Vampire Weekend Turns 10
“The kids don’t stand a chance,” Ezra Koenig sang, closing out Vampire Weekend’s self-titled debut — released 10 years ago today — with a pronouncement of hopelessness for all those Columbia undergrads bound for Wall Street. Never mind that Vampire Weekend were still kids, too; just look at those baby faces in their old videos! Koenig’s own youth was not about to stop him from making sweeping generational statements. Precociousness was his brand. He was Max Fischer from Rushmore, but with a prodigious grasp of social graces — the smartest kid in the room but also the coolest, well aware of those powers and wearing them comfortably along with his Ivy League attire.
The polarizing power of Rushmore filmmaker Wes Anderson is a helpful parallel for understanding why Vampire Weekend were such a contagious, contentious phenomenon at first. Anderson’s films have come to signify a certain sort of twee, effete, not-quite-highbrow arthouse aesthetic that some people swear by and others swear upon encountering; it’s all very stuffwhitepeoplelike.com. For similar reasons, if you wanted to pick a fight with an indie-rock fan in 2008, all you had to do was share a strong opinion about this band — like, say, when this very website named them a Band To Watch on the strength of “indie-pop gems of a different cut, pulling on the world music bend of Paul Simon’s Graceland and late Talking Heads, wrapped in literary barbs and ample alliteration.”
I’d tell you to imagine the thinkpieces Vampire Weekend would generate if they arrived freshly on the scene today, but you don’t have to imagine them because they were written 10 years ago. In Koenig and company, some people heard the end of a long gentrification process that turned indie rock from a scraggly, combustible, underground, ostensibly low-budget enterprise into a clean-cut lifestyle product for the bourgeoisie. Admittedly, although they had a song called “A-Punk,” you wouldn’t describe the band members or most of their fans that way. Speaking of which, other critics heard privileged rich kids ripping off Paul Simon ripping off people of color, all the while skipping past the dues-paying phase of their career toward even more money and prestige. And since Vampire Weekend undoubtedly did benefit from of a suddenly accelerated hype cycle — they were, for instance, the first band to be photographed for the cover of SPIN before their debut album dropped — still other folks figured these guys would flame out as quickly as Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. Class warfare, cultural appropriation, blog buzz fatigue: (the discourse around) this band had it all!
Part of the essence and appeal of Vampire Weekend’s music is that much of that tension was baked in. Koenig’s songwriting typically offered more insightful cultural criticism than most of the writers assessing it (myself included). Sure, there are a lot of lyrics about upper-class living and the personal drama of wealthy college kids on the brink of adulthood. Dude wrote what he knew, and he wrote it well. Koenig has always been a savvy observer of human behavior, his songs not just smart and detailed but also emotionally charged. They’re also strewn with lyrical allusions that bridge cultures at least as artfully as the band’s music does. By stringing together references to grammar and syntax, English theater, Tibetan Buddhism, Lil Jon, and Bush-era American diplomacy in the same song, he developed an unabashedly erudite Uptown version of the self-styled eclecticism Downtown cool kids the Beastie Boys had cooked up two decades before.
The Beasties, too, have been called cultural interlopers from time to time, but they likely never faced scrutiny as intense as Vampire Weekend weathered during that initial album rollout. Koenig and friends weren’t the first well-off white folks getting famous by toying with sounds from Africa, South America, and the Caribbean, but they arrived at a time when the internet was gaining power to amplify people’s concerns about such things. There was merit to many of those concerns, too: They literally titled a song “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa,” turning traditional Congolese music into a ditty about sexual tension in a fabulously wealthy New England enclave, then selling it to an audience largely oblivious to those cultural roots, one obscenely expensive music festival at a time.
That said, the sounds on Vampire Weekend could rarely be dismissed as simple cut-and-paste cultural pillaging. This music artfully merged a wealth of influences, including ample melodies and countermelodies derived from Western pop and classical music. A lot of the credit for the graceful convergence probably falls to Rostam Batmanglij, the sonic consigliere who’d later emerge as one of the great pop and indie-rock producers of his generation and a rewarding singer-songwriter in his own right. The group also liked to point out in their interviews that their backgrounds weren’t as stodgy and pasty-white as the Ivy League image they projected; Koenig, for instance, was born into Jewish Hungarian lineage, while Batmanglij’s family is Iranian. So, much like Vampire Weekend’s music, the discussion is more complicated than it initially seems.
At the time, I didn’t appreciate what a powerful force was entering into the world of popular music. I heard a mostly pleasant, occasionally obnoxious young band with a front-loaded album that I liked more than loved. Ten years later, that’s still more or less what I hear, particularly compared to what followed. Those initial singles remain some of the most winsome and memorable tunes this band has ever released, yet in a big-picture sense Vampire Weekend would only get better from here. They rendered many of the same ideas more vividly on 2010 follow-up Contra. They made a climactic leap on 2013’s Modern Vampires Of The City, evolving beyond the project’s initial concerns and constraints to deliver one of this decade’s true masterpieces. Individually, the members spiraled off in a dozen directions, expanding their footprint well beyond the music blogs that helped foist them into the spotlight.
When Vampire Weekend finally return with LP4 this year, minus Batmanglij as a full-time member for the first time, they’ll do so with a weight of expectation that stems from a proven track record of resonance. More than a few bands who were popping a decade ago have long since been forgotten, but these guys have only grown in popularity and esteem. They matter to an extent I never would have predicted when I heard those opening staccato notes from “Mansard Roof.” (Shout out to rhythm section Chris Baio and Chris Tomson, by the way, for lending that song a chaotic intensity that belied this band’s soft reputation.) Koenig could have just as easily written his post-Columbia lament “The Kids Don’t Stand A Chance” about his peers navigating the indie-rock hype storm, but both he and his band avoided such a dismal fate. They’ve endured and thrived by refining qualities that were inherent from the beginning, qualities far deeper and more affecting than mere cleverness.