For half a century now, rock bands have been adopting a dark aesthetic to shock the squares. From The Rolling Stones to Alice Cooper to rigorously classified metal niches, rock likes to flirt with dark forces while always offering a wink. Yet it was overdone, and by the end of the 2000s, Ozzie Osbourne had become a senile geriatric with a corporate-sponsored reality show, and anyone still trying to shock the squares was unbearably dull. Then came Vampire Weekend.
The name made people assume they were another emo band, more guys with Tim Burton trapper keepers who mistook being bad at sports for emotional trauma. But that was a red herring. Vampire Weekend created an ultra-preppy persona inspired by Evelyn Waugh and played sunshine tunes with thoughtful string arrangements. Their WASP aesthetic and Cape Cod references were immediately polarizing. The band just released its fourth album, “Father of the Bride,” yet music commentators still don’t seem to fully understand why so many found Vampire Weekend’s schtick infuriating in the first place. It was because they subverted the rebellious imagery of rock and roll, and in doing so taught an important lesson about our culture.
Vampire Weekend emerged from a very particular New York music scene in the 2000s. New York music at that time was colored with backwards-looking romance and a desire to reignite the city’s older legacy. Bands that defined that era, like The Strokes and LCD Soundsystem, consciously emulated older bands like The Velvet Underground and The Talking Heads. There was an unstated urge to insist that the Village was no different than it had been in the ’60s, ’70s, or ’80s, all of which depended on the older symbols of rock and roll. Leather jackets! Converse sneakers! Punk lives! Then came some schmucks from uptown wearing docksiders who sang about French architecture, punctuation, and Cape Cod. Oh, and their name was Vampire Weekend. It was trollish and silly. But something more interesting was going on.
Vampire Weekend’s first three albums are heavily indebted to Evelyn Waugh. The band’s song “Arrows” is explicitly about Brideshead Revisited. The lyrics directly reference the book, while the arrows in the title and chorus are a reference to Saint Sebastian, and the music borrows elements from the Brideshead BBC series soundtrack. The band’s second album is titled “Contra,” which is, at least in part, inspired by the line in Brideshead where Charles says he’s with Sebastian “contra mundum.” Ezra Koenig, the frontman of the band, repeatedly mentioned Waugh in early interviews, and has recounted how he once dressed up as Sebastian Flyte for Halloween. While Koenig compared the band’s first three albums to Brideshead, their trilogy is closer in structure to Waugh’s Vile Bodies, in that the first two acts burst with quirky exuberance but build to a dark and bleak third act. After their third album, “Modern Vampires of the City,” won the 2014 Grammy for best alternative album, the band went on hiatus and through a mini-breakup when member Rostam Batmanglij left.
Now, Vampire Weekend has released their long-awaited fourth album. It offers a few contenders for song of the summer and retains some of the band’s signature sounds. The literary lyrics remain, with references to Keats, Yeats, and the Balfour Declaration. But Koenig has moved to California, and it shows. The East Coast WASP aesthetic, elements of classical music, and Waugh references have been almost completely scrapped. Instead, the new album draws inspiration from the ’90s-era hippy resurgence: the Grateful Dead via Phish. Think less tweed and more drug rugs. Now that the band has shed their aristocratic persona, it’s worth remembering that it was always a bit of a schtick. Yet it still provoked strong reactions, and did so because it revealed an unsaid truth about our culture.
Yes, the band met at Columbia University. Yes, they all seemed to have wealthy suburban backgrounds. And yes, they were singing songs about chandeliers. Yet only morons didn’t catch the wink. Frontman Ezra Koenig created an aesthetic manifesto that outlined the preppy uniforms the band wore in public. One of their early hits was called “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa,” the video for which featured preppy John Hughes-inspired extras fencing on the lawn of a beach house. Band members wore cable knit sweaters tied around their necks. It was outrageous. Yet when they first came out, people missed the joke, as the Village Voice noted in an article titled “Vampire Weekend: Hated on Mostly.” The funniest moment came when Alice Cooper complained that a band with “vampire” in its name shouldn’t look like they dressed at the Gap. Kids these days!
Of all people, Cooper should have understood the camp. Yet because those who write about music all come from the same milieu, the conversation around the band focused on whether they were privileged or were culturally appropriating their global sound. In hindsight, we see something different. The band’s silly preppy persona brought into relief the larger absurdity of a culture that can’t get past dead symbols. Vampire Weekend used arch-reactionary imagery to rebel against an established aesthetic that valorized rebellion, and the Waugh-inspired persona angered people because it showed how the old pop culture symbols no longer held meaning.
Leather jackets are the official uniform of white wine brunches. Bosses who harass you for your TPS reports now have sleeve tattoos. H.R. managers, hall monitors, and rule-abiding dweebs of every type have neon-colored hair. Goldman Sachs flies a transgender flag outside their office. Anything once considered counterculture is now a commodity peddled by corporate America. We all recognize this—it’s almost too obvious to point out. Yet this is more than just fashion. It’s a source of great disillusionment because it shows that the stories pop culture tells to itself are hollow. Today, authority pretends to rebel with you. The current conservative civil war can be seen through this lens—the competing factions are not so different from the indie blogosphere’s leather jackets and Vampire Weekend’s tweed. One side accepts the older stories about authority, while the other side tries to navigate a world where authority is actively harmful to conservatism.
Vampire Weekend is hardly a conservative band. In 2016, they played at Bernie Sanders rallies. They did come out of the Ivy League, after all. Their music is worth listening to without looking for political conclusions. And to be loud and clear, conservatism truly does not need more Evelyn Waugh LARPers. Yet it’s worth remembering how Vampire Weekend used reaction to rebel against a culture that refuses to confront the present.
James McElroy is a New York City-based novelist and essayist, who also works in finance.