I’ve been enjoying the online back and forth over Vampire Weekend— I think we’ve just rounded the backlash to the backlash to the backlash to the straw man. These kinds of silly arguments are good things, because they often serve as surrogates for the more urgent debates we aren’t having.
The core problem—cause of both hype and backlash—is VW’s packaging of old-WASP privilege in (self-described) African music. The knowingness and absurdity of their stance: they’re not just white folks, but the stereotypically whitest white folks (privileged, rich, and educated) playing not just African music, but the blackest African music—could possibly be categorized as post-racist— like Sarah Silverman (or like most of Comedy Central)— something that claims it can’t be racist because it plays on the moral architecture of racism, but still manages to somehow perpetuate elements of racism, just in a more smug way. (Richard Thompson Ford—in the link—calls it the “supernova late stage of racism”).
The essentialist argument—just listen to the music—ignores the realities of context and the band’s lyrics and self-promotional tactics. Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa (citation in a VW blog post obligatory) is not as bad a song title as it could be—they could have called it Martha’s Vineyard Kwassa Kwassa. But they didn’t call it Southie Kwassa Kwassa, or Worcester Kwassa Kwassa. Upper West Side Soweto (citation also obligatory) is just nonsense, an exquisite corpse of indie rock star posturing. Are they trying to say they’re slumming?
It’s possible you haven’t heard yet, but Vampire Weekend are from Columbia. So was Edward Said. So were the Fugees, another Upper West Side Soweto (gosh, I hope I’m using that term correctly) that borrowed liberally from international black music culture.
As the argument side of the debate maintains, they did it to themselves. VW’s sound is barely Afrobeat (or Afropop)—even when it’s Graceland, it’s Graceland minus the guest musicians. Given their self-definition, the globalism of Vampire Weekend shares less in common with traditional musical cross-pollination (as practiced by Byrne or Gabriel or Simon) than it does with the examples on view in the Met’s new gallery of 19th-century Orientalist paintings, compelling less for what it tells us about the culture being copied than the blind spots of the copier.
So why would they even do it? Why dress up fondness for African music in summer houses and Cheever? Is it a publicity ploy or a defense mechanism? Is it the George Plimpton thing, where the privileged escape risking failure at something by staying amateurs at everything, laughing off mistakes as the old Ivy League try? What’s the point?