Essay

Staring Down Mortality With Vampire Weekend And Kanye West

Chris DeVille | December 31, 2013 - 9:50 am

During a trip to the movie theater last May, I noticed that with their respective post-apocalyptic sci-fi epics Oblivion and After Earth, Hollywood buddies Tom Cruise and Will Smith seemed to be releasing the same film at the same time. Movie studios are vacuous trend whores, same as any other industry that feeds on buzz, so this happens frequently in Hollywood — think of 1997’s exploding mountain movies Volcano and Dante’s Peak or 2006’s 9/11 dramas World Trade Center and United 93 or 2013’s dual White House destruction movies White House Down and Olympus Has Fallen. (The pinnacle of this phenomenon was 1998, which boasted two sets of twins, the asteroid flicks Armaggedon and Deep Impact and the insect cartoons Antz and A Bug’s Life.) But as the rest of the trailers rolled, I began to realize that it wasn’t just the world’s most famous Scientologist and the erstwhile Fresh Prince pushing post-apocalyptic vehicles. Every single film seemed to be about our imminent demise. They kept piling up all year, ranging from the stone age to the space age, portraying humanity’s peril at the hands of zombies, sea monsters, the Antichrist, and global warming. The trend extended around the world, with filmmakers from Spain and South Korea jumping on the post-apocalyptic pile. Some of the titles even sounded the same, be they farcical comedies (This Is The End and The World’s End) or adapted dystopian youth novels (Enders Game and The Hunger Games).

The reasons for this overwhelming outpouring of apocalypse seem obvious enough. Climate change, nuclear threats, a looming overpopulation crisis, deepening ideological fissures, chilling revelations about our online privacy (or lack thereof), a brewing discontent about the gap between the haves and the have-nots — it all adds up to a lingering sense of dread about the future of humanity. In tumultuous times, of course people are envisioning the end. But they’re also envisioning the other side of the end. These movies are exercises in fear and proclamations of hope. When we picture a future beyond some cataclysmic event, we are picturing ourselves in that future. We are imagining our own survival, not just the perseverance of our species. In the end, we project, everything will be OK.

Here’s the thing, though: Apocalypse or not, someday you will die. So will everyone you know and love. It’s going to happen. For that reason, death has always loomed large in any creative field. If you believe Damien Hirst, all art is about death. Still, as with film, the music I encountered this year seemed inordinately preoccupied with our eventual demise. With visceral frustration, Superchunk grappled with the permanent absence of beloved friends. Majical Cloudz cowered as the Grim Reaper closed in. Arcade Fire pondered the afterlife, and not just on “Afterlife.” Trent Reznor named his album after the process of weighing whether to kill yourself; Chance The Rapper rasped evocatively about weighing whether to go outside and risk someone else killing you. Beyoncé suggested we’d better love each other while we still have time, while M.I.A. countered that you always live again. Maybe all that amounts to a trend, or maybe it indicates a typical year for our culture’s creative output. It’s possible the reason I felt inundated by death on the musical front is because the two albums I returned to the most, the two that captivated me endlessly in 2013, were variations on coping with our inescapable human finiteness. Those albums were Vampire Weekend’s Modern Vampires Of The City and Kanye West’s Yeezus.

Vampire Weekend’s record was, for all intents and purposes, a young man’s reckoning with his youth slipping away. Sonically, it sparkles, but you can hear the light dimming in Ezra Koenig’s eyes. He realizes that, now that the gloves are off and the wisdom teeth are out, the precociousness he’s been trading on for years is fleeting and that our proverbs about the wisdom of years feel like empty platitudes when there’s a headstone right in front of you. He longs for some warmth in this cold, cold world. He loves the past because he hates not knowing how everything’s going to play out. He realizes this could all be over at any moment, freezes in fear, and tries to make sense of the great unknown. Jewish by heritage, he considers putting his trust in the god of his ancestors. But as much as he longs for the embrace of everlasting arms, Koenig can’t be made to serve a master when he’s never gonna understand. He’s calling for the misery to always be explained, and he can’t bring himself to find peace in a deity who won’t even say His name. Still, Koenig is well aware that he can’t do it alone, so he looks (or his characters look, at least) for salvation where so many have before: romance. He’ll die an unbeliever, but with someone he loves by his side. With those stakes, the lovers’ spat in “Hannah Hunt” is exceptionally weighty; the narrator’s security and meaning are in the balance. “If I can’t trust you then damn it, Hannah/ There’s no future, there’s no answer.” Yet there’s an abiding confidence underneath it all, an assumption that OK, maybe there is no answer, but everything will turn out alright if you just keep going. As Mike Powell put it at Spin, “the album’s most triumphant songs are its least conclusive… Yes, they’re skeptics. But they’re also optimists. And the feeling that comes through clearest on Vampires is one of perseverance.”

On most days I’d tell you Modern Vampires Of The City is the most beautiful, timely, resonant record I heard this year, but I completely disagree with its conclusions. Koenig’s response to his own mortality is a response of privilege. It is the sound of facing all of life’s deepest questions, shrugging, and carrying on under the assumption that everything will work out because it always has. He can’t help but feel that he made some mistake, but he lets it go because in his world, you bounce back from mistakes. I’m not saying Koenig has never experienced real suffering, but as a fellow college-educated, straight, upper middle class white American male, I know I’ve personally been shielded from most of the world’s hardships. The scope of Vampire Weekend’s record is intensely personal. It is the sound of pondering big ideas while shuffling comfortably through life, of snapping a selfie with an exceptionally thoughtful expression. Death hangs heavy in Koenig’s mind, but war, poverty, and disease are someone else’s problem.

Yeezus is a highly individualistic record too, but it operates with a more universal scope. Racism, classicism, violence, hatred, and injustice run rampant — we know this because Kanye West has experienced these things, and he’s going to make damn sure you notice him raging against them. While Vampire Weekend gave us the sound of passively opting out, Yeezus took the wheel. Kanye looks at his people and sees them enslaved metaphorically by drugs and materialism and literally by a corrupt prison system. He sees no solution on the horizon, so like Sun Ra and Afrika Bambaataa before him (but with a hearty dash of Black Panther militance), Kanye styles himself as a supernatural being. God-sized problems demand god-sized solutions. His sizable body of color commentary this year has expanded on this concept: He wants to be more than just a rapper; he wants to overhaul everything; he is capable of transcending on every level, including water bottle design! Kanye’s theology is very confusing — after hours of self-exaltation, his shows on the Yeezus tour ended with he and his creepy sex druids bowing to White Jesus as he ascended from the Aggro Crag — but at the bottom of everything, his message seemed to be that if we all get out of the way and let each other live out their inherent divinity, we shall overcome. You can’t live forever, but your contribution can. Together, we can build heaven on earth with a bright, shiny “Bound 2″ fairytale ending for every man, woman, and child. Follow him up ’cause this shit ’bout to go down.

Good luck with that. The trouble with Kanye’s philosophy is that people’s big ideas have a tendency to clash. One man’s perceived rights tend to trample on another’s. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. We all saw how Kanye-as-god would use his divine authority: a ceaseless spree of consequence-free self-aggrandizement, violent sex and pastry on demand. Under those circumstances, somebody is bound 2 get hurt, and there’s still the lingering specter of death to contend with. We’re all circling the toilet bowl, no matter how pristinely designed that toilet bowl may be.

There’s no getting around it; we have to face up to it. We have to stake our hopes on something or give up hope altogether. The god-fearing man finds hope in something bigger than humanity. The nihilist says there is no hope to be found and life is a cruel joke. The humanist — and both Ezra Koenig and Kanye West are humanists of a sort — says mankind will figure it out, that if we put our heads together we can conquer any obstacle, maybe even death itself. Personally, I can’t abide that; humanity’s track record doesn’t suggest we’ll all be getting along so well any time soon. Still, even though I don’t see eye to eye with Koenig and Kanye’s approaches to the ticking clock, I was continually inspired by them throughout 2013. They demanded my attention in part because they were so musically sterling. But there was also this: In an age when Y.O.L.O. means living without thinking, I found great solace in the fact that they considered such matters at all.