BIG EARS 2010: Vampire Weekend

A primer on the critical kerfuffle stirred up by Big Ears' biggest pop stars

For four guys who look unlikely to do damage to anything other than a few gin and tonics and maybe some society girls' reputations, the young fresh fellows of Vampire Weekend have stirred quite a critical kerfuffle in the last few years. On one side you have people charmed by the band's combination of Ivy League introspection (they met at Columbia and write songs about rich girls) and world-beat aspirations (like Talking Heads and Paul Simon before them, they draw on African and other non-Western music). On the other side you have people appalled by their Ivy League introspection (do we need more songs about rich girls?) and world-beat aspirations (Talking Heads and Paul Simon had better rhythm sections). There is also some divided opinion about singer-songwriter Ezra Koenig's vocal delivery, a hiccuping chirp that can seem either winningly self-aware or whiningly self-conscious.

Either way, they are the biggest bona fide pop stars on the Big Ears slate. Their second album, Contra, entered the Billboard album chart at number one upon its release in January, and their show at the Tennessee Theatre is predictably sold out. Herewith, a quick sampler of Vampire veneration and vitriol.

Given the nature of modern media and our crazed archival culture, it's obvious that no halfway sentient band can come into being without premeditation, the meticulous marshalling and coordination of influences and reference points. Knowingness irretrievably entered the water table long ago, and Vampire Weekend simply take this foundation of modern music—the impossibility of not overthinking things, of not riddling your work with footnotes and hyperlinks—and push through to full-blown conceptualism. They began with a handful of ideas (including the occasional convergence of Johnny Marr's playing in the Smiths with African guitar pop, along with an impulse to investigate the preppy aesthetic) and proceeded to assemble a tour de force amalgam of form and content.

—Simon Reynolds, "The People vs. Vampire Weekend," Village Voice, Jan. 21, 2009

I do get a little annoyed that it seems like a lot of bands that come out now that I read, "The greatest band that I've ever heard." And I see them and I go, "There's absolutely no testosterone in this band."I heard the title Vampire Weekend and I thought, "Oh, man, that's gonna be great. I gotta see it." And there are these guys with little Gap T-shirts on and they're singing about I don't know what, it was so light I couldn't listen to it. And I'm going, "What happened to the balls in rock 'n' roll? Why are American bands so wimpy?"

—Alice Cooper, "Alice Cooper Wonders Where the Balls Have Gone in Rock 'n' Roll," Noisecreep, Sept. 2, 2009

Koenig is trying to have it both ways—to be the mocking outsider while telegraphing his exact position as an upper-class white aesthete through references that connote unfettered living and heavy beach play. If this all makes Contra seem like a f--kless episode of Gossip Girl written by Jimmy Buffett, then I've made my point. Nevertheless, Koenig insists that Vampire Weekend are not what they seem—that their lyrics are pure satire. Well, maybe the fact that so few people can tell the difference between their supposed lampooning of affluence and genuine fascination with it is a sign that they need to sharpen their game.

—Jessica Hopper, "Appropriation, Vacation," Chicago Reader, Jan. 28, 2010

In Hopper's world, Koenig is "playing dumb" about class. Personally, I'm more struck by the suspicion that Hopper—along with a lot of people—is playing smart about class. Because between her and Koenig, the singer is the one who's dropped the posturing of The Game long enough to actually go out and at least attempt to say something interesting or meaningful about the workings of first-world class and privilege.

— Nitsuh Abebe, "The Rules of the Game," A Grammar, Jan. 29, 2010

i'm asked how it feels to be called a WASP-y, insensitive, rich kid. i answer honestly. i become a WASP-y, insensitive, rich kid in denial

—Ezra Koenig, Twitter feed (arzE), Jan. 29, 2010