So, in the lead up to Vampire Weekend’s new album (Modern Vampire’s of the City) being released on the 14th of May, the band are out promoting. As they are gradually being plastered across every publication, tirelessly commenting on ‘progression’ and ‘maturing’, we get brief insights into the themes that will define their next record. However as much as they publicise, we only need to scroll down to the comments section on any site to see the debate returning to the same old conversations that have always plagued their publicised character. Despite their output, the same couple of opinions appear determined to resurface, defining conversation about the group to a point where the music is the last thing to be mentioned.
The first opinion goes something like this - “VAMPIRE WEEKEND WEAR RALPH LAUREN AND THEY ARE WHITE AND UPPER CLASS AND RICH”. The typical British reaction to this perpetually laments how terrible it is that kids are listening to these upper class NYC college boys, instead of good old working class British music. I get the nostalgia. I really do. It’s the Clash and it’s Oasis and it’s all grey but warm at the same time. I get it. However when you pull the big fluffy nostalgic rug from underneath this, cracks begin to appear. Where are the working class bands we are ‘not’ listening to? Jake Bugg maybe? Jake Bugg feels like an artist built by the same guy who commented on a recent VW interview “personally I want to see more guitar music with working class sensibilities”. Is Bugg really speaking to swathes of disenchanted working class people? The voice of a generation with fire in their belly? No, he isn’t. He is the voice of people who used to like Oasis, now working for a double glazing firm - except for the weekend they book off every summer to go to Reading/Leeds fest. Where is the working class voice that sings of riots and sticking it to the man? Well, the rioters of 2011 were a mix of misunderstood, angry and confused people. Who most likely all listen to a mix of music. TV’s were probably nicked by Adele fans. Windows might have been smashed by Beliebers. To attack Vampire Weekend for tearing listeners away from working class musicians is unfairly attaching them to a defunct socio-cultural phenomenon.
The wider, and more inflammatory, criticism of the band labels them ‘cultural imperialists’. This idea is essentially born from the influence of African music that runs through every Vampire Weekend album, particularly their first. The provocative suggestion of imperialism, essentially argues that the band are not merely being ‘influenced’ by African music but are set out on a crusade of cultural colonialism. It is the sort of argument that looks good on paper - White guys wearing Ralph Lauren playing songs with titles like Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa. Surely they are rhythm pillaging without appropriately respecting the culture they are borrowing from? Condensing an entire musical culture into consumable indie pop? Well, no they’re not.
Would be nice to end this feature there but I suppose I should continue. Vampire Weekend are borrowing, rebuilding and reshaping components of the following movements - baroque, mbaqanga, electronica, folk, rock n’roll, hip-hop and by the sounds of recently previewed ‘Ya Hey’, some emotionally stirring helium balloons. It is dangerous to immediately deride a band who are affected by African music. In fact it is solely thanks to them that my iPod now contains the likes of Fela Kuti, Malawian act ‘The Very Best’ and a really great compilation of Angolan soul. Actually, credit where it’s due, my friend George gave me the Angolan soul, but had it not been for the L plate car journeys blasting out ‘Cousins’ or snow days off sixth form trying to pick ‘Blake’s Got A New Face’ out on a shitty acoustic guitar, our interest in African music may have never emerged. Don’t get me wrong, its an underdeveloped interest that is still growing - and I’m not trying to credit Vampire Weekend with getting teenagers into Fela Kuti. Yet I am trying to credit them with being a culturally liberating influence on their listeners.
It is dangerous, really dangerous if we get to a point where a band are pulled down for incorporating African stylings into their sound. No they don’t appear on stage in dashikis or write their lyrics in Swahili. But in a post-colonial world, we have to allow cultures to clash, borrow and procreate. This is very different to ideas of ‘hipster racism’ (google it), a much realer issue of white suburbanites ‘ironically’ passing off racist remarks as ‘obviously bad’ and therefore ‘obviously a joke’. I’d like to remark that my point is also very far removed from the tired ‘political correctness gone mad’ line. Most of the time political correctness hasn’t gone mad, it’s just having a hard time fitting in. Really and truly what Vampire Weekend represent, to me at least, is what we should expect, no, demand from the 21st century. No cultural boundaries or predetermined movements, just music that provokes atmosphere and stirs something. We are probably the first generation with a musical palette that comes without restrictions or prejudice. It would be a real shame if we missed that opportunity because we were too scared to borrow, interpret and marry our ideas.
I get that you might find Vampy Weeks annoying. They have unintentionally, largely as a result of A-Punk, become associated with #indievibez featuring the Kooks, Kaiser Chiefs and whatever-people-say-I-am-era Arctic monkeys. Thats okay if you see them that way. I think its a bit short sighted but there are bands that I have pigeon-holed unfairly I’m sure. I still think I’ll probably find Four Tet really boring, so I’ve always avoided them based on some unsubstantiated notion. Yet what I do challenge, is labeling a band as ‘imperialist’, associating their music with segregation, elitism and the sort of “racial-sciences” that have misinformed and hindered society for the past couple of centuries. When I hear their music, I am motivated to respond to a culture that can move more freely than any generation before it, socially and globally. Ultimately they are four guys, observing a globalised, post-colonial culture and responding with songs that are about life, death and the friends they had at college.
You criticise the practice,
By murdering their plants,
Ignoring all the history,
Denying them romance.
Words: Angus Harrison