Revisiting the “Vampire Weekend” Story, Ten Years On

When Vampire Weekend arrived with a highly divisive debut a decade ago, the “preppy Columbia band does world music” narrative was set. But it wasn’t all that correct. 
Revisiting the “Vampire Weekend” Story, Ten Years On

When Vampire Weekend arrived with a highly divisive debut a decade ago, the “preppy Columbia band does world music” narrative was set. But it wasn’t all that correct. 

Words: Austin Brown

January 30, 2018

According to the book Rumba on the River: A History of the Popular Music of the Two Congos, the “kwassa-kwassa” (in which the hips sway as the hands follow) was popularized by Congolese soukous musician Kanda Bongo Man, being featured in music videos for his album Sai-Liza and shouted out in the lyrics to the semi-eponymous song on the album “Sai.” However, it was supposedly invented by a Zairean man named Jeannora, when he was asked “ç’est quoi ça?” about a dance he had made up on the spot in Kinshasa. “It’s ‘kwassa-kwassa,’” Rumba on the River faithfully recounts Jeannora as having said. For those wondering where the French came from: the Democratic Republic of Congo was formally acquired during the 1885 Berlin Conference by Belgium, a country split between its Dutch-speaking community and its French speakers, under the rule of King Leopold II, a relative of the (recently mostly guillotined) French monarchy.

“Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” is a song by Vampire Weekend off their self-titled debut, which turned ten this week. The primary writer of the song, Ezra Koenig, is most likely aware of all of this and more. The song is mostly preoccupied with the awkward fumblings of a young stoner and a young preppie, the former of whom wants to fool around with the latter but also feels “so unnatural” about it. Appropriately, the groove of the tune is less kwassa kwassa and more tentative suburbia, building tension by alternating a stop-start arpeggiated guitar line with Koenig’s vocals, as a bongo-driven polyrhythm carries the song forward with an air of amateurishness that disguises its virtuosity. Meanwhile, the lyrics cheerfully plow through references to Louis Vuitton, the “sandy lawns” of a beach house, reggaeton, Peter Gabriel 2 (or is it just “Peter Gabriel, too”?), and the United Colors of Benetton. Oh, and eventually a harpsichord enters the mix.

“Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” is in many ways a still-functional mission statement for Vampire Weekend, and more broadly for Ezra Koenig—an artist with an oh-so academic fascination with the cascade of post-colonial, postmodern, post-Internet, post-whatever cultural exchange that informs and contextualizes the social behavior of aspiring cosmopolitans. This is the lyrical bread and butter of later Pavement albums, or more recently Father John Misty, but for those artists it’s a form of defensiveness, developed over time in response to the assignation of “whiteness.” For Vampire Weekend, though, it was their outward-facing default, developed by Koenig in earnest after writing future single “Oxford Comma” at his parents’ New Jersey house. “I started to get this idea: It’d be cool to start like a preppy band,” he later told Vulture.

The development of Vampire Weekend, Preppy Band™ was executed with a prescient attentiveness to personal branding.

There have been a few artists that get deemed “preppy” for one reason or another—Jack Johnson, John Mayer, Dave Matthews Band, the entire genre of yacht rock—but the development of Vampire Weekend, Preppy Band™ was executed with a prescient attentiveness to personal branding. Koenig got together Chris Baio, Rostam Batmanglij, and Chris Tomson, as well as some friends from Columbia with a shared passion for music, to cook up the band. A manifesto was drawn up to outline their chosen aesthetic, with guidelines like “no trip-hop,” “no distortion,” and “no post-punk.” The band was named after a failed film project of Koenig’s, the plot of which later became the inspiration for their song “Walcott.” Rostam became producer and orchestrator, flexing his music major to weave playful baroque citations into bouncy tracks like “M79” and “Mansard Roof.” And, perhaps most importantly, the group opted to ditch the guitar tones of the Western rock tradition in favor of the pert, sprightly arpeggios of Afropop—though not the groove. They dribbled out songs to blogs and tastemakers, slowly building a buzz that landed them a contract with XL Recordings, the first SPIN cover ever shot for a band without a debut out, and coverage in The New York Times.

Then the backlash came.

I won’t rehash the whole Vampire Weekend brouhaha of 2008 in detail here except to say: It wasn’t ’cause they used Afropop—it was ’cause they had the gall to be melodic and specific in how they used it. The aughts are littered with indie pop albums vaguely deploying East African polyrhythms (see: Animal Collective) and call-and-response vocal techniques (see: Yeasayer) to varying degrees of success, and reviews for those albums that describe them as “tribal rhythms” and “campfire sing-alongs.” Vampire Weekend, on the other hand, cited contemporary Afropop while naming one song after a major grammatical debate. In a strange twist of fate, their self-conscious preppy stylings and manifesto rules did exactly what they were supposed to—so well that no one could tell that the persona of the band was a little on the nose.

The boilerplate defense of the Vampire Weekend dudes at the time was a begrudging admission of their popcraft and an authenticity claim that they “wrote about what they knew”—that is, college, and being preppy snobs. There’s a song about the M79 bus that connects the Upper East and West Sides, the one night stand of “Campus,” a dedication to Columbia classmate “Bryn” that flits between admiration and attraction.

But “what they knew” was less obvious than it might first appear. There was the eventual polite correction that none of the members were technically WASPs, one of them was a second-generation immigrant, and the lead singer went to Columbia on a scholarship. A cheeky question during a live Q&A session in 2009 revealed that three out of the four band members had never been to Cape Cod, and Ezra had only gone a few times during his childhood. “Mansard Roof” cryptically references the Falklands War between the UK and Argentina. The keffiyeh (a Persian headdress) mentioned in “Campus,” though, despite seeming like just another instance of that hyper-specificity, was no doubt familiar to the song’s writer Rostam, a child of Iranian immigrants, not to mention doing the work of subtly queering the narrative—the keffiyeh is mostly worn by men—two years before Rostam publicly came out as gay. Meanwhile, another interview with the band revealed a working knowledge of Madagascan music and Johannesburg township music singer Brenda Fassie. The more you dig, the more you realize that the assumptions made about the band weren’t just off base—more often than not, they were inverted.

The more you dig, the more you realize that the assumptions made about the band weren’t just off base—more often than not, they were inverted.

It was a classic bait and switch, provided by the privilege of a liberal arts education, especially that of Columbia, with its core curriculum of the highbrow, whether in the form of Hegel, historical factoids, or cultural canons, becoming a most basic shared set of references—simple memes to be poked fun at, causing the whole middle class value system of what constitutes “elite” to come crashing down. Every piece of culture, fashion, and taste becomes a costume, which at its best enables class mobility and self-reinvention, and at its worst engenders a constant impostor syndrome, a concern that your cultural, social, economic mask will slip. That costuming, the very thing that Vampire Weekend (and their second album Contra) is concerned with, became their critical albatross for the next two years, arguably culminating in one of the most essential pieces of music writing from the last ten years—a blog post by Nitsuh Abebe on the disingenuousness nature of the “whiteness” game. Altogether, it was probably the biggest testament to the conceptual strength of Ezra Koenig’s “preppy band” idea that he could’ve asked for.

In the years since, the band has veered further into meticulous craftsmanship, as the roles of Chris Baio and Chris Tomson on bass and drums (respectively) were gradually minimized while Rostam’s role grew dramatically (until his departure from the band in 2016). The sound of Vampire Weekend remains sui generis, potential imitators possibly turned off by the controversy. Their ethos of recombinant taste, however, has diffused and normalized in strange ways, accelerated by the Internet—Grimes, The xx, Blood Orange, and Frank Ocean all come to mind. The issue of class in indie music, on the other hand, has taken a strange turn, as extroversion in the genre has seemingly vanished in the ’10s in favor of the intimate and introspective.

But when I first really listened to Vampire Weekend in 2011, about a year after the release of their second album Contra, I wouldn’t have thought about any of this. I knew that Ezra Koenig sounded smart, I liked the knowing perkiness of the music, and I was pretty sure Cape Cod was…somewhere in Florida? I had also recently become friends with someone who had posters of the band all over her bedroom, who told me that she wanted to go to Columbia because that was where Vampire Weekend went. I had no clue about Afropop, I had trouble paying attention in my sophomore AP World History class, and I definitely didn’t know anything about fashion. But something about the lyrics made me keep Googling. After all, what the hell was an oxford comma? FL