WE OPPOSE ALL ROCK'N'ROLL: further jottings on Vampire Weekend
As a raw thought "more interesting rhythms than any hip-hop record I've heard these past several years" popped into my head unbidden months before writing about them for Pazz and Jop: my bodymind simply couldn't help registering the fact that the rhythmic delight rippling across this music, its frisking swerves and twisting dips, were something I hadn't felt from hip hop in a long while. I just trust what my senses tell me but such an unformed proto-idea--midway between sensation and perception--needs to be dressed up for public viewing. I chose my words carefully (like I always do). "Interesting" is a pointed choice: I'm definitely not claiming the beats on this records are body-shocking or block-rocking, obviously none of these here Vampire joints would cut it as a club banger (what a thought!). Hip hop still commands that particularly terrain, albeit these days in only the most pedestrian, gets-the-job-done kind of way. What I am saying is first of all comparative/contextual: the use of rhythm on Vampire Weekend is, in the context of--let's say the last ten years of-- indie-rock, more unusual and ear-catching than the use of rhythm on any recent rap track (that I've heard) has been in the context of the last ten years of hip hop. But I further contend that in absolute terms there's more rhythmic panache and liveliness exhibited on the best Vampire Weekend songs than any hip hop record that's crossed my ears path these past two or three years. Now it's quite possible I've missed some mind-bending groove lurking out there in some corner of the hip hop world. I invite you to point it out to me. I'd be really surprised if you could, though. The reason is that in hip hop the most radical beats rise to the top, it's the most rhythmically audacious stuff that conquers the streets and thereby reaches the commercial heights (whereas the backpacker underground always lags behind with oldfashioned grooves). And I simply cannot remember the last time I heard one of those makes-your-head-swivel-round jawdropper beats that were an almost weekly occurrence in the early years of the Noughties. What you get now is the groove equivalent of comfort food: rote fulfillment of basic shake-that-ass requirements, dependable but plodding. Another indication I'm on-base here is the fact the "beat-raptured nerd" discourse that once obsessively and auteuristically tracked all this post-Timbaland groove-warpage... it's pretty much dried up, hasn't it? Nobody really talks about the beats in rap anymore, because what would you say? And actually if you look at the P&J ballots of people who are generally considered to be authorities and champions of rap, what you notice is a rather striking absence of…. any hip hop at all.
I'm not the only one to remark on VW's rhythmic facility, incidentally…
Like their melodic gift it's one of the unavoidable things about them if you're someone with any real feel for … music! It's rhythm in a wider sense than what the rhythm section is up to, able and agile as those guys are,… it encompasses everything going on in the music, from the darting keyboards and flickering guitars, to what the vocals are doing and the way the lyrics are phrased. It's mischievous and alive. Moroever I'd say that this rhythm flair appeals not just to the body but to the mind (rhythm and structure as something to contemplate, the pure rapture of form) and to the heart too. Which seem strange except that's what the Smiths (another rhythmically under-rated group) did too. Of course the kind of body and gait--sprightly, springheeled, almost fruity--that this rhythm creates, it may well not be a body and a gait that you care to step inside and inhabit.
"Just an indie group": VW expose the absolute poverty of the kneejerk anti-indie stance, reveal it as barely more than inverted racism (like those people who think it a very "sharp" stance in 2008 to have a end of year faves list consisting entirely of rap and R&B… a gesture that might have had some bite in 2001, maybe..). Because here is a group that departs from every standard-issue hallmark/reason-to-reject that characterizes indie rock as pejoratively understood, from the range of rhythms they draw on (reggaeton, turned inside out, on one tune ), to the non-Western influences on the sound, to (conversely) the equally unlikely Old European influences, to the lyrical concerns (the lifestyles of the upper class have almost never been a subject for indie bands, even approached from the ambivalent perspective of VW )… NONE of this is bog-standard indie territory. Even the vocal style is as close to Rufus Wainright as to Edwyn Collins. If this band is "indie" then the term has just been made a nonsense of. Indeed it's quite probable that at this point the term no longer has any real purchase on the present musical landscape; its content is entirely social (internecine war among the middle class!) and worse, the antagonisms it represented have long faded away. In all honesty, people who continue to use it as negative term (and jump shrieking on a chair every time their ears spy a guitar) remind me a lot of ex-colonial returned-to-Blighty brigadier types, pickled on whisky 'n' sodas and fulminating about "darkies" and "the bally bosche".
Initially I wanted to create an argument that was a complete inversion of M.I.A, a different spin on those trigger issues of appropriation and authenticity. However on close inspection it seemed like VW and M.I.A. had as much in common as they had not-in-common, starting from the simple fact that both conceived of what they do as a "project". I guess where there is a complete inversion, a sort of concave/convex relationship, is the fact that with M.I.A. there seems to be a sort of a priori assumption of/conferral of "good guy/we're on your side" (feisty female goes-for- it; person of colour; subaltern credentials, etc) whereas with Vampire Weekend there is conversely an a priori assumption of "bad guys/not one of us" (Ivy League-North East-privilege-ruling class/anal-retentive white boys, etc). These allegiances decided, or heavily slanted, people's responses even before the music is actually assessed.
"we oppose all rock'n'roll": suddenly it struck me that VW were a band that Vic Godard would have approved of. Specifically the fact that in their initial joint conceptualization session/mission statement, they decreed that no band member would ever appear onstage or in a photograph wearing a T-shirt! But I also remembered Godard's bookishness and vision of rock as a kind of higher education system; of how he talked about wising "I'd lived fifty years ago or something. I wish I had been born in the aristocracy. I wish I had been born rich." Of how he was into playing golf and even spoke of admiring the Royal Family for doing a great job for the country.
I can also hear parallels with a certain kind of New Pop: Haircut 100's slicked-up, hand-percussiony take on Postcard/Orange Juice, Bow Wow Wow's Mahotollah Queens meets Monochrome Set Afro-bop. On which subject it's interesting how they've gone through indie's ultra-whiteness (its severance from the blues, from heaviness, but also from funk and soul) and right out the other side to where the spangled/jangled guitar pop style joins up with a different kind of blackness, a non-American blackness: the music of Africa in all its buoyancy and rhapsody.
The "coolest" response to anything of course is the what's-the-fuss-here, not-bothered-either-way option. That's where I dwelled, re Vampire Weekend, to the point of not even hearing the album until the summer. A young friend's virulent dislike finally sparked my intrigue and sent me off to eMusic. Just one "spin" and I was ambushed. "Fresh" and "clean" are words easy to use in any discussion of Vampire Weekend, but it was actually me that felt refreshed, cleansed. Bliss comes at you from unexpected angles and adjectives like "blithe" and "sprightly" that would once have sent me lunging for the toilet bowl were here transfigured, redeemed, exultant. The sensation reminded me of hearing The Smiths's "Charming Man" the first time, and that sensation isn't related to any aesthetic particulars so much as the abstract wonderburst of being confronted by a singularly original voice (the band-voice, not the vocalist, good as he is). As so often (and as with The Smiths) this hit-by-lightning sensation of Newness has nothing to do what's conventionally regarded as "innovative" (emphasis on "convention"--since nearly all noise/drone/improv/abstract-electronic operators today are slogging away in settled, close-to-stagnant traditions, making modest incremental contributions, challenging or surprising absolutely nobody.) It's quite a trick to make music that's instantly melodically appealing but doesn't wear out with repetition, come to seem cheap.
As anti-VW invective goes I enjoyed mightily Julienne Shepherd's principled opposition to the band, fiery and categorical in the grand rock critical tradition, brooking no qualification. I have no idea what her background is, educationally or otherwise, but I do wonder more generally if a lot of the squeamishness about VW comes from the fact that the higher echelons of US rock criticism is positively crawling with Ivy League graduates. In other words, one way or another, a lot of the band's haters are actually pretty familiar with the world VW lyrics describe. (The distaste must be given a further edge of sourness from the fact that being a rock critic these days means having chosen a path that promises disembourgeoisment; it's proved to be a poor career choice compared with others that people in your year in college might have chosen after graduation). But nobody suggests you shouldn't read Evelyn Waugh or F. Scott Fitzgerald because their books are about posh people, the wealthy self-made and the inheritors of fortunes. It's a stratum of society that's as interesting as any other, a rich terrain for the ambivalent observer (which is what I think Koenig is). And that zone where old money and new money meet and mingle has after all long been part of the fantasy life of rock and pop. But it's only okay when rappers and Roxy do it?
I've talked before about my deficiencies as a lyric interpreter, but VW present special challenges--meaning tantalizes and glistens but so often skips gaily out of reach. Half not really wanting to know but unable to resist the urge for understanding, I visited one of those "lyrics debated" message boards to see what people made of "The Kids Don't Stand A Chance". The interpretations were bizarre, but one of the most common takes seem to be that it's about corporate recruiters coming to colleges and luring the soon-to-be-graduates into conventional high-flying career paths. Whether it's true or not, the perception is interesting in itself. I wonder if this makes it a sister-song to Animal Collective's "You Don't Have to Go To College".