Sunday, November 25, 2007

Less Than Zulu

They graduated from Columbia, they seem to dig sweaters and Polo button-downs, and they’ve listened to “Graceland.” A lot. This is all the information your average alterna-media news source has likely gathered thus far about Vampire Weekend, the four-piece indie outfit from New York City whose debut album will be released in January on XL Recordings. Yet despite a dearth of consumer-ready product by the band, they have prompted a tremendous buzz of blog hyperbole courtesy of two singles and a seeming omnipresence at new music showcases such as last month’s CMJ.Vampire Weekend’s aesthetic owes heavily to their background as honest-to-goodness preppies, and their widely-internet-circulated “Blue CD-R” (an apparent leak of the forthcoming full-length) is littered with allusions to enduring touchstones of upper-crust Americana. These 10 songs reference the neo-baroque architecture of the old-money Northeast (“Mansard Roof”), fun ‘n sun vacation spots (“Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa”), and the band members’ own private university education (they learned the finer points of the “Oxford Comma” on their own Ivy League “Campus.”) With lyrics that name-check Luis Vuitton and a video depicting the band soft-rocking the boat, VW’s carefully-sculpted packaging ultimately epitomizes a Yuppie-chrysalis/larva stage straight out of Neil LaBute’s Young-Reaganauts-in-Hate period.

Still, what may well be the most frequent issue taken with “Vampire Weekend” will be in the substance 10 tracks, an aggressive pastiche of several African pop music forms and the modern indie canon. The resonant, distortion-free guitar tones and percussive rhythms are immediately recognizable as the product of Peter Gabriel, Paul Simon and others’ synthesis of “world music” into pop solutions palatable to white audiences those decades ago. The hooks are catchy and the beats are as equally well-suited to dancing at SXSW as they are sipping tropical drinks on vay-kay from Princeton by your parents’ pool. Upon first listen, there really is quite a bit to enjoy.

However, despite the band’s attempts to shrug off over-intellectualized interpretations of their self-described "mash-up," it is hard to ignore the implications of racial insensitivity which will inevitably follow such an undertaking as Vampire Weekend (the band and the album.) Backlash against white artists rummaging through the history of global musics for their own reinvention is certainly not new. One particularly potent criticism has been the claim of racial/classist tourism on behalf of comfortably safe westerners seeking a fresh stimulus. Though unfairly reducing the genuine open-mindedness of many adventurous listeners, it is ultimately more an accusation levied in disdain for those sheltered, idle Americans who, in an effort to justify their own considerable privilege, claim to engage in meaningful ways with other cultures through little more than 40 minutes listening to a Ladysmith Black Mambazo LP.

In this way, the re-appropriation of multicultural influences in faddish art rock trends may recall the legacy of western imperialism that stripped the African continent of its resources, precluding the later development of any sort of stabilizing infrastructure and precipitating decades of civil ethnic conflict. Vampire Weekend’s own approximation of their sound is adorably described as “Upper-West side Soweto.” Putting cuteness aside, the referenced place is actually an area of Johannesburg populated historically with the poorest of black Africans, ghettoized following the expulsion of migrant workers of the region's gold mines from other sections of the city by the local and municipal governments. A cursory knowledge of South African history remembers the legacy of violence and degredation following the race-riots of 1976, and the economic despair of the locale sees that Soweto remains synonymous with “slums” in the lives of the thousands who reside there. In this light, Vampire Weekend’s venturing back to the Dark Continent is now colored by their overt references to the preppy culture of the 80s, and is particularly damning of a band that seemingly glorifies a lifestyle epitomized by wealthy white Americans during the time of apartheid. This sort of insensitivity speaks to ignorance at best and exploitation at worst.

Perhaps what's most irksome about Vampire Weekend’s disproportionately monstrous hype is the knowledge that exactly this style of genre bending has appeared quite recently. Another mid-profile indie rock record by Montreal post-Unicorns project Islands incorporated such songwriting experiments far more subtly (and more successfully), producing one of the most underrated and enduring releases of 2006. Ultimately, it might be that restraint is what lends an artist’s forays into multiculturalism credibility for personal expansion a much longer half-life of artistic relevance than anyone can expect of an internet flavor-of-the-moment.

Both our instincts and critical conventions tell us that authenticity of origin counts for something, but what, exactly? And what ills can even our honest interest in such experiences really absolve us of when they’re half-hearted at best?


Steven Simunic said...

I always have to do a research project whenever you guys do a music post, because I'm so far removed from the music blogosphere and I have no idea who these guys are (although that's going to change after this download is finished).

In any event, that's all just a fancy way of saying that 1) you and Darryl need to put some decent music blogs up on the sidebar, and 2)I'm unspeakably square.

Still, it's interesting that a band releasing an album in January (and consequently after the Christmas shopping frenzy) is getting heavy buzz. Don't January releases normally signify studio heads throwing up their hands and just acknowledging the sunk cost of producing an album they think no one will like?

Hava said...

This was a very thoughtful and well-written post. It isn't everyday that I read a music review that turns into a commentary on the co-opting of black culture and apartheid. Well done!

All this stuff is making me think that more people should be checking out Fela Kuti and Ali Farka Toure. World music REPRESENT.

Brendan K. said...

Well, Steve, I think that the notion of a "Christmas music-buying season" applies less and less to independent labels. You still see it in hip-hop and rap a bit, but more than anything online sales have lead to the iTunes gift card supplanting any physical jewel cases wrapped up under America's trees.

Thanks, Hava. My goal when I write about music here is going to be about offering meta-commentary about music through topical portals of current-ish releases.

Now, I'm as guilty of world music tourism as anybody else. My experience with world music are mostly through David Byrne. But I think there's a real line to be drawn between legitimate influence and wholesale exploitation- a line that is emboldened by the racial overtones of the band's own aesthetic, rhetoric, and intellectual beliefs.

(And yes, I just used an Oxford Comma in that last sentence.)