At the New York Public Library on Monday evening, the “Young Lions” forum presented Ezra Koenig, lead singer, guitarist and lyricist of Brooklyn-based band, Vampire Weekend in conversation with novelist John Wray. Vampire Weekend’s erudite lyrics have attracted fervent critical commentary. Wray wrote his most recent novel, Lowboy (Picador, 2009) on the F and 6 subway trains to the background of the music on his headphones. The pair, then, was aptly poised to discuss the matter at hand: Vampire Weekend’s mix of rock and roll rhythms with “writerly” words.
The event was held in the library’s Celeste Barton forum, where an assortment of cupcakes, impressively carved melon balls and wine were served. The audience—primarily members of the “Young Lions” (minimum membership $350)—were a distinguished looking group. At one point, I mistook a young man wearing a pastel pink shirt behind the cupcake counter for Ezra himself. Vampire Weekend, who met while studying at Columbia in 2006, are known for being polished and polite. They wear button-up blazers, penny loafers and rope belts, and combine a meticulous marshalling of Anglophile Indie pop and punk speed with sparse African guitar sections. It’s concisely wrought and neatly executed, crisp, clutterless music that reflects the band’s refinement.
Many of Koenig’s songs are plucked from the short stories he wrote in his creative writing classes at Columbia. They are replete with references to a Fitzgerald-like life of privilege and the linguistic playfulness of a true English literature major. Vampire Weekend (January 2008), the group’s first eponymous album offers tales of campus crushes and cool professors, 17th century architecture, obscure debates about commas and holidays in New England. On Contra (number 1 on Billboard 200), Koenig sings about the nocturnal adventures of a diplomat’s son, skiing breaks in the Alps, condos and Mexican rice beverages. We get wittily rangy rhymes (“Oxford comma” with “Dharamsala,” and, in “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa,” “Louis Vuitton” with “sandy lawn,” “reggaeton” and “Benetton”), light word play and smart, subtle slides in meaning: “Sure of myself / Sure of it now” (“Taxi Cab”). It’s easy to balk at lyrics that seem so exclusive, so carefully crafted.
Hands tidily clasped in his lap throughout much of the talk, Koenig showed that he is all too familiar with an uneasy reaction to his lyrics. He light-heartedly alluded to being cast in the role of the “rich kid stereotype”—out of touch and snobby. “Even rich kids,” he said, “are more nuanced than that.” “No-one asks about the background of a band like The Ramones,” he continued (who pose as leather-jacketed working class rebels). It’s a “self-creation myth,” Wray responded, which conceives of the artist as emerging from “a very specific kind of difficulty.” These days, education is a “bind”: you have to get it, but if you do you’re not deemed an “artist.”
Koenig’s lyrics attempt to find a way out of such entrapping formulas. He seems aware that some of his references might come across as tedious and contrived. And his lyrical observations of the upper end of America’s social strata are of course sardonic. Take, for example, “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa”: Koenig name drops Peter Gabriel, but places before it the prescient, self-knowing “But this feels so unnatural.” In “California English,” Koenig’s loud nouns run: “Sweet carob rice cakes, you don’t care how the sweets taste / Fake Philly cheesesteak but you use real toothpaste / ‘Cause if that Tom’s don’t work, it just makes you worse / Would you still lose all your faith in the good earth?” That is to say, if the things and symbols that gave you meaning and status were stripped away, would your life still look as sweet? Or, more succinctly, “who gives a fuck about an Oxford comma?”
On Monday, Koenig quite persuasively balanced what he called “horribly provocatively negative” perceptions of Vampire Weekend as lyrically elitist and musically colonialist against the band’s inclusive outlook. Vampire Weekend’s observational, detail-heavy lyrics refer to concrete specifics, which include the everyday as well as the more opaque. Koenig learned to rely on specifics rather than meaningless abstracts from gangster rap and hip-hop (as well as a little bit of Haruki Murukami). Eagerly reciting a line from “Rapper’s Delight” by hip-hop band, The Sugarhill Gang, Koenig described rap as a genre in which “anything goes.” Rap also showed Koenig that lyricists could use specifics to talk well about the world they know, delight in the sound of words and allow the public to pour over their associations. Koenig said that it was “exciting,” and “hugely thrilling,” to be “working in a medium in which people care about words.” And he added wistfully, “It’s not happening in school.”
It’s also through specifics that the band whip up what Koenig refers to as lyrical “vibe,” an affecting resonance that, when mixed with Vampire Weekend’s inventive mix of caffeinated grooves, ska beats, African pop and harpsichord trilling, promises to pack learning and literature into a pretty fun time. Attributing many of the sharper criticisms directed at the band to an American audience (“It’s always easier to shit on people you think you understand”), Koenig quoted a more generous judgement, the headline to the band’s first UK review in NME magazine: “Poshos make world music. Ace.”