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:
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.