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The Evelyn Waugh-Loving Band That Rebelled Against Rebellion

For half a century now, rock bands have been adopting a dark aesthetic to shock the squares. From The Rolling Stones to Alice Cooper to rigorously classified metal niches, rock likes to flirt with dark forces while always offering a wink. Yet it was overdone, and by the end of the 2000s, Ozzie Osbourne had become a senile geriatric with a corporate-sponsored reality show, and anyone still trying to shock the squares was unbearably dull. Then came Vampire Weekend.

The name made people assume they were another emo band, more guys with Tim Burton trapper keepers who mistook being bad at sports for emotional trauma. But that was a red herring. Vampire Weekend created an ultra-preppy persona inspired by Evelyn Waugh and played sunshine tunes with thoughtful string arrangements. Their WASP aesthetic and Cape Cod references were immediately polarizing. The band just released its fourth album, “Father of the Bride,” yet music commentators still don’t seem to fully understand why so many found Vampire Weekend’s schtick infuriating in the first place. It was because they subverted the rebellious imagery of rock and roll, and in doing so taught an important lesson about our culture.

Vampire Weekend emerged from a very particular New York music scene in the 2000s. New York music at that time was colored with backwards-looking romance and a desire to reignite the city’s older legacy. Bands that defined that era, like The Strokes and LCD Soundsystem, consciously emulated older bands like The Velvet Underground and The Talking Heads. There was an unstated urge to insist that the Village was no different than it had been in the ’60s, ’70s, or ’80s, all of which depended on the older symbols of rock and roll. Leather jackets! Converse sneakers! Punk lives! Then came some schmucks from uptown wearing docksiders who sang about French architecture, punctuation, and Cape Cod. Oh, and their name was Vampire Weekend. It was trollish and silly. But something more interesting was going on.

Vampire Weekend’s first three albums are heavily indebted to Evelyn Waugh. The band’s song “Arrows” is explicitly about Brideshead Revisited. The lyrics directly reference the book, while the arrows in the title and chorus are a reference to Saint Sebastian, and the music borrows elements from the Brideshead BBC series soundtrack. The band’s second album is titled “Contra,” which is, at least in part, inspired by the line in Brideshead where Charles says he’s with Sebastian “contra mundum.” Ezra Koenig, the frontman of the band, repeatedly mentioned Waugh in early interviews, and has recounted how he once dressed up as Sebastian Flyte for Halloween. While Koenig compared the band’s first three albums to Brideshead [1], their trilogy is closer in structure to Waugh’s Vile Bodies, in that the first two acts burst with quirky exuberance but build to a dark and bleak third act. After their third album, “Modern Vampires of the City,” won the 2014 Grammy for best alternative album, the band went on hiatus and through a mini-breakup when member Rostam Batmanglij left.

Now, Vampire Weekend has released their long-awaited fourth album. It offers a few contenders for song of the summer and retains some of the band’s signature sounds. The literary lyrics remain, with references to Keats, Yeats, and the Balfour Declaration. But Koenig has moved to California, and it shows. The East Coast WASP aesthetic, elements of classical music, and Waugh references have been almost completely scrapped. Instead, the new album draws inspiration from the ’90s-era hippy resurgence: the Grateful Dead via Phish. Think less tweed and more drug rugs. Now that the band has shed their aristocratic persona, it’s worth remembering that it was always a bit of a schtick. Yet it still provoked strong reactions, and did so because it revealed an unsaid truth about our culture.

Yes, the band met at Columbia University. Yes, they all seemed to have wealthy suburban backgrounds. And yes, they were singing songs about chandeliers. Yet only morons didn’t catch the wink. Frontman Ezra Koenig created an aesthetic manifesto that outlined the preppy uniforms the band wore in public. One of their early hits was called “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa,” the video for which featured preppy John Hughes-inspired extras fencing on the lawn of a beach house [2]. Band members wore cable knit sweaters tied around their necks. It was outrageous. Yet when they first came out, people missed the joke, as the Village Voice noted in an article titled “Vampire Weekend: Hated on Mostly.” The funniest moment came when Alice Cooper complained that a band with “vampire” in its name shouldn’t look like they dressed at the Gap. Kids these days!

Of all people, Cooper should have understood the camp. Yet because those who write about music all come from the same milieu, the conversation around the band focused on whether they were privileged or were culturally appropriating their global sound. In hindsight, we see something different. The band’s silly preppy persona brought into relief the larger absurdity of a culture that can’t get past dead symbols. Vampire Weekend used arch-reactionary imagery to rebel against an established aesthetic that valorized rebellion, and the Waugh-inspired persona angered people because it showed how the old pop culture symbols no longer held meaning.

Leather jackets are the official uniform of white wine brunches. Bosses who harass you for your TPS reports [3] now have sleeve tattoos. H.R. managers, hall monitors, and rule-abiding dweebs of every type have neon-colored hair. Goldman Sachs flies a transgender flag outside their office [4]. Anything once considered counterculture is now a commodity peddled by corporate America. We all recognize this—it’s almost too obvious to point out. Yet this is more than just fashion. It’s a source of great disillusionment because it shows that the stories pop culture tells to itself are hollow. Today, authority pretends to rebel with you. The current conservative civil war can be seen through this lens—the competing factions are not so different from the indie blogosphere’s leather jackets and Vampire Weekend’s tweed. One side accepts the older stories about authority, while the other side tries to navigate a world where authority is actively harmful to conservatism.

Vampire Weekend is hardly a conservative band. In 2016, they played at Bernie Sanders rallies. They did come out of the Ivy League, after all. Their music is worth listening to without looking for political conclusions. And to be loud and clear, conservatism truly does not need more Evelyn Waugh LARPers. Yet it’s worth remembering how Vampire Weekend used reaction to rebel against a culture that refuses to confront the present.

James McElroy is a New York City-based novelist and essayist, who also works in finance.

8 Comments (Open | Close)

8 Comments To "The Evelyn Waugh-Loving Band That Rebelled Against Rebellion"

#1 Comment By Jim in Eugene On June 10, 2019 @ 2:44 am

Not sorry I have never heard this band, and somewhat sorry I read through to the end of this piece. How about an insightful AC piece on Dr. John, Harold Bradley, Roky Erickson, or Hal Blaine, all who have recently passed?

#2 Comment By Parrhesia On June 10, 2019 @ 7:40 am

Pop music is and always has been frivolous and trite. It should not be taken seriously at all.

#3 Comment By Kent On June 10, 2019 @ 8:49 am

Great article. It is a great reminder that our conservative view of subjection to authority is developed in our childhood. We tend to always be subject to the cultures our mothers and fathers tried to enforce upon us as children.

So an 80 year old see conservatism as the life of the 1930’s and ’40’s. While a 50 year old sees it as the 1960’s and ’70’s.

My 82 year old father-in-law understands conservatism as opposition to the rights of uppity negros and homosexuals. My 55 year old brother has no problem with race and sexual preference, but doesn’t like same sex marriage, the immigration of Muslims and unrestricted abortion.

My 35 year old daughter attends Catholic Mass twice a week, and has a problem with unrestricted abortion, but still thinks Roe v Wade pretty much got abortion restrictions right. Though she hates the idea of divorce, she would never attempt to end it through legislation.

My point only being that corporate America, as it gets taken over by younger generations, will reflect the conservatism of that generation. Which seems to subtly shift leftward over time. Just as my 82 year old father-in-law would be deeply opposed to the chattel slavery and Native American genocide of the Founding Father’s time.

#4 Comment By dave On June 10, 2019 @ 12:22 pm

Leather jackets are decidedly out of style. I’m not sure why they warrant three mentions. That said, the commodification of rebellion can be a bit disconcerting. Capitalism eats its own. But transgender people fighting for their rights was never about “rebellion.” It was about equal treatment under the law and respect from their fellow human beings.

#5 Comment By Allen On June 10, 2019 @ 3:02 pm

“…another emo band, more guys with Tim Burton trapper keepers who mistook being bad at sports for emotional trauma.”

Lol! That is some great writing right there.

#6 Comment By Matt On June 10, 2019 @ 3:32 pm

I think it was Sturgill Simpson who said the most ‘outlaw’ thing he could think of was to get married and have kids.

#7 Comment By Sam M On June 10, 2019 @ 6:39 pm

I like this article a lot. I’m a little too old for Vampire Weekend. Modest Mouse was the last cool band I liked. I didn’t know they were Waugh fans!

On the other hand, I’d totally take more Waugh LARPers. I’m too much of a slob to be a dandy myself… but Waugh fans appear to be something other than the biggest problem facing conservatism.

PS: Lonesome Crowded West is a fantastic piece of place-based conservatism, even if it wasn’t meant to be!

#8 Comment By Bob Loblaw On June 10, 2019 @ 10:35 pm

The backwards-looking NYC scene you mention very much includes Vampire Weekend, who are HUGELY indebted to Talking Heads, both for their sound and preppy image. Basically, prepsters who discovered African music. I don’t really care, I enjoy VW’s music, probably due in no small part to the fact that Talking Heads are my favorite band.