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Accidentally on Purpose: What Vampire Weekend Shows Us About Authenticity and Irony

VW Vampire Weekend, the indie-rock band with a “world music” twist, has managed the seemingly impossible: hit a certain demographic—hipsters and indie fans, for example—with a barrage of media so intense, they felt ubiquitous, while also making respected African music critics’ top album charts.

 

Bands like Vampire Weekend are the vanguard of a new iPod shuffle-powered musical world, where influences can be picked up and put down, plucked from context and played with lightheartedly. And this makes their success both potentially instructive and somewhat problematic for global artists, as well as artists who have worked hard to attain a level of fluency in other musical traditions.

As lead singer Ezra Koenig told the Village Voice music blog earlier this year, “We're just big music fans. We grew up in the age of the internet where we didn't just listen to Led Zeppelin and Queen. Fela Kuti was available. Bollywood sounds were available to us. From early on we said we wanted to have an indie rock band, but we wanted to open our ears.”

The band's "world music" side is accidentally on purpose: They just happened to hear Fela or Angelique Kidjo and boom, they're making African music. To make things more complicated, early in their rise to fame Vampire Weekend referred to their sound as "Upper West Side Soweto." An attempt at an ironic juxtaposition, and likely meant to press buttons, but now regrettable (the band has since retracted that descriptor). In a country where privileged musicians (read: European American) took freely from and disenfranchised poor or oppressed (read: African American) musicians, for some, this early positioning echoes the Elvis syndrome.

Yet there's something interesting going on, and something that has meaning for groups who are from Africa, or who have spent years or decades learning various African traditions. There's this mix of irony and global awareness that allows people to set aside authenticity. Just as M.I.A. has replaced folkloric authenticity with "grit," Vampire Weekend has set aside all pretense of even getting close to authentic.

What this broader cultural step away from authenticity and toward irony means for global artists is that they no longer have to position themselves as genuine articles. They can talk less about how they are really, truly, authentically from their home culture and talk more about their music, what they actually do. They can be ambivalent about their identity, if that’s what they feel. They can be willing to take a wry or silly look at their culture, and yet they can still be serious musicians.

Unlike the novelty adaptations (Martin Deny or Ricky Ricardo) or the feel-good celebrations (Paul Simon) of past generations, the iPod generation is ready, like Vampire Weekend themselves, to open their ears. They don't care if you're from a national ensemble or from the most isolated village in the entire Amazon. They want to hear your music. Think Konono No. 1.

Context, however, is still crucial, but it's a different kind of context, a narrative designed to pull people in and help them connect to tensions and joys of musicians' backgrounds. To foreground global musicians as creative people, like the listeners they long to reach, regardless of their cultural backgrounds or citizenship.

 

A good way to think about this is craftsmanship. You are an artisan as well as an artist, with tight bonds that connect you to your community (which isn’t necessarily the same as your nationality or culture of origin). The story of how you came to your craft, and how you make your works of art and skill, means more to many listeners now than your genre, credentials, awards, or authenticity. Global musicians can use the accidents of globalization for a purpose: to tell new stories, to break old molds, and to get their kick-ass music out there.

 

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