without financial aid, or if you’re a single mom struggling to pay Bay Area rents on service industry wages. Regardless of our assets, we’re all the same if we pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, right? So despite capitalism’s emphasis on abstract equivalence, class is at least one area where the bourgies insist on qualities over quantities: "You can have my Horatio Alger narrative when you pry it from my cold, dead hands!"

Thus, comparing Harvard-educated pop duo Chester French to Vampire Weekend because their members seem to have leapt from the same L.L. Bean catalog misses what is genuinely questionable about their act. While neither band ever talks about what their parents do for a living, they both make playing with old-money signifiers a big part of their repertoire. But while Vampire Weekend’s self-described "Upper West Side Soweto" juxtaposes citations of third world pop with symbols of upper-class belonging, that superficial move is at least designed to give the listener pause. The unsubtle doofuses of Chester French mangle their subject matter, driving every obvious detail into the ground. The Zombies-biting power pop of "She Loves Everybody," for example, opens with a shuddering, prim string trio before ditching the classical instruments for well-tempered synths, clean-cut tremolo guitars, and a by-the-books jaded-romance narrative so obvious it’s vaguely insulting to the listener’s intelligence.

Even worse, these bros’ steez stumbles over itself to incorporate high-end, contemporary pop culture, from which VW’s music tends to hold itself aloof. Not that being slightly out of date is inherently superior to being current, but the latter group is at least smart enough to drop its Lil Jon reference four years after "Yeah!" Chester French’s best song — which is still terrible — is the pinched, flimsy "The Jimmy Choo’s" [sic], whose fratboy-with-a-Bret-Easton-Ellis-fetish lyrics clumsily and successfully attempt to pander to the Sex and the City (or is it Gossip Girl?) demographic. Don’t be fooled, though: it’s not class evocation — though they’re pretty bad at making that angle interesting — that makes them especially tiresome. It’s that the Chester French marketing bundle is so clearly designed to float bankrupt songwriting on a pseudo-provocative presentation.

Their ruthlessly calculated niche-marketing conjures up secret pact scenarios with the Wesleyan-affiliated, improbably popular MGMT — "OK, so you guys go for the humanities majors, and we’ll get the sociology/business dudes." The bad news is that it worked: these guys came out of a bidding war with a Star Trak deal and MGMT scored a Columbia contract. Maybe we should make a pact of our own: let’s not talk about class using the terms they’re feeding to us. Who cares about the Ralph Lauren sweater? We want to know what your parents do for a living.

Chester French performs at 1:25 p.m., Sat/20, on the Tunnel Stage at Treasure Island Music Festival. Vampire Weekend plays 5:55 p.m., Sun/21, on the Bridge Stage at the Treasure Island Festival.