Monday, October 5, 2009

The Year in: Vampires

[Sometime this spring, despairing that my article on vampires and tourists would ever be published, I gave up this thread. Now that the article is appearing in this month's Believer, I've decided to revive it.]

Part IV
In early 2008, a few weeks after I got the advance copy of the Vampire Weekend album, the band began to emerge from the shadows, but as they got closer the scent increasingly repulsed me. First I found a music video online. It featured a lot Ray-Ban sunglasses, sailboats and deck shoes, and so many swirling scarves and pastel sweaters it could have been a Gap commercial. Suddenly, the album’s reggae beats and West African guitar parts gained a more sinister aspect. Then I started to see the posters, hung around Chelsea and Williamsburg. The image seemed innocuous at first glance: a Polaroid of a chandelier, the very tops of a few youthful heads, and the band’s name in white block letters. But something about the poster gave me a shudder. The chic pallor of the photo; the kitschy, faux-gothic chandelier; and the creeping feeling that the haircuts just below it belonged to a swarm of pale, pretty young Columbia students writhing to fashionably tribal sounds.

My picture of a good-humored, harmless little pop band contorted into one of lurking, ironic cultural predators—weekend vampires behind designer shades. The lyrics about the college green and summers on Cape Cod only deepened my feeling that these Columbia-educated world-music fans hid a dark side. Wasn’t the Cape where Norman Mailer had planned to set that novel about crazed rich-kid hippy-bikers who murdered vacationers in the dunes? The devil did the backstroke/all the way from France…the kids don’t stand a chance, indeed. And that line about Peter Gabriel—“it feels so unnatural”—conjured scenes of Patrick Bateman lecturing his hapless victims about Genesis in American Psycho.

And what was that specter looming behind the young band? Each time I listened to the opening of “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa”—there’s a young girl, Louis Vuitton—I heard, lurking just behind it, an older song with a similar beat—she’s a rich girl, she don’t try to hide it, diamonds on the souls of her shoes. The long shadow of Paul Simon on vacation in South Africa stretched over this band, reaching out of its two decade-old grave—the specter of Paul Simon in 1985, pale aristocrat of pop, forced out of the tower of his crumbling fame to find something fresh, descending on Capetown to draw on the healthy pulse of township rhythms. Like any good vacation, Graceland revived Simon's career. Twenty years later, Vampire Weekend was transfusing some vigor into their songs of ivy league travails through a kind of abstracted musical tourism.
[to be continued]

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