by Rhian Sasseen on June 3, 2012
On the train yesterday morning I stared out the window and watched Boston shutter by as I listened to Vampire Weekend’s debut for what must have been the hundred thousandth time since its release in 2008. It is now 2012 and I have existed for two weeks outside of the rarified and lovely fortress that is the modern-day liberal arts campus; in short, sometimes I think that I am a contra, too.
Class is, for the most part, the defining feature of the arguments and criticisms surrounding the band. This is America, after all, the land of the free where supposedly any child can become president – Old World social distinctions such as class aren’t supposed to exist and, if they do, they are supposed to be easily-digested parables, such as the poor person who deserves to be poor (Republican) or the poor person languishing in soul-lifting poverty (Democrat.) The greater complexities of the issue are rarely discussed, though if Occupy’s achieved anything in the last nine months it is introducing a greater awareness of income inequality hitherto unspoken of in the public discourse. But though “the 99%” may be an ingenious rallying cry it, too, is overly simplistic: class, as it turns out, means so much more than simply money.
For me this is where Vampire Weekend comes in. Like myself the members belong to the educated middle classes while also coming from backgrounds that are a far cry from the “WASP” label routinely hurled at them. As the lead singer Ezra Koenig points out, “The two main writers in the band are Jewish and Persian, which is a pretty broad definition of ‘whiteness.’ We’re certainly not all fresh off the Mayflower.”
But indie culture, music, and criticism are all still predicated on old-fashioned ideas of authenticity and rebellion, a punk-style yowl of sneers, ripped jeans, and rock ‘n’ roll guitars that Vampire Weekend, with their topsiders and tidy academic couplets, manage to sidestep entirely. This has left critics befuddled and annoyed: they’re not playing the game, after all; they are avoiding the easy labels and know-it-all posturing that make up most album reviews. But what is more punk than defying all expectations? – When everyone’s dressed in Converse and aping the past in mannered garage-rock revivals, nothing’s punker than showing up in button-downs with songs that smartly deconstruct the middle class experience with every keyboard shimmer.
Furthermore, Vampire Weekend own their privilege. They are straight-forward in their bobo markers: references to Tom’s toothpaste, Cape Cod, and kefir all make appearances. They criticize the privileges that come with wealth and education while also admitting to their own and longing for even more, healthy and honest observations and confessions that infuriate white middle-class liberal Americans because they are so true and so unfashionable.
The music critic Nitsuh Abebe ingeniously calls this “the game.” Bourgeois white people are allowed to eat bourgeois food, wear bourgeois clothing, and engage in bourgeois lives as long as they actively avoid the label of bourgeois. To survive in the game, one must instead be vigilant in calling out others as bourgeois – not oneself.
In America, where class and race are so closely linked, the game often manifests itself in the code word “white.” Bourgeois, in this context, means “stuff white people like,” erasing both members of the middle and upper classes who are not white and members of the working classes that are. To win the game, my fellow white liberals will blatantly whitewash and continue on engaging in false signifiers of rebellion. The history of rock music, after all, is the history of class and race tourism, from Elvis to the Rolling Stones to, more contemporarily, the White Stripes and the Strokes. But these are all accepted forms of rebellion, as though wearing Doc Martens was seriously a method of questioning the system.
I sympathize with and enjoy the music of Vampire Weekend because they engage with so many of my own questions and concerns. I belong to the educated middle classes and frankly it would be offensive of me to pretend otherwise; on the converse, I am not much of a revolutionary when I carry my copy of Marx in my Smith tote bag. Sometimes I shop at Whole Foods. I have thousands of dollars in student debt and to support my writing I am currently working retail. In the end, it is useless to play the game, to indulge in classification instead of actively discussing how to solve our country’s class problems. In some small way, we are all contras.