OK, I admit it. Last spring, when Vampire Weekend became ubiquitous on hot-new-music lists everywhere, and enjoyed a figurative coming-out on Saturday Night Live, I completely threw myself on the bandwagon. "You gotta check this group out," I announced, to anyone who'd listen. "It's the most exciting new pop music I've heard since the early 80s." Vampire Weekend enjoyed constant play on my mp3 player throughout the end of the spring semester. When I visited San Francisco in March, I lamented the fact that the show they were playing in the city that weekend had already sold out.

Recently, though, I went back to Vampire Weekend, with a little bit of temporal distance, to see if, in a pop-cultural context that ebbs and flows with ever-increasing rapidity, the band still holds their own with the historical "titans" to whom I'd earlier compared them: Elvis Costello, Talking Heads, The Police.

I can say safely that my ear wasn't off last spring. These fellows are good. Their music is rhythmically interesting. It's melodic. Their lyrics are clever. ("Oxford Comma," anybody? A pop song whose conceit begins with a punkish line about syntax? I'm in!) And months later, I'm still charmed by their self-presentation as the great collegiate hope. After suffering through endless vapid dyed blondes and guys sporting mock rebellious sneers among the American Idol crowd, I still find myself attracted to the nerdy liberal-arts prepdom that VW adopts as their sartorial signature.

But, sadly, I think the greatest impetus for my earlier enthusiasm for Vampire Weekend is really the tragically barren wasteland of popular music context into which they've emerged. That is, their greatest contribution is merely a return to qualities I associate with most artists who ascended the hit parade in the late 1970s and early 80s, the period in which my taste in pop music was formed: namely, melodic hooks and choruses and clever lyrics. In their self-conscious return to those characteristics, VW had, as I felt intuitively, placed themselves in a genealogy that included The Police, Costello, Talking Heads...

Thus, the disappointing point at which I've arrived regarding Vampire Weekend, in the end, is that good pop songs should seem so exceptional at this point. Talking Heads--good as they are--weren't messianic; they were merely part of the New Wave norm.

1 Response to 'Notes on Popular Culture: How Good is Vampire Weekend Anyway?'

  1. Anonymous said...
    http://michaelborshuk.blogspot.com/2008/09/notes-on-popular-culture-how-good-is.html?showComment=1266428798044#c2894497730399924002'> 9:46 AM

    How do you like their new CD?


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MICHAEL BORSHUK is Associate Professor of African American Literature at Texas Tech University. He is the author of SWINGING THE VERNACULAR: JAZZ AND AFRICAN AMERICAN MODERNIST LITERATURE (Routledge, 2006), and numerous essays, reviews, and encyclopedia entries on African American literature, American modernism, and music. For ten years, from 1999 to 2009, he wrote on jazz regularly for CODA MAGAZINE. His fiction has appeared in ANTIGONISH REVIEW, DALHOUSIE REVIEW, ELYSIAN FIELDS QUARTERLY, SHORT STORY, and 34TH PARALLEL.

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