Thursday, March 6, 2008

Vampire Weekend

If you've been reading Pitchfork, watching Saturday Night Live, or listening to satellite radio, you've probably by now become aware of Vampire Weekend, indie rock's current darling "it" band. The review of their self-titled debut LP on Pitchfork is probably the most fawning piece of journalism I've read in some time, and I will admit that when I first heard "Mansard Roof," the first single, on Sirius, I thought it was fun and pretty enjoyable. And then I got home and found out who these guys were: a bunch of prep-school white boys from Columbia University. For an indie pop band, this is not entirely surprising, but from a musical standpoint, I find their ubiquitousness kind of troubling. Why? Because they're doing Afro-pop. When I first heard them, I thought they were a legitimate pop band from Africa.
Now, there is a long history of American musicians taking influences, instrumentation, and general sound from world music: David Byrne and Paul Simon (in his Graceland days) have both borrowed extensively from music of cultures not their own, each to outstanding effect. But what these two have in common (and Vampire Weekend lack) is a strong sense of self in their music. For all of its imported percussion and whistles, Graceland does not sound like anyone but Paul Simon. Likewise, David Byrne cannot change the fact that he is David Byrne and whether he is performing with the Talking Heads or doing his country songs as a solo act, his voice is unmistakably his. Not so with Vampire Weekend.
I recently read an essay in the New Yorker about Amy Winehouse, in which Sasha Frere-Jones referenced a review that called her music "aural blackface." The essay dismissed this review in part because Winehouse's backing band, the Dap Kings, are a soul band backing a soul singer. There isn't much of a disconnect between the music and the individuals performing it. I would use that term, however, to describe Vampire Weekend. I just think there's something inherently racist about what this band is doing, or something at least condescending toward Afro-pop artists who will probably never explode in America in the same way: they're putting a white face on African music and getting the approval and encouragement of their establishment. If you read interviews with these guys, they come off as the most pretentious, self-satisfied pricks to ever record a record, so I'm forced to believe that they think themselves precious and ironic for presenting the musical equivalent of...well, I don't know. Let's say the musical equivalent of if I got onstage and performed a Richard Pryor routine verbatim.

5 comments:

Corey L. Beasley said...

BEAUTIFUL

Goddamnit, you nailed it. I couldn't possibly agree more. I hate hate hate hate this band. It's OUTRAGEOUS how much hype they're getting -- and with no discussion of the implications! I'm glad you're with me, son. Fuck those guys.

Anonymous said...

I thought the same thing once I heard them call themselves "Upper West Side Soweto"....what? I can't attest to their upbringings but man that does just shout racism, doesn't it?

Vicky

Loren said...

Plus they're just not that great.

Anonymous said...

I would have to totally diagree....they have brought America into the limelight of this lovely African Music...we would not listen to any other way, its the way of the world.

John said...

I would say that's a valid point, if there were any kind of demonstrable uptick in the amount of African music consumed by American listeners. But there hasn't been--no one rushed out and bought actual African music, it doesn't get fawning reviews on Pitchfork. The only thing Vampire Weekend brought into the limelight was themselves.