As the latest fracas over Pitchfork’s Black Kids review has shown, the turnover cycle for new bands has gotten out of hand. Starting with Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and the Arctic Monkeys in 2005, it became all too clear how new bands are hyped in the Web 2.0 world:
• Gain cult popularity either for a live show or on the web,
• Put out an EP or a few songs that get hyped up on the web,
• Release first album to massive popularity on the mainstream, Billboard-topping scale,
• Suffer the backlash from fans who think the band is not as good as made out to be,
• Let that backlash simmer for a few months,
• Make some new news, either with a new single, a new album announcement or a tour, and start to get reconsidered,
• Have fans start responding to original backlash with backlash of their own,
• Reach a new equilibrium.
Vampire Weekend, who was the first band to make the cover of Spin before even releasing an album, have followed this trend to a T. What’s different is how strong the two poles of reactions have been. Some publications as prominent as NME have been prone to calling them the saviors of American rock (declarations like this make the backlash understandable). Others have responded with unmitigated animosity, declaring the band the epitome of all things wrong with indie rock today and rock ‘n’ roll in general. Those people complain that Vampire Weekend’s preppy clothing and Ivy League education are as far removed from the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll as imaginable. The ferocity of the reaction undermines just how relatively benign Vampire Weekend’s Afropop music actually sounds.
But when a band that sounds so modest inspires such polarizing reactions, it’s a sign that they’re doing something right. In fact, what Vampire Weekend is doing is something that borders on revolutionary: Not only is the band making no bones about its preppy origins, but it’s integrating that preppiness into its self-labeled “Upper West Side Soweto” sound.
You may remember that around this time last year, Sasha Frere-Jones at the New Yorker caused considerable controversy for suggesting that indie rock was dominated by predominantly white influences, unique among the annals of rock ‘n’ roll. While playing the race card may have not been the best way to go about things, Carl Wilson at Slate made a much keener point: that today’s indie rock is dominated by upper-middle-class, liberal arts college-educated youths.
This stands in contrast to the more egalitarian, socioeconomically diverse indie-rock scene of the ’80s. Once Nirvana and Pearl Jam gained hold of blue-collar music fans in the early ’90s, indie rock became a matter of access and privilege. To account for the rise of privilege in indie rock, many bands saved cred by forgoing musical chops, high production values or traditional song structures. You can see this tendency in low-fi and twee successes like Guided by Voices, Belle & Sebastian and Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
Vampire Weekend, by contrast, is preppy from the very foundation of the band’s appeal, be it their clothing, sound, music videos, heavily publicized Columbia degrees, or fanbase. By not trying to hide their preppiness, Vampire Weekend is forcing musicians and fans to confront what Frere-Jones made critics and journalists confront last year. How different is Vampire Weekend from, say, Colin Meloy or Sufjan Stevens? How different are the social demographics of Ezra Koenig and Will Oldham? Yet, why do those musicians get a free pass for hiding what Vampire Weekend’s members wear on their sleeves?
While I’m sure Vampire Weekend’s preppy image is intentional, I’m not as sold that the band is as purpose-driven with the incendiary quality of that image. It helps that they’ve written some of the smartest, most complete pop tracks we’ve heard all year. Even before the band’s social importance was fully considered, you heard a lot of indie fans saying, “I have every reason to hate this band, but I can’t bring myself to do it.” If nothing else, Vampire Weekend is a testament to the universality of good pop music, much in the way Paul Simon’s Graceland — the band’s clearest influence — stood out in the face of Hüsker Dü and the Big Black 22 years ago.
What the band’s impact is implying, however, is something that goes to the root of the very problem of contemporary indie rock and indie culture. No wonder the band is making so many people uncomfortable. If punk rock is defined by how it pushes boundaries, gets people out of their comfort zone, and inspires new ways of thinking, then there’s few bands that have done so of late to the same extent as Vampire Weekend. That’s what links Upper West Side Soweto to East Village toughness.