Why Vampire Weekend Makes Me Embarrassed to Be a Hipster
Photo by Marco Torres
Friends, let's get real here. I can't lie to you any longer. By popular opinion, I have been labeled a hipster.
This is not a new or recent development. I was being called a hipster in 2008, long before it was cool to call people hipsters. I've even been mistaken for the guy who started the Hipster Jew blog. Great blog; not me, unfortunately.
One of the reasons people called me a hipster back in those long-forgotten days of two thousand aught eight, aside from saying things like "two thousand aught eight," is because I was a big proponent of a new band called Vampire Weekend, back then called "The Vampire Weekends*".
I discovered them at one Austin City Limits Festival, where they ran through their entire recorded output during the time of their early-afternoon slot. By the end, they ended up having to do covers because they didn't have enough original songs to fill out their time. And let me tell you, they were brilliant. They took everything I loved about Paul Simon's immaculate Graceland and Peter Gabriel's late-'80s releases on Real World Records and translated it into a modern indie-rock format.
But unfortunately, Vampire Weekend has crashed. Hard. So hard that I am now ashamed not only of having once lauded them, but of the ridiculous amount of attention they're getting for their latest records.
How good was Vampire Weekend in 2008? Well, let's examine that for a moment. Their self-titled debut hit in January of that year. It didn't make too much of a splash on the charts, but it ignited the hearts of little hipsters like myself. I've already told you why I loved it, but for anyone who isn't at least 40, why would a transmutation of Peter Gabriel appeal to them?
Probably because it didn't matter where the ideas came from. The album was 35 minutes of pop perfection. The crew crafted eleven endlessly catchy and enduring pop masterpieces. That transcends influences or time.
I still love that debut record. I'll go to my grave defending it, especially after all the shit I took for naming it one of the best albums of the year in '08. Some people really hated it back then, and continue to hate Vampire Weekend, but the reasons for that were ill-founded then and continue to be.
They were called "too WASP-y" to play this kind of music, but none of them were WASPs. They were college-educated, yes, but that doesn't mean anything in this day and age. In case people have forgotten, our African-American President went to Harvard. The hardcore crowd found them too cutesy, but it wasn't for them. It was pop; it wasn't meant to be deep -- which is, in fact, one of my problems with Vampire Weekend's new material, but I'll get to that.
The point is, whatever mud people wanted to sling at that debut album, none of it could stick because it was baseless, arbitrary venom for one of the best pop records of the decade.
Unfortunately, it was too good to last. Media outlets like Pitchfork began to trumpet them relentlessly. Vampire Weekend were going to be stars whether anyone liked it or not. Not that I blame them. That record deserved considerable praise. The problem was, as with any burgeoning band, is that bolstering them too much creates too much of a myth around them.
The myth of Vampire Weekend was in full force by 2009. Suddenly the band was no longer a band. They were a movement unto themselves, larger than life indie-rock stars. They may not have been making the money, but suddenly people were imitating them musically, posting a news report every time front man Ezra Koenig took a shit, and even dressing like them. I'll admit it too: I started wearing boat shoes after Vampire Weekend hit.
But the myth inevitably consumes the reality. By the time their second record, Contra, hit in 2010, everything I loved about the band was gone. Contra was mediocre, mildly catchy, unfortunately limp, and dreadfully overwrought. Everything that had been so much fun and so joyous about the first record was lost in a shift.
See, now that Vampire Weekend was a big band, they couldn't be a silly indie-rock band with world music influences. They had to start forging a sound to match the myth. It all got very dramatic, "intelligent," and serious. Contra was still interesting at times, but it sounded more like a typical indie rock album, like you'd hear from the Arcade Fire. And where the first record was based on a short film of Koenig's devising about a northeastern vampire haunting a lake ala Jason Voorhees, this was based on "deep themes," the most dreaded phrase in all of lyrics.
Still, I was willing to give the band the benefit of the doubt until their latest one, Modern Vampires of the City. After all, most bands suffer a little bit on their second record, finding themselves and all that. U2 put out October after all. But Modern Vampires of the City is nauseating in just how much of Contra's failings it pursues.
Everything that made Contra a slightly embarrassing, slightly pretentious, and slightly bad record is exacerbated to the nines on Modern Vampires of the City. Gone are those ingeniously catchy choruses, replaced by the most annoying backing vocals on earth. Gone is any sense of fun, replaced by the unfortunate meditations of a former English teacher, the greatest fear of a writer to slip into.
Now we get tracks like "Ya Hey," perhaps the most obnoxiously overwrought pop song of all time. The lyrics are the most painful religiously tinged lyrics I've ever heard. Koenig asks God why he continues to love us when we don't love him, while a chorus of the worst vocoder backing vocals money can buy backs him up, and somehow this isn't a parody. Meanwhile, the song moves at the most glacial pace imaginable.
This turgid beat is employed for almost every song on the record. When it does pick up the pace for the rockabilly-esque single "Diane Young," Koenig ruins the song by manipulating his voice with the most annoying effects in the world. It's the best song on the record, but the second Koenig starts playing around with the pitch-shifter, I want to strangle something.
Now, why is any of this important? It's not, really. But good lord, the Vampire Weekend myth has even survived this. Pitchfork described the record as "changing lives," and it debuted No. 1 on the Billboard Charts. (It's currently at No. 10.)
What does this say about the music listening populace today? To me, it says that a myth and hype can both destroy a band's recording output and yet make them into gods to millions of teenage hipsters. It means that the hivemind of hipsterdom is not going away; in fact, it's only growing stronger. It means that even when a band runs away with its own ego in all its aggravatingly gaudy glory, some will just like it more.
It also means that as a hipster, I'll be marked from now on. People ask me all the time when they see the way I dress or the bands I like, "do you like Vampire Weekend, the No. 1 band in America?" And it pains me, because I wish I did, friends. I wish I did. But that ship has sailed and now I'm left only with shame and boat shoes. Hail them for doing what they do and making money, but Vampire Weekend makes me embarrassed to be a hipster and it looks like I'm stuck in the middle with them from now on.
*Note for Factual Accuracy: Vampire Weekend was absolutely never called "The Vampire Weekends" at any time.