On May 5, 2006, the lead singer and guitarist of Vampire Weekend, Ezra Koenig, made the last post on his blog, Internet Vibes. The post, "I Hate Blogging," is about a Harlem hiphop gear shop (it's near Marcus Garvey Memorial Park), and offers us a way to understand the surging popularity of Vampire Weekend. Out of all the baggy and sporty items in the hiphop store, this is what amazes Koenig: The jackets that have logos of Ivy League universities. Hanging between two fluted, Doric pillars are jackets for Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, Princeton, and Columbia (the school attended by the four members of Vampire Weekend). "What's going on here?" asks Koenig. "Is this Bill Cosby's dream come true? Academic snobbery supplanting 'bling' culture as the pinnacle of prestige for the young hiphop listener? I truly have no idea."
If Koenig's mind had made even the slightest effort to penetrate this mystery in the Harlem store, he would have seen the reflection of his own ideas turned upside down. The Ivy League jackets were simply the inverse of the sound and catchy aesthetic of his band. Here in the Harlem store, low culture is appropriating the codes of high culture; with Vampire Weekend, high culture (rich kids in the richest country on earth, America) appropriates low culture (music made by the poor people in the poorest continent on earth, Africa). And when appropriation is going both ways—streets kids wearing the symbols of university prestige; Manhattan's upper crust playing Soweto jive—appropriation is not bad. Indeed, it's strange that Koenig, who celebrates postcolonial interclass/cultural exchanges as the new norm, can only recognize such exchanges when those at the top are taking from those at the bottom and not when those at the bottom are taking from those at the top.
In general, Vampire Weekend are drawn to the points at which what is wealthy meets what is indigent, what is respectable meets what is fallen, what is refined meets what is crude. "I see a mansard roof through the trees/I see a salty message written in the eves/The ground beneath my feet/We are garbage and concrete/And all the tops of buildings, I can see them too." These opening words for the opening track on Vampire Weekend's self-titled debut album form the verbal equivalent of a movie-crane shot that moves from the upper floors of wealth to the streets of poverty. We begin with the elegance of French architecture and end with "garbage and concrete."
And so what we have is a fascination with wealth and poverty, and the entire binary chain that is activated by that class order: high culture/low culture, expensive/cheap, white/black. It's not an accident that Vampire Weekend at once utilize the instrument that's most identified with European classical music (the violin) and the instrument that's most identified with African music (the conga). This is the very mechanism by which pleasure is generated in their pop. And it's not just African music they are appropriating; it's impoverished African music from the '70s, '60s, and '50s. Since the 1980s, Afro pop has less and less sounded poor. The biggest names in the business—Papa Wemba, King Sunny Ade, Thomas Mapfumo, Stimela, Youssou N'Dour—have aspired to and maintained the production values of the rich and famous. Vampire Weekend are not faithful to this trend. They instead simulate the sounds of preindependence, pre-postmodern Africa.
Nor are Vampire Weekend faithful to what is really happening in Soweto: kwaito music, which is a mix of Chicago house, New York rapping, and the South African gospel tradition. Koenig describes his band's mode and approach as "Upper West Side Soweto," but a date must be fixed to this description, because the Soweto he has in mind, once again, no longer exists. No self-respecting black musician in Soweto would dare to sound as impoverished as Vampire Weekend's African pop. The music that's currently being produced in Cape Town, Dakar, and Lagos is recorded with digital equipment and processed by computers. Africans are not slow to show the world that they are keeping up with what's going on in the leading studios of Paris and London.
Yes, Vampire Weekend are fetishizing an Africa that is in the past, underproduced, and poor in sound quality. An epic encounter with black Africa is not the meaning of their music. This is why comparing Vampire Weekend and Paul Simon—just about every music critic in America has done this—is worthless. For one, Simon's Graceland was all about a monumental exchange between African and American pop. Simon's musical mission in the mid 1980s had about it the grandeur of a diplomatic visit: Agreements were made, protocols established, political issues addressed. We can easily picture Simon sitting at a table next to Nelson Mandela, facing questions from international news reporters; replace Simon with Koenig, and that picture instantly falls apart. Also, Simon used black musicians to authenticate his mission. He wasn't appropriating, but actually hiring the best in all of the main branches of South African popular music.
Finally, there is the matter of a long-term engagement. When I talked to the bass player of the band, Chris Baio (yes, related to the Charles in Charge star), late last week, he told me that the band's relationship with African pop was not going to end with the first album. But, really, how far can Vampire Weekend dare to go with this relationship? And is that what they are about, becoming better at a dated form of Afro pop? Will they make a trip to Soweto and meet and perform with the real deal in the dust? Heavens, no! The four must stay in Manhattan, never get serious, and continue to offer us in the West simple but fun samples of American boredom and African beats.