As with all mondo-hyped, Web-excavated bands, most of the hate-darts flung in Vampire Weekend’s direction are largely superficial—even though some of them are valid. A hater’s conventional wisdom on the innocuous Ivy League quartet focuses on blind Afropop jacking and sartorial missteps, and while VW are indeed a deplorable group, these are all the wrong reasons to dislike this band of merry gentlemen. Re their outfits: Dockers and deck shoes are indeed questionable, but no more so than, say, Cameo’s 20-year-old codpiece. Re their Paul Simon fetish: “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa”—the one that cops Graceland rhythms but refashions a whimsical African pop form into an ode to Massachusetts’s answer to the Hamptons—well . . . that’s also questionable. But to be fair, jacking King Sunny Ade’s steez is not the whole of their repertoire, and I get the feeling it’s more about VW’s flexing their own formidable technical ability (i.e., Joanna Newsom’s liberal borrowing from traditional West African kora music) than the band’s conscious desire to Westernize or “whitewash” an indigenous music.
These boys can really play their instruments, but technical ability is not a good enough reason to like a band. VW’s music, with its immaculate construction, its high-collared violin solos, its boy’s-choir croonery, is claustrophobically ordered—the sound of a band lulling itself into complacency. Whether they are truly bluebloods is beside the point: They embrace and exalt the accoutrements of a privileged Mo’ Money/No Problems lifestyle. They transmogrify Jonathan Richman’s New Englander fascination into a mutated bourgeois fantasy, fetishizing the parts of Massachusetts that would keep the actual “Massholes” out.
As a pop-culture entry point into the lives of rich and snooty white people, I prefer CWTV’s addictive, ridiculous soap opera Gossip Girl, a trashy show whose very existence underscores issues of race and class (Blair Waldorf’s Gwen-like “Harajuku Girls”; the absurd fact that Brooklyn loft dwellers are seen as impoverished). Vampire Weekend does the same, but sans the performative self-awareness. They are rightly credited for blending Talking Heads with twee and African-influenced polyrhythms, but they run their influences through a steam-cleaner—in sound, in texture, in language, in execution—until there’s nothing left but space and simplicity and precious little conflict. Moreover, their calculatedly highbrow guitar techniques—pointedly undistorted; I bet these guys read sheet music—and carefully tousled nice-guy vocals drip so liberally with propriety that their style has, for me, become a resounding philosophical statement, a line in the sand. And because their whole steez is so ’80s, I am forced to choose Black Flag and Minor Threat. Impeach Reagan!
And that’s the deal: Trust-funded or not, VW’s music, lyrically and sonically, emits the putrescent stench of old money, of old politics, of old-guard high society. And I can’t get down with that, no matter how many times homeboys drop a Lil Jon reference.