The Bookish Bunch

Vampire Weekend's shaky smart-aleck stand

You can be guaranteed three things in reading about Vampire Weekend. First, there will be a mention of esoteric references in the nascent Brooklyn quartet's lyrics and song titles. Next, you'll probably find a description of the members' appearance as "preppy." Last, an emphasis will definitely be placed on the fact that bandmates Ezra Koenig (vocals), Rostam Batmanglij (keys), Christopher Tomson (drums), and Chris Baio (bass) come from privileged backgrounds and met while studying at Columbia University.

In pointing this out, I'm as guilty as any other writer. But usually these items are brought up with an air of derision, either implying that the band lacks credibility in the rock world because of them, or arguing that its music is still good in spite of them.

This reaction is perplexing, since you'd think people would be accustomed to musical academia at this point. To wit: Morrissey sang about Keats and Yeats. Dean Wareham formed Galaxie 500 while attending Harvard, and appropriated random Nathanael West quotes in Luna lyrics. Talking Heads, which Vampire Weekend is likened to more than almost any other act, had its genesis at the elite Rhode Island School of Design.

Vampire Weekend goes wild at the library.
Vampire Weekend goes wild at the library.

Thing is, those artists worked bookish leanings into their music with sly subtlety. The Weekenders wear them outright, both literally — their well-coiffed appearance onstage — and in the content of the songs. The cerebral African pop sounds, the song titles taken from architectural terms ("Mansard Roof"), the references to butlers and nautical maps, all get stitched together in a cutesy, kitschy pastiche.

The band has described its whole Ivy League Rock thing as a joke, nothing more than an aesthetic intentionally cultivated to mess with people's sensibilities. It's a respectable claim on one level, but disingenuous on another. The members did, in fact, attend a prestigious school together. They have a lyric that goes something like, "Who gives a fuck about an Oxford comma?/I climbed to Dharamsala too." Joke or not, Vampire Weekend's studied background has clear bearing on the group's style.

On the other hand, who does give a fuck about an Oxford comma? Let's take Vampire Weekend at its word that the whole blueblood thing is an act. What then? Can the music hold up when the joke flies over so many listeners' heads?

Sometimes it can. The band's best-known cut, "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa," rocks a jangly King Sunny Ade–ish guitar figure and repeats it until it's stuck in your head, while "One" has a slick dancehall pulse with a wailing Peter Tosh refrain. Both can be taken at face value and appreciated without studying ethnomusicology.

The aesthetic can also backfire. "Campus," a straightforward, Walkmen-ish rocker, does little more than bemoan the end of an idyllic semester's romance ("In the afternoon, you're out on the stolen grass/and I'm sleeping on the balcony after class").

It's a weak moment, but overall the act isn't a wash. Mostly it feels light, fun, and enjoyable. It just doesn't seem to hold much promise for a future. Right now, the collegiate stylizations practically define Vampire Weekend, and the polarized reaction it receives — while still tipping more toward the side of fawning and embracement — proves that it's too alienating for some.

This divide is bound to widen once the band releases its self-titled debut on XL Recordings next month. The album will surely do well, but the band will then be dealing with crowds at a bigger level than it has thus far — beyond the hyperbolic bloggers and Wikipedia intellectuals.

It could prove a difficult sell, but all that depends on what audience Vampire Weekend is honestly aiming for. If the group is merely seeking the type who will appreciate a giant postmodern joke, that's great: Nothing needs to change. If the aim is higher than that — inking a record deal implies that perhaps it is — then moving beyond superficial schoolboy bullet points might be a wise idea.

 
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