Vampire Weekend and the accelerated speed of cool
Artwork by Chris Strouth
Makes No Sense At All captures the visions, ramblings, and memories of Chris Strouth, a Twin Cities-bred master of music, film, and everything else.
Vampire Weekend is an anomaly. A band that's as popular amongst the hipsters as it is the straights. It's one of the only bands that works at both American Eagle and American Apparel. They got a "cool" designation quickly, and have retained it.
Their 2008 self-titled debut was like a fresh breath into the hipster soundscape. It wasn't dark; it was smart, really smart, like a rock band for the Algonquin Round Table. They were almost target-marketed for lots of us: smart, preppie, with an alt sensibility and lyrics that mentions both classic literature and Lil Jon.
Vampire Weekend's newest release is Modern Vampires of the City and it's a fantastically interesting record. The result of them teaming with producer Ariel Rechtshaid (Major Lazer, Usher) is like if someone gave Animal Collective a tremendous amount of Ritalin, and sent them to finishing school. You almost have to be reminded that it's a little weird because it's so entertaining you're apt to forget.
It used to be that cool traveled slowly, at the speed of TV, and real cool at the speed of mail. How long it took for your Creem magazine to show up. In the '70s, TV sped things up a bit, but not much subculture made it there: exceptions being the "hoodlum rock" on WKRP in Cincinnati or the infamous Quincy M.E. punk episode. It wasn't until MTV become a fixture in most of American households that the speed of cool got crazy fast, and with the advent of the Internet, trends can come and go in a matter of days.
It also used to be that a label would help develop an artist, get them suited up and ready for the headfuck carnival that is pop life. They had a little bit of time to develop. It's the system that explains why folks like Tom Waits, the Flaming Lips and Bruce Springsteen are icons, as opposed to guys that put out one or two super oddball records that sold almost nothing, that a few collectors talk about in the recesses of a blog, with a fervor normally reserved for conversations on the nature of Star Trek vs Star Wars. Instead, we get more of a "what sticks to the wall, stays to the wall" mentality. Since what sticks to the wall tends to do so because it's super gloppy and gelatinous, it also means that it's not going to be humanity at its finest, and likely to leave a permanent stain
You might own the first record from the Futureheads, but how many had the next one, or for that matter remember the Futureheads? That follow up Ting Tings record? Go! Team? Black Kids? Anyone? Even bands like MGMT, who had moderate success, their follow-up wasn't a failure -- but it was far from a sensation. There will be another and maybe another, and then a new life writing music for video games. Or to quote a band that everyone has long since forgotten, the Godfathers: "Birth, School, Work, Death." By the way, they have a new record out too.
There is a quote attributed to Elvis Costello that I'll paraphrase poorly: "You have your whole life to write your first album, but you only get six months on the back of a tour bus to come up with the second one." It's a shame that he doesn't have something quotable for third records, because Modern Vampires would break the rule as much as their second record, Contra, reinforces it. Contra didn't feel like it was written on a tour bus, more like on a handful of weekends in the Hamptons.
It felt like a sequel. How close can you stick to the original while making it different enough? It's by that logic that a lot of mainstream pop records are made, and given that is still the main force of the modern music market they must be doing something right.
Contra also featured the most overplayed song of 2010, "Holiday," which was featured in ads for Tommy Hilfiger and Honda. In fact, this song is why I have promised to never ever buy a Honda. To this day I can't hear that song without wanting to take a baseball bat to the nearest Honda. (Note: This does not apply to their motorbikes from the '60s.) It also featured the absolutely perplexing "California English," which is reportedly a tribute to Speed Rap, but anyone who works in Ableton Live will recognize it as the glitch that can come though time warping. If you know how the trick is done, you don't enjoy it the same way.
F. Scott Fitzgerald said that "American lives don't have second acts." It's an axiom that often holds true for hipster bands, they don't have a second record that really has the same sort of impact as the first. They make the rounds, get called a genius by someone at Pitchfork, get some animated GIFs in BuzzFeed, do a guest spot on Saturday Night Live, get some parody videos, and then start the long slow descent into the "Where are they now?" column. That's not to say they will lose following of the their actual fans; they just don't sell their T-shirts any more at Hot Topic...well they do, but on clearance.
Vampire Weekend isn't going to have this problem. With Modern Vampires it seems as if they are sitting on the precipice, one way makes them to be the cool band on the mainstream charts and inclusion in the soundtrack of every show on the CW, and another that could make them an "important" band whose name change the tone of rock music -- at least until the next big thing comes around.
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