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Vampire Weekend is not a 'Contra'-band

There’s a famous scene in Good Will Hunting where an arrogant Harvard student berates Ben Affleck’s Chuckie Sullivan with his in-depth historical knowledge. This is done to bully Sullivan and humiliate him in front of a couple of women Sullivan is trying to hit on. Then, in comes Matt Damon’s Will Hunting to save the day and point out what is already obvious to the audience. That referencing something intelligent doesn’t equal intelligence, especially when used to bully others:

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A lot of what Hunting’s impromptu speech speaks to me each time I listen to “I Think Ur A Contra,” the closing track on Vampire Weekend‘s sophomore album, Contra. Now, the members of Vampire Weekend aren’t bullying anyone with their Ivy League educations. But they appear to be referencing things that seem “intelligent” or name-dropping something that a well-read individual would be able to recognize, more than they seek to actually spread the knowledge of, say, contras, to their fans and thereby connect listeners to their message. In effect, the biggest difference between the snooty student in Good Will Hunting and Vampire Weekend in their relationship to learned information is their individual goals for using said knowledge differ as a tool against/for others, but the end result is the same: Both are using perceived knowledge to boost their ego and public identity.

For Vampire Weekend and certain sects of their fans, the band’s use of perceived high-brow knowledge is part of the appeal, part of what sets them apart from the indie pack. It’s also caused them some considerable backlash, with many critics, bloggers and haters calling the band out for “in-authentically” appropriating aspects of world music into their “Ivy League indie” sound. It seems that “authenticity” in terms of music critique is most often used against artists, so as to pigeonhole them, which often seems to occur in much of the criticism of Vampire Weekend. Frankly, the best and most innovative music is the kind that incorporates sounds from across a mass of communally-shared musical cultures. In our ever-so-small world, music critics and fans alike should celebrate musicians willing to incorporate aspects of musical structure from other cultures, especially seeing as we are all a part of a “glocal” community.

However, when I think of “authenticity,” I sidestep arguments of “it’s wrong/right to take aspects of another culture’s sound and re-appropriate it for one’s own benefit” and think more in terms of the artist’s sincerity in it all. Does the use of pan-African-influenced instrumentation really help develop the urgency, sincerity and perspective in Vampire Weekend’s voice?

As far as musical and lyrical intent in Contra goes, well, there’s not much to it. Vampire Weekend doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel too much on the new album, something many of their fans probably relish. But, when the band does try to mix things up, the results are something to be desired: Their new nu-world music incorporations sound more like aural equivalent of flair. The addition of “non-Western pop” influenced auto-tune on “California English” does little to add to the song, and sticks out like a sore thumb or a tacky button that reads “I listen to auto-tune inflected music from the Middle East and all I got was this crappy button.”

As for the rest of the album wherein the music seems to meld in pretty well with the sound on Vampire Weekend, which isn’t necessarily a good thing. Most of the album sounds lifeless and dull. It’s boring, and as much as it’ll pass the time with sounds similar to the band’s first album, ultimately there’s hardly a memorable moment on the album.

Perhaps the reason critics, detractors and fans pay so much attention to the band’s use of non-Western pop music as juxtaposed against the members’ backgrounds is that, as far as Contra goes, it’s the only thing that’s remotely noteworthy. In that vein, I return to “I Think Ur A Contra.” In short, the song, and to a greater affect, the band itself, closely resembles the mass popularity of the Che Guevara shirt. It’s as easy to toss terms for non-Western rebels like “Contra” into some lyrics as it is to wear a Che Guevara shirt. But there’s a big difference between displaying your knowledge that some rebellious character exists and knowing the complex history of the individuals behind a name or image and being able to express those convoluted aspects of an individuals existence in a manner that people understand.

Certainly, I’ll give Vampire Weekend a little credit in trying to meld the identity of a faction of rebels with a story of romantic longing and scorn. But, like so many bands, “I Think Ur A Contra” is a failure, and not even a spectacular one at that. By simply referring to the term “Contra,” frontman Ezra Koenig applies a Western perspective upon his reference to the Nicaraguan rebels. As the rebels referred to themselves in other, less-negative terms such as “comandos,” Koenig’s very reference undermines the ambiguous nature of the existence of the rebels and fits a complex issue into a tiny box, much like the very box the lover who scorns the protagonist is placed in. Whereas Koenig and Vampire Weekend could have made a song of intriguing substance by exploring the mutli-faceted angles of a doomed relationship and the many faces of a group of rebels (as the saying goes, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter), the group takes the normal way out. Rather than engaging their audience and trying to teach them something new, Vampire Weekend would rather absent-mindedly name drop an outdated term for a cross-cultural rebel without bothering to explain or discuss the issue to their listeners (many of who weren’t alive during the Iran-Contra Affair or know what “Sandinista” means), set it to slightly-twee, low-energy indie music and ride out the formula to something resembling fame and fortune.

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10 Comments Add Yours ↓

  1. mjbmjb #
    1

    Admittedly, this piece finds a new, albeit uninteresting way to beat the Vampire Weekend/Ivy League stalking horse to death. Opening with the Good Will Hunting analogy and then preceding to rip on the band for not, I don’t know, using an indie rock album to educate its listenership – many of whom have actually heard of the contras pre-Ezra Koenig and can handle an unmoored historical reference in a pop song – is particularly contradictory gesture. Basically, you want it both ways: VW shouldn’t lord their education (as if attending Columbia were the only way to learn about 1980s Latin American guerillas) over their audience, but nonetheless “could have made a song of intriguing substance by exploring the mutli-faceted angles of a doomed relationship and the many faces of a group of rebels (as the saying goes, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter).” Nevermind the fact that your proposed approach would do nothing more than further trivialize a decade of bloodshed by explicitly comparing it to a “doomed relationship” (which part of the doomed relationship would be analogous to the contras’ alleged systematic use of rape and torture, I wonder?); how is it any different than what you already accuse VW of doing? It isn’t; it’s simply that you differ on the manner in which VW should integrate their knowledge-dropping tendencies into their music. A valid criticism, perhaps, but not in the context you have posed it.

    On an unrelated note, how about The Clash’s Sandinista!? I guess they had sufficient cred.

  2. Leor Galil #
    2

    Let me start at the end: I’m not much of a fan of The Clash and could care less about Sandinista! Bet you didn’t see that one coming, huh?

    As far as your point about me flogging the dead horse of VW’s Ivy League education, this was as much a criticism of criticizing the band for their background as it was a criticism of the band’s album. I’m hardly ripping the band for not using their education, but merely questioning their choice to name-drop something like “Contra” without much of an explanation, their education not withstanding.

    Perhaps the reason The Clash get so much “cred” is because their political references are marked within the time period. VW talking about Contras could be seen as merely in line with their 80s-level nostalgia as expressed in some of the more Paul Simon-esq world music incorporations.

    And you make a good point: Why trivialize something so terrible as the war in Nicaragua? Just because I question the existence of a song and its use of metaphors doesn’t mean I want something “both ways.” I said that what VW was something of a bold gesture, but a failure because of their inability to explain it. I’m not complaining about their educated backgrounds, but merely proposing that this half-hearted gesture is something of a failure by ANYONE, not just this band. But I’m merely expressing an opinion: I feel that it is a failure, where I’m sure others see success. Trivializing bloodshed nonetheless, people will compare nefarious figures in history to moments in their own time. (To which many have attack a number of emo bands in the mid-00s for talking berating their personal “Holocaust”.) Is it wrong to make comparisons? After all, aren’t comparisons taking two UNLIKE things and showing the possible similarities (ie, in the case of the VW song, maliciousness.)

    Funny thing you should mention that being educated at Columbia isn’t the only way to learn about Contras: It factors right back into the Good Will Hunting scene. Clearly, anyone can go and learn about the Contras, no matter what your level of education. But I completely disagree with you on the point that many VW fans “have actually heard of the contras pre-Ezra Koenig”: Considering education in America is often seen as an issue and some young people have issues with, say, knowing the geography of their own country, I doubt that many (ie something resembling a majority) have heard of the Contras. You want to take a poll of every VW fan, go ahead. If I’m proven wrong, then that’s ok too. But there’s also a difference between having heard of something and knowing the complexities and history behind that word. And I’m just not sure many VW fans do know that.

    My point is, education is fine and dandy. I mean, if I didn’t think so, I wouldn’t have gone to college. Or attending grad school for that matter. But there’s something unsettling about the nonchalant reference that you yourself admit becomes trivialized in such a manner and just playing it off. It’s akin to tossing the word “Nazi” at Bush or Obama: I don’t care what party you align yourself with, but that in and of itself trivializes both the dimensions of both presidents and the vehement stances with which the Nazi party stands for. Vampire Weekend can toss around whatever non-Western sound they want and I could care less (THAT is the point of contention for many critics), but the lyrical content that’s made to look cutesy just comes across as kind of flat and ineffective.

  3. mjbmjb #
    3

    Essentially, you object to VW referencing the contras because you feel that they do so in cavalier manner. Fair enough. My counterpoint was that your suggestion – that they use the contras as comparative basis for a doomed relationship – was equally cavalier: you just wanted them to explain the significance of their reference, as opposed to simple, contextless name-dropping. The Good Will Hunting analogy is still lost on me: I suppose VW could have rewritten “The Hurricane” if they wanted to “spread the knowledge of, say, contras to their fans.” Obviously, that wasn’t the goal. (If educating was this band’s goal, 1) they would be insufferable, and 2) they would already have written a song about the process by which Bennetton sheets are manufactured.) You can argue, and I would agree, that their appropriation of the contras for their song is trivializing, but pop music is, more often than not, trivializing, even when it attempts to deal with a serious subject in a serious manner. (See Bruce Springsteen’s song “Magic” to see just how diminished the returns can be.) I would even argue that the mighty, topical Clash ended up whiffing on “Rock the Casbah,” which now scores the dropping of satellite-guided munitions on real live Middle Easterners – surely not what the band had in mind when they recorded the song. The point being that if we worried about everything pop music has trivialized, we would be out a lot of good, complicated pop music. (Though I am not expressing an opinion that VW is good or especially complex.)

    Which brings me to my underlying point: I know what a contra is, and so do you. Let’s not be pessimistic and assume that, even if most VW listeners don’t know what a contra is (an assumption I will readily concede), they aren’t so intellectually stunted that VW will be their sole source of knowledge on the subject. I realize that “education in America is often seen as an issue and some young people have issues with, say, knowing the geography of their own country,” but Vampire Weekend are a band, not PBS – if we’re relying on them to educate America’s children on the contras, we are both overestimating the actual popularity of Vampire Weekend and making impossible-to-satisfy demands. We’re basically saying that, though you and I can handle VW’s casual referencing of the contras (regardless of whether or not we find it tasteful or agreeable), other people may not be able to, so they have a responsibility to write a song that supplies more context. I disagree: I think the more responsibilities we foist onto artists, the less interesting, worthwhile art we’ll receive in return.

  4. esaeger #
    4

    Christ what silliness. The typical hipster is a college kid who either knows about the Contras or is hip to some other thing that’s been in the papers more recently. The Contra references have little or nothing to do with anything poetically important, other than helping the band to adopt a trademarkable posture and perpetrate a scam, which is what good alternative music (I can no longer refer to stuff like VW’s, or the Broken Social Scene crew’s, etc., wimpy muzak as “rock”) is about anyway.

    More of a fail, though, is your CSI of the tunes themselves, which are far more world-music-rooted and contain a lot less nicking of the Police than the songs on their debut. The amount of crypto-Mozart seemed the same, though, I’ll give you that.

  5. Facebook User #
    5

    Leor, you need an crueler editor.

    Yes, you do. You article was effusive, and the follow up comment was voluminous. Less is more, brother.

    “On Writing Well” by William Zinsser. Read it; learn it; love it.

  6. everynowandthen #
    6

    Maybe the shallow namedrop will make the ignorant ask what a contra is, causing them to educate themselves.

  7. Leor Galil #
    7

    To try to sum up my point, the reason I used the Good Will Hunting reference was because I feel the band name-dropped contras as a way of boosting their own status, much like the character in Good Will Hunting, and thereby created a veritable block, potentially leaving numerous listeners on the “losing” side of things (like Affleck’s character) simply because they might not know about something that doesn’t affect their current existence. While I agree that we should be optimistic in thinking that VW listeners could be aware of Contras, there’s something ultimately unsettling in the intent of referencing a radical, violent political movement as far removed as so many things in history from our present day matters.

    I also agree that we shouldn’t foist more responsibilities on artists and they should be free to do what they want. I’m not looking for VW to educate me or anyone else. Hell, I’m not looking for VW to do anything, and to be perfectly honest, I’d be happy if they didn’t: I hardly find anything appealing about the band. The only thing we should look for artists to do is connect with listeners: My whole complaint against VW isn’t that they aren’t using their brainpower to educate everyone about the Contras or much of anything for that matter, but that the cavalier, continual reference to Contras can forcefully make the content of the song inaccessible to listeners. As much as I enjoy some bands for their experimentation, intelligence and even oft-inaccessibility, all of the bands that I do enjoy that can be pegged with any of those descriptions never use those concepts as a way to turn off a curious listenership. And whatever small scrape of curiosity that I felt about Vampire Weekend and listening to their music was lost during the album’s last song.

    In any case, I really appreciate you challenging me on my points and providing me with this kind of feedback. Even if you walk away from this conversation thinking nothing but terrible thoughts, I’ve enjoyed the challenge and discourse and that you’ve gotten me to think harder about some of my perspectives on pop music.

  8. Leor Galil #
    8

    I can’t disagree with you more about your perspective of alternative music: Perhaps for the jaded individual, it’s easy to see “alternative” as something of a gentrified, genre-for-cash term, but I for one believe in the idea of alternative music. Just go to some crummy basement on a weekend night and you’ll see people making their own art, completely independent of any mainstream music intentions and only for the purpose of making art.

    And you seem to say I’ve failed at criticizing the album because… I didn’t do so in the way that you wanted to? That’s a bit of a bold and unfortunate statement. Was there ever a moment where I compared the level of world-music-rootedness to the band’s debut and said there was less of it, as you so plainly accuse me of? Or are you upset because I sidestepped what you wanted me to talk about altogether?

  9. Leor Galil #
    9

    You need to learn what a “blog” is.

    True/Slant and any number of blog sites are hardly tied down to a notion of AP Style and maximum word count. If I’m writing for an organization that does require those things, that’s fine and dandy. One of the things I love about True/Slant is the fact that I’m able to write without a maximum word count and be as “effusive” as I want, without someone editing the content of my work. And I’m not the only one doing that online. It sounds like you’re new to this whole “web log” phenomenon, because I’m hardly the only one out there writing like this.

    I’ll write a lot when I feel the need to, and when I feel the need to discuss a point as complex as the criticisms of and actual content of an album like Vampire Weekend. A 300 word album review is fine in any context, but it hardly gives anyone the amount of space to really explore the intricate complexities of a single song. And if someone provides their own “voluminous” comment to my piece, challenging my points, I’ll write as lenghty a reply as I want until I feel like I’ve answered that person’s queries/critiques.

    I’m still bemused that my comment reply is a serious complaint. Really? Do you consistently take lengthy emails from friends with plenty of details in it and reply by saying “this is to voluminous, read this book?”

    If you’re not going to offer any criticism about the content of my piece, don’t even bother to comment. It’s absolutely obnoxious and a poor choice on your part.

  10. 10

    An absolute shithole of band. You have a drummer that drums like he is in the retard class and they gave them drums. The singer and guitar players take hybrid open chords and just strum along. Bass player-do they have one? I mean there is not a single audible bass frequency. They remind me of some stupid kid that got a cheap casio, found a fast tempo and start to play with it…until they found out that no one cares! Down with NERD rock


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