Monday, June 4, 2012

I think you're a Contra: A Reading of Vampire Weekend's first two albums

This weekend I had a short but lively discussion about a band that I really like: Vampire Weekend.  I love their music, and I had the chance to see them live once and although I am not a fan of large theater-style locations for rock shows, it is almost impossible now to catch an act like Vampire Weekend at a smaller venue.  I caught the show almost two years ago at Mahalia Jackson Theather in New Orleans.  They were able to pull the crowd into the show, they made it fun.  Even in a venue like Mahalia Jackson.  Even though they are part of that movement of “Indie Music” that gained a tremendous amount of strength during the first decades of the 2000s in NYC (With bands like MGMT, Animal Collective, The Dirty Projectors, TV on the Radio, Brazilian Girls, The Strokes, etc.), they are barely Indie now, being played and well-received in many mainstream radio stations, and TV stations around the nation.  I think they don’t only make great music, but that they are also great musicians, incorporating a variety of “World Music” sounds into their aesthetic, and making a blend of sounds that has become a recognizable trademark for them, but at the same time always pushing boundaries and reaching to new musical spaces.  Even the titles of their songs have an “international” point of reference and appeal.  “Horchata” (Horchata is a Central American beverage) and “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” (Kwassa Kwassa is a dance rhythm from the Democratic Repulic of Congo) are just but examples of this particular aspect of their aesthetic that chooses to incorporate international sounds and themes into their own music. 

While I enjoy Vampire Weekend’s project quite a bit, I find their music and their approach slightly problematic.  Perhaps, at first glance, nobody would even question it, or even wonder about it, but I think that they are, in fact, political.  They take a political stance that, at its best, is ambiguous.  I don’t want to fail to see the irony in their music, but as much as irony has become a trait of the mainstream, through the growing ever-presence and appropriation of the figure of the “hipster”, it is a danger that many fail to understand, because irony by definition always tries to cover its point of enunciation.  So, although it may seem a silly argument by some, we can tell irony, precisely because we can tell when it doesn’t exist.  We can distinguish straightforward truth from irony, which always presents its opposite as the truth.  But in a culture where irony is the modus operandi of comedians, bloggers, culture critics, artists, etc. - when do we distinguish irony, from old-fashioned, sweet, little “straightforwardness”?  For me, the reception of Vampire Weekend is problematic precisely because I can’t tell where they are coming from, but their assertions, ironic or not, seem so strong that still manage to upset me. 

Take a song, for example, like “I think you’re a Contra”.  The chorus is perhaps a conversation between two friends:

I think you’re a Contra
I think that you lie
Don’t call me a Contra
Till you’ve tried

 One accuses, the other one responds.  It’s a song about political stances, and about motives.  One, perhaps a liberal, well-meaning U.S. American leftist accuses; the other one responds not by denying the accusation, but by proposing that perhaps “To be a Contra” is a stance that it’s easy to acquire, and that when you are in fact a Contra, you don’t quite see it that way.  Perhaps, this is easier understood with a couple more lines of the song,

You wanted good schools and friends with pools
You’re not a Contra

So, here, perhaps it is revealed that this is song is not literally about “Contras”, but maybe it is about a political stance in favor of U.S. Imperialism.  Contras, of course, are a figure of dramatic importance in the violent and direct involvement of the U.S. in Latin American politics.  Of course many would argue that the U.S. involvement in Latin America (as in many other regions of the world) was not out of some “humanist” believe for justice and liberty, but out of a believe to keep their economic interests in the best position possible (These two things, I suppose, don’t necessarily need to be mutually exclusive).  So in the song, one of the voices is saying that “To be a contra” means to support U.S. Imperialism and that this necessarily and unfortunately means “good schools” and “friends with pools”.  And the contention of another one of the voices in the song is that you cannot equate those two things, that wanting to perpetuate the white-picket-fence-birthday-pool-party-and-BBQ-suburban U.S. American reality does not necessarily mean that one is in favor of the atrocities committed by U.S. foreign policy, especially in the second half of the 20th century (those committed by Contras mainly).  The song is ambiguous in its political position, but I think that in the end it is condemning the hypocrisy of well-meaning left-wing liberals that live in wealthy neighborhoods with “good schools” and have “friends with pools” but at the same time want to fight for international human rights, and for a more benevolent U.S. foreign policy without changing their lifestyles. 

Clearly, Vampire Weekend has a space of enunciation that it is equivalent with the social milieu that contemplates these questions.  It is the upper, middle class world of the liberal left-wing, Ivy-league college students that ponder over these quandaries when they first encounter these realities, more likely during their college years.  The songs talk about Cape Cod, college campuses, diplomat’s sons, Louis Vuitton bags, trips to Argentina, the English language and Oxford commas, winters drinking “Horchata” in some beachy paradise – the world of privileged college kids from the Northeastern U.S.  They speak from this reality, and their preferred target audience is probably these same kids.  Vampire Weekend talks about a very particular way of life, and there is a sense of nostalgia for it – a sense that there is something that has been lost. 

The song “Giving Up The Gun” is a very high-brow reference to a book about Japanese culture by the same name (Thanks Kate R.! for your thoughts on this), and also I think it is a reference, musically, to Billy Joel’s “We didn’t start the fire”.  To me, the melody in the song recalls Billy Joel’s.  I have shared my thoughts on this to some friends, and I would say that most of them, though not all, could see some resemblance in the melody.  Thematically, the songs are related, too.  Billy Joel’s song is essentially an apologia of U.S. Foreign Policy, especially that of the second half of the 20th Century, and Vampire Weekend’s is perhaps a response to this song.  It is the realization that the U.S. is “giving up the gun”, that its relevance in the world sphere is being reduced.  This is not necessarily completely true, but certainly China’s economic growth, mixed with the growth of antagonism of the world’s public opinion (in my opinion, rightly so) of U.S. foreign policy, and with the added strain in the U.S. economy that has been placed by the recent stock market crash and the subsequent crisis that ensued, makes for an environment that foresees the U.S. imminent decline as the only world power.  “Your sword is old and rusty”, and “Now, you’re giving up the gun” are two lines repeated in the song continuously, as an augury of what perhaps is to come. 

But still, a sense of nostalgia prevails.  The covers of both albums seem to me to represent not only this melancholia, but at the same time, a stubborn stance against time.  The cover of their eponymous first album features an old-fashioned chandelier at a home, with some slightly visible heads underneath, as if a bunch of people standing at a house-show where Vampire Weekend would be playing for some of their friends.  The old world, its ideologies, stand strong above the heads of these young people, who are faceless, silent, lacking in agency as they are not shown in the picture.  The second cover is that of a young woman who clearly looks like a model, but is beginning to show the first signs of aging.  She gazes at the viewer intently, with an almost-surprised look in her face, but still stunning and beautiful, with a Polo shirt on, as if defying the passage of time, of fashion, and again, of ideology.  What dominates both album covers is the will to perpetuate a past.

Even with their pretty amazing set of musical references, taking cue from genres all around the world, Vampire Weekend perpetuates a past.  In contemporary musical production, bands like Brazilian Girls, Forró In the Dark, Gotan Project, have mixed the more traditional rock-electronica-indie sounds with those autochthonous sounds from other regions of the world.  They have managed to make a sound that is precisely a fusion of different traditions – an assertion that is, of course, arguably so.  But in Vampire Weekend I do not see a fusion, but an appropriation of the sounds beyond their cultural boundaries.  The Imperialism represented in “I think you’re a Contra” is not too different from their appropriation.  Taking from the world to profit from it.   But they just wanted friends with pools, and good schools.  It’s not their fault. 

I would be wrong not to see that there is a hint of mistrust, of comedy, in their songs.  “Who gives a fuck about an Oxford comma”, says one of their songs, implying a ridiculous quality in a type of lifestyle, that of the elite that worries about Oxford commas and such things.  This is, I imagine, a lifestyle that Vampire Weekend is familiar with, and certainly, that many of their listeners are familiar with too.  And so, this declares that there is an irony prevailing their songs, their themes and their music.  But as I said earlier, when does the irony stop and the real message begin?  This is, to me, a bit dangerous.  I love Vampire Weekend’s music, but when I listen to them I can’t help but think of the cover of that album and that model staring me intently, defying me with her orthodoxy, and I can’t help but think of the phrase “You just wanted good schools, and friends with pools / you’re not a Contra”.    

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