Friday, March 7, 2008

Yup, Vampire Weekend

My friend Alex Klein and I have been arguing about Vampire Weekend for about a year. He thinks they're great, I think they're overblown amateurs. But in an interesting development in our debate, Alex was a bit peeved by a recent NPR review of the band's album, which he thinks ignored the inherent contradiction of a band that sells itself as privileged playing music largely influenced by punk. Here's a bit of what he had to say:

The reviewer emphasized the punk bit (did you listen to the audio version? she plays clips from their album where they're doing the whole "oi oi oi" schitck). But she also seems to celebrate the way this band is self-consciously pitching themselves as the next best thing since Rob Lowe started rocking Ralph Lauren. She didn't even think it was worth remarking on the fact that these guys celebrate richness and privelege by co-opting a musical form that came about as an attempt to celebrate the working class.

I thought that was an interesting point, but I surprisingly find myself (somewhat) backing Vampire Weekend. To play devils' advocate, one could argue that mixing working class musical forms with upper class lyrics is in itself an act of cultural discourse, not co-option. In the article on Vampire Weekednd (VW) in the latest issue of Spin, the keyboardist for VW mentions Jean-Michel Basquiat as a personal hero. Basquiat regularly worked with themes of image, class, race and perception. The interviewer also discusses the singer's experience teaching in Bed-Stuy. No middle/upper class white person teaches in Bed-Stuy without being knowingly forced to deal with class consciousness on a daily basis. I don't think VW take their privilege for granted. I think they are extremely self-conscious of it and of the cultural disconnect between them and their musical influences. I would even venture to say that the band purposely made musical choices in the hopes that these kinds of discussions of class and culture would occur,if for no other reason than it would produce press. But despite their class consciousness, VW still appear to be quite comfortable in their perch of entitlement and are not a "message" band (as opposed to their oft-cited influence, Paul Simon, whose Graceland album was made in part to address political issues in South Africa and the United States.) Politics for VW is a commercially beneficial by-product of the music, as it has been for other “co-opting” bands such as The Police, Talking Heads and The Beastie Boys. VW are simply an indie-pop band using African musical idioms as their mode of delivery and hype. As opposed to someone like Peter Gabriel, who used world music idioms as a means to bring awareness of international politics and injustices. Or a band like Dengue Fever, who are a hyped cambodian pop band using indie-rock idioms as their mode of delivery. But I digress…

An artist can draw from whatever sources they enjoy without feeling obligated to adhere to the source material's context. For example, if I want to sample recordings of slave work songs and put a beat over it, I don't need to add my own commentary on the nature of commerce and race. Likewise, Vampire Weekend do not need to be sympathetic to the ideology of punk or afro-pop in order use their forms. However, the musical technique used in incorporating these musical forms is critical in establishing artistic credibility and success. In other words, the musician (to an extent) must be able to play within the form and demonstrate an understanding of its aesthetic before recontextualizing it.

In the case of punk, I think VW is on solid ground. Contrary to the opinion of NPR and many music critics, most of the guys in VW cannot play their instruments. A lack of musicianship was pretty much the prime prerequisite for punk and was also a large part of its democratizing appeal: the fact that literally anyone could play it. Where VW falter is in their lazy interpretation of African music, and this issue is (ironically) almost entirely due to the drummer’s punk technique. For what I think is a fair comparison, listen to any mid-late 1970s recordings of Elvis Costello and the Attractions. Pete Thomas was by no means a reggae drummer, but he had enough pocket, technique and creativity to incorporate some of reggae’s rhythmic idioms into the songs written by Mr. Costello, which had a jerky punk feel. VW’s drummer doesn’t have the technical facility to successful pull off that kind of alchemy and the result is brutishly crass. The band’s acceptance of this less than academic approach to cultural rhythm speaks more to their entitlement and class than their more easily digestible punk influence. It’s the musical equivalent of watching “The Wire” in a beach house on Cape Cod: a self-serving act that allows for class sympathy while having no real investment in cultural dialogue or change.


Alexander said...

Great post, Evan. A follow-up--

My beef was actually not with Vampire Weekend, but with the NPR critic.

I agree that we ought not to insist that artists only incorporate styles with politics they also embrace. You don't have to be a class warrior (ug--is that a Fox news term?) to take something from punk. Another example: free jazz (or check this out). People like Archie Shepp developed a noisy, dissonant style as part of a larger black power/black separatist political ideology. I agree--you don't need to be steeped in the politics to draw from the music (paging 10,000 Scandanavians with saxophones).

But a critic isn't an artist. What's the point of NPR reviewing indie rock? Is it just to pander to a younger crowd--just to signal that the old lady of radio is hip after all? Or instead, is the point to say something serious about a form of music that's been neglected?

I like to think it's the second--NPR is trying their hand at saying something serious about indie rock. But if that was their goal in the VW review, I think they flopped.

NPR emphasized the punk and the upper-crust aesthetic that are both central to VWs whole schtick. It was really weird to emphasize these two aspects of VWs music without so much as a word acknowledging the apparent dissonance. It left me with the impression that the point of the review was to show that NPR is up on who the latest cool band is (a year late, but whatever).

Let's give VW the benefit of the doubt, and assume that they *are* trying to spark conversation about class. Well, serious critics should be the ones to pick up these threads and knit a sweater out of them. Don't you think?

Mike Rings said...

Thought-provoking post, Evan - though I'm not sure I agree with your last point that VW's drummer's punk style necessarily indicates a "lazy" (and therefore wrongful) appropriation of afro-pop musical conventions. It seems to me that you might be judging VW's afro-pop gestures by an inappropriately high technical standard, given that they seem to be part of a hybridized project, vs. a more "purist" approach. If VW are mixing up a little musical stew here, why not hear the drummer's style as a punky spice tossed in with the afro-pop and indie pop ingredients offered by the other members? Consider the Clash's "Police and Thieves," a fine example of un-crass cultural appropriation, in my opinion: the drummer drives the reggae tune with a stiff rock back beat, helping to accomplish their avowed and intended hybrid of punk and reggae. If VW were trying to play music completely dedicated to the afro-pop idiom I'd agree with you that they'd be doing a shoddy job, but given the hybrid context here I don't think they should be held to a standard of "academic" fealty to all of its aspects. I think there's a fine and uncrass tradition of less-than-academic appropriation in music (esp. in the early 80's British post-punk tradition) that we could look to here for further examples of this. What do y'all think?

Tavia said...

Aahh, Vampire Weekend: sucking the blood out of African musical cultures on Saturdays and Sundays for fun and profit. I wrote about this awhile back on my blog (link below) but I appreciate your adding complexity and nuance to the story.

I actually like punk and enjoy VW even in their amateurishness. I have a soft-spot for jailbait prancing around a stage pretending to know how to play music. But I am still antagonized by the crass privilege of it all, and the collusion of the critical musical establishment, beginning with NPR, who ought to know better.

For me privilege, and the failure to acknowledge it, is far more important than "authenticity" which is basically meaningless. It comes down to punk not being authentic working class culture at all, but a marketing ploy devised by Malcolm McLaren that was always about ripping off African beats (Cf. Bow Wow Wow's "See Jungle" which is a direct rip off of Mahotella Queens) and even the sincere, political groups like The Clash did not so much "hybridize punk and reggae" as one comment says as create punk as a response to reggae.

Dick Hebdige laid this out in "Subculture": punk was a product of the "frozen dialectic" between black and white. Dub and reggae were the soundscape of early punk subculture, but that musical influence -- Police&Thieves and Bob's "Punky Reggae Party" aside --rarely made it to vinyl. And what did is now forgotten in the "unbearable whiteness of memory" in which the black presence in punk is scarcely acknowledged. White kids want (and still do) a riot of their own. But apparently they are no closer than they were in the 1970s to appreciating the racial oppression out of which black rebellion, musical and otherwise, springs.

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