Part of it had to do with Super Tuesday -- a referendum, of course, not so much on politics but on likability or lack thereof (political substance will have to wait). But it was also because I came across a slam of a band that I, well, really like. (Forgive me for mixing politics and pop, but in a primary season dominated by various and sundry cults of personality, can you blame me for conflating them?)
The band happens to be the "it" band of the moment: Vampire Weekend, a New York quartet of Columbia University alumni whose eponymous debut has a Metacritic.com score of 82, which roughly translates to "universal acclaim." (One of my all-time favorite web resources, Metacritic collates and summarizes published opinion about music, film, books, etc., and assigns numerical scores to each external review it links to so as to tabulate critical consensus.) Music writers at publications far and wide -- from Britain's The Guardian to Teen Vogue to Paste to Spin to Pitchfork -- have smiled on this 35-minute collection of preppy indie rock with an Afro-pop sensibility. As non-music-critic venture capitalist Fred Wilson (whose all-over-the-map "Musings of a VC" blog is generally brilliant) wrote, "What would happen if the 1977 vintage Talking Heads covered Paul Simon's 'Graceland'? You'd get the sound of a new band called Vampire Weekend."
Though the record was officially released on Jan. 29, I'd actually heard (and instantly loved) many of its tracks last year, thanks to internet leakage (so much so that the VW song "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa" made it onto Rolling Stone's "Top 100 Songs of 2007" list).
And then, last week, I opened up the Feb. 2 issue of "The Lefsetz Letter" (tagline: "First in Music Analysis"), a free e-mail newsletter written by Bob Lefsetz, a Santa Monica music-industry pundit. Lefsetz started his letter, "Last night I caught Vampire Weekend on the Letterman show. They were awful."
He went on about the disintermediated media universe: "The top-down world is coming to an end. ... People have tools to make art and a smorgasbord of entertainment options. ... You must not bang them over the head and make them feel inferior. ... We've been living with a class of professional, holier-than-thou trendsetters who believe they determine what is cool. Cool is not so important anymore. Attention is king. And the longer you can keep someone's attention, the more you're going to win in the 21st century."
Part of me was thinking, Yessss! But then another part of me was thinking, Aw, Bob, stop being such a hater! (Particularly given that he closed his rant by coming full circle to VW on Letterman: "I laughed to myself, wondering why everybody was wasting so much time on this evanescent act. I switched the channel.")
The irony is that, by off-handedly dismissing Vampire Weekend, Lefsetz is aligning himself with the hipsters and would-be arbiters of cool that he's trying to distance himself from. A hallmark of contemporary cool-kid posturing -- particularly bloggy posturing (or in the case of Lefsetz, email-y posturing) -- is, of course, acting like you're so totally immune to the hype machine. Anti-hype -- advertising your aversion to everything hyped -- becomes its own form of hype. As a result, as much as there are tons of cool kids praising Vampire Weekend, there's a parallel set of cool kids trashing the band with almost equal vigor (which is why a Village Voice piece titled "Vampire Weekend: Hated On, Mostly" can coexist with a "universally acclaimed" Metacritic score).
I did a little digging and found that some of the very first praise of the band appeared in The L Magazine, a 5-year-old, digest-size biweekly listings magazine that's distributed free in New York. It's actually one of my favorite reads, because it's packed with exceptionally sharp arts and culture criticism, including that of its (excellent) music editor, Mike Conklin, who championed VW when it was just an ambitious local band. It also has a blog (at thelmagazine.com), and last week the magazine's (also excellent) film editor Mark Asch had this to say about Vampire Weekend on that blog:
"Paradoxically (or not?), I think one of the reasons the band has blown up so quickly is that it was really easy, while they were on the way up, to see what the backlash would zero in on. They ... are young and privileged and synthesize hip influences (and burgeoning scenes) into three-minute jingles that it's literally impossible not to like; they're going to be beloved by people with very bad taste, and this is something that people with good taste hold against good bands more than perhaps they should."
That pretty much nails it: In certain circles these days, liking or hating is less and less about liking or hating a specific phenomenon (e.g., a band or a movie or a politician) but about whether or not you like or hate the people who like or hate that phenomenon.
Meanwhile, given how weary I am of backlashery -- and this here backlash to the backlashery -- I'm going to de-stress a bit by listening to some breezy, brainy pseudo-Afro-pop.