The year is 2006, and Vampire Weekend have just formed. George W. Bush is president. The first smartphone won’t be released for another year. Music blogs are flourishing, and the old recording industry gatekeepers are losing their power. The moment is ripe for nobodies to become somebodies.
By 2007, Vampire Weekend’s music is all over the web, and they’re touring the country. Rolling Stone names the song “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” one of the top 100 songs of the year. The next year, Vampire Weekend tours the world. They become the first band to ever grace the cover of SPIN before even releasing an album. Two short years from nobody to somebody, and Vampire Weekend became arguably the first band to launch to stardom based on nothing but blog support.
It was bound to happen to somebody, sometime. But why Vampire Weekend? Why then?
Vampire Weekend was formed by four undergraduates at Columbia University in 2006: lead singer Ezra Koenig; keyboardist, guitarist, and producer Rostam Batmanglij; bassist Chris Baio; and drummer Chris Tomson. The name Vampire Weekend was lifted from an unfinished movie by Koenig about a man named Walcott dealing with a vampire infestation along the East Coast.
Their first live performance came in a campus battle of the bands. They played early versions of two songs that would eventually make their self-titled debut album, “Oxford Comma” and “Walcott”. They did not win. There were only four bands competing, and Vampire Weekend came in third.
But even at this early stage, the band’s ethos was fully formed. Vampire Weekend creates an entire world, self-contained and self-referential. For example, it’s not strictly necessary to know that the Walcott in “Walcott” was the main character in a never-completed vampire movie, but it helps make sense of lyrics like, “Evil feasts on human lives.”
It’s also not required to know the geography of affluent Cape Cod to enjoy the song, but if you know that Wellfleet is well-known for its aphrodisiac oysters or that Provincetown is famous for its thriving gay community, this knowledge will add layers of meaning to “Walcott, fuck the women from Wellfleet/ Fuck the bears out in Provincetown/ Heed my words and take flight.”
Already in use at that battle of the bands was what would become the Vampire Weekend uniform: oxford shirts, boat shoes, khakis, and cardigans — the very picture of East Coast privilege. This isn’t the standard rock-and-roll getup favored by the most popular indie rock acts of the time, the leather jackets and carefully mussed hair of The Killers and The Strokes.
That Ivy League image is one of the main thrusts behind Vampire Weekend’s meteoric rise, if only because it allowed them to stand out in the crowded indie rock scene. Every early article written about the band mentioned their clothing. Only in rock and roll could boat shoes be considered subversive.
But preppiness really can be an act of rebellion, especially the way Vampire Weekend employs it. Despite their reputation, the band have always looked upon the world of wealth with a satirical eye. Koenig’s lyrics admire the rich with one breath and scorn them with the next, in the tradition of F. Scott Fitzgerald or Evelyn Waugh.
The first single off Vampire Weekend, “Mansard Roof”, is in this style. Mansard Roofs are an architectural staple of French chateaus and English country manors, as well as the most hoity-toity parts of Cape Cod. In the song, Koenig’s eye travels from the “Mansard Roof through the trees” to “a salty message written in the eaves.” After spotting this graffiti, he moves inevitably on to “hot garbage and concrete.”
The second verse, about the Argentines who “collapse in defeat,” seems to be about the Falklands War, fought between the British and Argentinians over a chain of islands in 1982. Taken together, the song is a critique of elitism and imperial colonialism, disguised as a harmless ditty about some pretty architecture.
Elitism and post-colonialism are the chief preoccupations of the album, Vampire Weekend. These themes even informed the band’s clothing. As Koenig told Rolling Stone, “Around the time the band started, I became very interested in the connection between preppy American fashion and Victorian imperialism.
For instance: Where does the word ‘khaki’ come from? It’s Urdu. Where does ‘seersucker’ come from? Hindi-slash-Persian. Madras prints? They’re from India. Blazers? They were a British naval uniform.” As Koenig sees it, preppy fashion is just multiculturalism with a pop remix.
And this love of multiculturalism is the second great reason that Vampire Weekend was able to go from nobodies to somebodies in two short years. Not only did they dress differently than everyone else in indie rock, but they sounded like no one else at the time. Vampire Weekend blended rock conventions with ska, calypso, reggaeton, Ghanian soukous, and South African Soweto gospel, which led to the band being dubbed “Upper West Side Soweto.”
You can hear these influences in the drums on every song, in the tone of the keyboards and guitars, and in many of the melodies. But it’s never clearer than on “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa”.
As it happens, a Kwassa Kwassa is a Congolese soukous dance made popular in the ’80s and ’90s, wherein the hips move back and forth while the hands follow the hips. For an example of soukous music, check out Kanda Bango Man, one of the most popular Congolese artists of the period.
Vampire Weekend kept the timbre of the guitar almost the same when they set their Kwassa Kwassa in Cape Cod, but Koenig has more than dancing on his mind. “Do you want to fuck?/ Like you know I do/ Like you know I dooooooooo!” he wails. The song evokes some of the bouncier tracks off Paul Simon’s Graceland or Peter Gabriel’s So, both heavily influenced by African music. If that weren’t enough, Koenig name-checks Gabriel in the chorus: “It feels so unnatural/ Peter Gabriel, too.”
Koenig told SPIN in 2008, “The vibe from hearing interlocking African music is the same vibe you get from a baroque Vivaldi.” Which might be true, but some critics still accused Vampire Weekend of cultural appropriation. And perhaps the band was lucky to come of age after it was easy to find African music but before Twitter was widely used; otherwise, the backlash might have been more severe.
On the other hand, Graceland was already part of the Western canon, and for that matter, so were The Beatles and Elvis Presley. Pretty much all of popular music owes a debt to the great African musical diaspora, which is why modern music sounds a lot more like African-American slave songs (such as “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child”) than the works of Mozart or Beethoven. During colonialism, Europe and America pillaged Africa. In a post-colonial world, African music has conquered the globe.
The line between cultural sharing and cultural appropriation isn’t always clear. In that same SPIN interview, Koenig insisted, “That debate already happened. We’re in a context that comes after instances of people actually stealing from each other,” which is said with all the confidence of someone who took a single class on postmodernism in undergrad. Of course, the issue is more complicated than that, but then again, without Vampire Weekend, this writer probably wouldn’t have learned how much he likes Kanda Bango Man.
Besides, that interview took place 10 years and two presidents ago. Donald Trump and Barack Obama triggered difficult conversations about culture and identity, and Koenig’s views might have changed along with the rest of the country. Back in 2007-08, the Bush era was winding down, and in fact, it’s possible that George W. Bush himself is the third answer to the question: “Why Vampire Weekend? Why then?”
The Bush Doctrine, with its foreign-policy principles that emphasized unilateral action and preventative wars, is essentially an imperialist doctrine. Vampire Weekend became famous, in part, by criticizing imperialism at the same time that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were turning into quagmires. Furthermore, Vampire Weekend paid homage to the intellectual contributions of people of color at a time when the Bush administration was routinely violating the rights of Muslims.
And to top it all off, Vampire Weekend showed a love of language for a country run by a famously clumsy-tongued president. It’s not a coincidence that a band concerned (or unconcerned) with the “Oxford Comma” became a blog sensation around the time that a president who said things like, “You teach a child to read, and he or her will be able to pass a literacy test,” and asked questions like, “Is our children learning?” was at his nadir of popularity.
“Oxford Comma” really is a political song, even if it’s not political in the same way as Run the Jewels or John Lennon. The line, “Why would you tape my conversations?” seems squarely aimed at the Bush administration’s practice of warrantless wiretapping, and the demand to “Show your paintings at the United Nations” is a reference to a request made by the Bush administration that a reproduction of Picasso’s anti-war masterpiece “Guernica” be covered up while Secretary of State Colin Powell made his case for invading Iraq.
That’s not all “Oxford Comma” is about, of course. It’s a lighthearted ode to feeling done with all the lies and bullshit. When Koenig sighs, “Who gives a fuck about the Oxford comma?”, that comma stands in for pretentiousness in all its forms. The Bush administration is an afterthought, another party to ask, “Why would you lie?” The song can’t stay serious, and each chorus ends with a hat tip to the captain of crunk: “First the window, then it’s to the wall/ Lil Jon, he always tells the truth…”
The members of Vampire Weekend possess serious songwriting chops, and it’s likely that they would have carved out a place in the music industry regardless of when they came along. But only needing two years between formation and posing for SPIN requires more than talent. Consider other critically acclaimed rock bands, such as The National and Spoon, who each took six or seven years to begin building nationwide buzz. Both of those bands write great music. But what’s interesting about how they look? What makes their songs different than other rock songs?
Vampire Weekend were the only rock band dressing like preppies. They were the only rock band listening to soukos and Soweto gospel. And, through a lucky coincidence, they represented the exact opposite of an increasingly unpopular president. And ultimately, that’s the secret to Vampire Weekend’s meteoric rise. At a time when music writers had more power than ever before, the band became a blog darling not just because the music was good, but because it was easy to blog about.