Does Vampire Weekend suck?

Pub date September 17, 2008
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features

In terms of the Internet music hype cycle, seven months is an eternity. So while last winter the controversy surrounding Vampire Weekend — four mild Columbia alums who make a crowd-pleasing brand of Afro-pop punk — threatened to hold the Web hostage, more recently the discussions of privilege and charges of cultural appropriation that marked the backlash have all but disappeared. The quartet of Ezra Koenig, Chris Baio, Rostam Batmanglij, and Christopher Tomson had managed, albeit briefly and in coded terms, to get indie rockers talking about two subjects they, and Americans in general, tend to talk around: race and class. In anticipation of the group’s performance at Treasure Island, we wanted to recap some critics’ takes on the band’s approach, to get people thinking about the cultural roots of the recent Docksider resurgence.


AFRO-POP CO-OPTERS? The dean of American rock critics — Xgau to you — is unusually crotchety here, drawing on his extensive knowledge of African music to take down every style writers link the band to.

IVY LEAGUERS? Xgau acknowledges it, sure, but he’s got a lot of misconceptions about Afro-pop to correct. He does, however, anticipate the "psychological mechanism" that underpins the whole backlash. Despite everything, Afro-pop sounds happy, and the young are predisposed against upbeat music for its perceived shallowness, whether it comes from the global south or is an effect of Ivy League privilege.

GRACELAND COMPARISON? He drops the G-bomb only to note its ubiquity, then goes on to point out that the South African mbaqanga the Paul Simon album draws on is "much heavier than anything in Vampire Weekend unless you count their punky stuff, which isn’t African at all."

THE JAMS? The piece is really more of a rockcrit corrective than a consideration of VW’s music itself — here and in his later Consumer Guide review of the combo’s debut, he lets Pitchfork‘s Scott Plagenhof fill us in: "off-kilter, upbeat guitar pop," with "not just the touches of African pop but the willingness to use space and let the songs breathe a bit" and "detail-heavy, expressive" lyrics.


AFRO-POP CO-OPTERS? J-Shep recognizes that the conventional critic’s wisdom on the band "focuses on blind Afro-pop jacking and sartorial missteps," but sees the band’s real fault as a kind of essential anal attention to detail, making their songs feel "claustrophobically ordered."

GRACELAND COMPARISON? Namedrops in passing "Graceland rhythms" when describing VW’s blog-breakthrough single, "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa" — for Shepherd this affiliation is only slightly more consequential than their strong preference for Oxford shirts.

THE JAMS? The band so repeatedly work over their influences and presentation that eventually there’s "nothing left but space and simplicity and precious little conflict."


AFRO-POP CO-OPTERS? Abebe sets us up with a series of African reference points: "Mansard Roof" ‘s keyboard tone recalls "old West-African pop," Koenig’s guitar has a "clean, natural tone you’d get on a record from Senegal or South Africa." He goes on to implicitly dismiss the idea of appropriation — the outfit plays those suggestive sounds "like indie kids on a college lawn, because they’re not hung up on Africa in the least."

IVY LEAGUERS? "Ivy League" makes a single appearance in the text, evoked as an easy target for haters, but considerations of VW’s education leave a stamp on Abebe’s thinking here: Abebe claims Koenig’s background allows him the insight to "summon up the atmosphere of kids whose parents use "summer" as a verb.

GRACELAND COMPARISON? According to Abebe, Simon "never sounded this exuberant."

THE JAMS? Despite listeners bringing their baggage to the band, it returns "nothing but warm, airy, low-gimmick pop, peppy, clever, and yes, unpretentious."


AFRO-POP CO-OPTERS? This is Harvey’s focus, and he kills it with a supersophisticated reading that manages to reference the classic ethnographic text "The Masai on the Lawn." Ultimately, Harvey’s less worried about VW’s so-called "indie-style colonialism" — from his perspective, the band knows exactly what they’re doing by playing with such charged ideas — than he is about how intentional the provocation is.

IVY LEAGUERS? The blog post — dated a month after the release of the band’s debut single, "Mansard Roof" — makes one mention of this, a good indication of the extent to which the unit’s bio had saturated the blogosphere. Harvey, a graduate student, has the most nuanced understanding of how VW’s privilege inflects their coy performance of "clueless bougie cosmopolitanism."

GRACELAND COMPARISON? Harvey suggests that VW is canny enough not to make "sappy pap that’s impossible to fuck to in your parents’ beach house."

THE JAMS? Harvey’s approach implicitly rejects the blogospheric pressure to confuse what the music means socially with its sonic qualities.

Vampire Weekend plays 5:55 p.m., Sun/21, on the Bridge Stage at the Treasure Island Festival.