If there is something like a leitmotif to the last two Vampire Weekend albums it would be “I don’t want to live like this… but I don’t wanna die”. It first appeared in the middle of their relatively dark third album, Modern Vampires of the City, on the multi-layered, feverish “Finger Back” and then reappeared on the deceptively sunny, deeply political “Harmony Hall” the, lead single from this year’s excellent Father of the Bride.
This disturbing refrain is seemingly out of character for a band made (in)famous by their jangly alt-pop about privileged New Englanders and New Yorkers. However, this mix of playfulness and darkness, has been part of Vampire Weekend aesthetic from the get-go and probably even before, given that the band got its name from Ezra Koenig’s unmade vampire horror short taking place all over Cape Cod. What many who dismiss Vampire Weekend as “privileged” or “white”, often fail to grasp is that from the start Koenig and the gang were more provocateurs than preppies.
Indeed, there was always something more than meets the ear in their music. Observed in its (current) totality Koenig’s work (which goes beyond music to anime and radio hosting) works almost as a muscial bildugsroman tracing a path tread by many millennials who ended up on within higher eschelons of society through personal efforts, only to find themselves not knowing what to make of the golden cage filled nor of the various characters populating it, from Louis Vuitton-clad New England debutantes to the snakes within the “halls once thought dignified”. In its jangly beauty, it is a chronicle of disillusionment of an outsider who finds himself trapped within the circles he once craved to join, and ultimately making peace with his life.
Going chronologically through their output, Vampire Weekend’s first, eponymous, album delights in the trappings of preppiness, half ironically detached, half yearning. Ladies of Cambridge (which appears on their debut single, but not the album)and Cape Cod Kwassa revel in the dazzle of the preppies, from storied places they frequent to clothes they wear (Koenig is more than conversant in the language of fashion), but it does see their self-importance and callousness, (M79 and Oxford Comma), but shows it for laughs and almost endearingly.
Contra is a shade darker. It is infused with the imposter syndrome, from the class awkwardness of Taxi Cab and Ottoman (b-side to holiday), to the realisation of deep separateness from and ambivalence towards “friends with pools” on Contra, who are casually likened to the Nicaragua’s brutal US-sponsored counter-revolutionaries/death squads.
Modern Vampires of the City, is where existential crisis get full blown. It is laced with fear of rejecting one’s privileged surrounding, but also deeply felt discomfort with it. This is specifically underlined on Finger Back, which in turns muses on the (im)possibility of Orthodox Jewish-Palestinian relationships, lives in affluent towns of Westchester county, and brutal punishment for misbehaviours, culminating in the before mentioned, panicked refrain “I don’t want to live like this, but I don’t want to die”. There is also Obvious Bicycle, tackling millennial despondency and craving, followed by disappointment in faith (Everlasting Arms) and love (Hannah Hunt).
Finally, Father of the Bride, tries to resolve this deep crisis, juxtaposing brutality, hypocrisy and hopelessness of the world seen from an “elite” vantage point (This Life, Harmony Hall, Bambina, Sympathy, How Long?) and possibility of hope and solace in the private (Stranger, Spring Snow). There is a glimmer of acceptance of the tensions in the status quo (We Belong Together) and even a faint hope that the world can, after all, be made better (Married in a Gold Rush).
What makes Koenig unique is the nuance in his lyrics, often missing in works that self-consciously try to chronicle and/or critique issues of the day. In his lyrics interests, insecurities, and aspirations which are shared among those who (like him?) want(ed) to be part of the elite are given a lot of air, while maintaining their critical egde.
Rather than blame the devious “system” or dismiss the whole pursuit of striving as dumb or even immoral , Koenig is more than aware of the complexity and the inherent allure of the elite, and their worldview and style. Indeed in Taxi Cab, the great portrait of the subtle class struggle between the real blue-bloods and aspiring meritocrats, Koenig concludes “You’re not a victim, and neither am I”, while on Contra, the moral resolution is far from clear — “Never pick sides, never choose between two” and ends forcusing on personal desire.
This outsider-turned-insider-wanting-to-be-outsider critique of the current order is most obvious in Neo Yokio, Koenig’s hilarious and underrated Netlix anime extravaganza, which satirises the current mores of the American professionals and upper classes. The critique is especially sharp, in Neo Yokio’s Christmas Special, which is basically a story of a shallow, privileged professional , waking up to his own complicity in the brutality of the highly aestheticised, grossly unequal society. Indeed, this deliciously irreverent episode (*Spolier ahead*), ends with (pink) spirits destroying Neo Yokio, after the professionals show their brutality by killing an over-eager working class character, who was previously driven to despondency when his masters found “non-material” ways of flaunting their status.
However, how subversive can highly literate chamber pop (or a faux-anime passion-project) be? Is Koenig (like so many angsty beneficiaries of the current order) eagle-eyed in his disillusionment or just angry that his childish illusions of care-free life after elite education did not come to fruition? Is it all just a big storm in a gilded teacup?
While Koenig’s world-view can be assessed along these lines of criticism, his work and approach is unique and valuable in as it captures the malaise among the parts of the global elite in what is great musical and visual art.
That malaise may not be relevant or relatable in 5 or 50 years, but is best captured in the concept of “buffness”, which appears on the existentialist, poignant Unbearably White.
“Buff” was best defined by one of (preternaturally literate) listeners ofKoenig’s internet radio show, Time Crisis, as something that is “harsh or unmellow in the way that one makes one resent the reality in which such thing can exist”.
This feeling of buffness is captures the essence of Koenig’s work, and the feeling shared among those who, like Koenig, were taught throughout their education that they will live lives without need, conflict, and unfairness if they work and believe hard enough, only to find themselves in the chaos of post-9/11 world, robbed of adequate life skills to deal with reality, in part due to that same education.
Surrounded by diminishing chances for true individual fulfilment inside increasingly unequal, brutal societies, and background buzz of seemingly inevitable environmental doom, these people, taught that climbing to the top is both fulfilling and happy, are left with a feeling not only that they were oversold on their “youthful illusions” but fully complicit in bringing about their doom, certainly not wanting to live in 2019 as it is, but not seeing any other real options.
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