And we’re back!
I’m writing from a room in Arkansas, still on tour surrounding SXSW. I spent most of last week in Austin seeing concerts and watching people eat BBQ. I saw longer lines for tacos than for music. I heard a singer admonish a fan for checking his email during a show. I stood in the shadow of a three-story bag of Doritos. I heard Billy Bragg, Heartless Bastards, Jim James, and Flaming Lips–all in three hours. I showcased. I saw every beard in America. It was an exciting and exhausting and sun-burnt and memorable time, as music festivals should be.
But maybe the biggest–and most pleasant–surprise of SXSW was the swift and sudden realization that I’ve been wrong about Vampire Weekend.
Song of the Week: Vampire Weekend “Oxford Comma“
When Vampire Weekend’s self-titled debut (2008) went from “not-yet-out” to “massively popular” in the span of about an hour, and the reviews raved about an “Ivy League meets Afro-pop” band, I was dubious. I was an independent musician from Memphis, grinding out rent, wearing Hanes tees, writing songs about flyover states. They were a band from Columbia University immediately signed to XL, wearing Lacoste, writing songs about Cape Cod. Their album cover was a chandelier. I marveled at their marketing savvy, their perfectly-tailored branding, the way their sound matched their clothes matched their interviews matched their lyrics matched their haircuts. I thought their image was new, interesting, and smartly-executed, but I didn’t trust their music. I thought “there’s a band that has its act together.” But that was all I thought of it: an act.
Similarly, I struggled with the single, “Oxford Comma.” Any fan of pop music would find something to like about this song, and I did: it’s imminently catchy, streamlined, fun, clever. It effortlessly blends American rock and African pop influences into something familiar yet fresh. And the lyrics, perhaps more than any other Vampire Weekend song, encapsulate who this band was in 2008 and what they wanted you to know about them.
It is a song about an Oxford comma. The song’s conceit is its first line: “who gives a fuck about an Oxford comma?” As the lyric progresses, you picture the narrator at an Ivy League cocktail party, catching snippets of white collar conversation, calling out its pretenses and snobbery. The song is written from the perspective of someone who is disgusted by the “Oxford comma” set–someone who’d rather listen to Lil John than argue over grammar. It’s smart and well-written and neatly-executed. But its premise hit me in an unintended way. When the song asks, “who gives a fuck about an Oxford comma,” it’s pleading with elitist peers to get some perspective. But when I heard, “who gives a fuck about an Oxford comma,” my answer, ultimately, was “not me.” I liked the song, but it didn’t matter to me. I casually enjoyed their album, but felt like there was nothing at stake in it.
I had never liked a song this much while caring about it so little.
My week at SXSW ended Sunday night at the Moody Theater. I was invited by my awesome hosts in Austin to attend Vampire Weekend’s Austin City Limits taping. Being a casual fan of Vampire Weekend and (despite this blog) not a complete idiot, I of course jumped at the opportunity.
Now, Vampire Weekend’s new record will not come out until May, and their ACL episode will not air until October. They are as good as anyone at hyping their records, and they’ve sworn ACL folks to secrecy about the new material they performed. I won’t discuss any of it here, not out of deference to their press release, but because I don’t actually know what was what. I don’t know every song title and don’t remember every melody/lyric/moment by heart. I’m not a court reporter. Lay off, man.
What I can say is this: I was wrong about Vampire Weekend. Or, maybe more accurately, I was wrong in 2008 about Vampire Weekend in 2013. The stars of the show were 1) the songs I’d never heard before, which were sonically deeper, more visceral, and more immediately resonant than what I’ve come to expect and 2) the band themselves, who are simply four guys lifting a heavy musical load, three superfast minutes at a time, without breaking a (visible) sweat. These songs are rhythmically complex, structurally unpredictable, and richly arranged; that is, they are not easy songs to remember, much less to perform. What made the concert so impressive, to me, was not just that the band made all of it look easy; they made it look fun.
SXSW is a week full of music. In every bar, on every corner, every hour of every day, there’s a band playing a song. I saw good bands and I saw bad bands. I saw mellow folkies and I saw rock & roll showmanship. I saw some exciting, inspired moments; I also saw a lot of hollow theatrics and empty impressionism. I heard several hundred songs; I remember about ten of them. I saw a few great artists and a ton of wannabes with a Rolodex.
In the span of five days, I saw everything on the authenticity spectrum, and what I’m trying to say is this: Vampire Weekend is a real band. They’re not a goof. They’re not a high-minded honors thesis in pop songwriting and clever marketing. They’re not four Ivy Leaguers exploring an idea. They’re not an intellectual exercise, and they’re not an act.
From the distance of a desk and a laptop and earbuds, anyone can find a reason to dislike anything. Take me, for example: Vampire Weekend, on my iTunes, sits between Uncle Tupelo and Van Morrison. I could listen to “Oxford Comma” and talk about the reasons it’s not as good as “Into the Mystic.” I could even be right.
But that’s why SXSW, or CMJ, or any place with live music, is so essential for the music-listening experience: a band on record is only half the story. This should be common sense, but we tend to forget it: you have to see a band live. Without seeing Vampire Weekend at ACL, I would’ve continued to begrudgingly like a handful of songs, compared them to other bands in my library, and thought of all the reasons Vampire Weekend is fine but not great.
I saw it all last week: the good, the bad, the ugly, and too much of everything in between. And now, from this desk in Arkansas, on this laptop and with these earbuds, I cannot claim to value the things I value about music (pop melodies, thoughtful lyrics, innovation, tight-yet-inspired live shows, etc) and claim to distrust a band this deeply melodic, this lyrically thoughtful, this gifted at blending disparate influences, and this much fun live because they wear Lacoste and have a good publicist. Maybe Vampire Weekend’s music has grown up since 2008. Maybe I have. Maybe both.
I went to SXSW to take the next step as an artist. At the very least, I’m coming home from SXSW a better fan.