Vampire Weekend and restoring the preppy world order

Karlson i Putin
Source: Telegraf/Printskrin: Tucker Carlson Network

Written for Kosovo Online by Srdjan Garcevic, founder of The Nutshell Times

"You talk of Serbians, whisper “Kosovar Albanians”…“

Having your nation shouted out by your favourite, globally famous band is one of the major pleasures of being a music fan from the global cultural periphery.  

It is even better when it comes from a rarely intelligent and witty voice.

For almost two decades, Ezra Koenig, the frontman of Vampire Weekend, has been providing novel insights into the lives and minds of the American preppy, Ivy league set, as well as existential themes, from contentious relationships that cross class and (geo)political divides to dealing with inevitable feelings of hopelessness and helplessness in the world. Unlike most of his peers delving into social themes, he always maintains a breezy, playful touch, which is present even outside his musical projects (he hosts an online radio show, "Time Crisis", and has created an adult animated series "Neo-Yokio”), and is probably necessary if you want to include Balkan politics in a highly complex verse. 

In "Ice Cream Piano", Koenig jovially concludes that one should not be afraid of any nation, as we are all "descendants of vampires who drained the old world's necks". The song’s point is that the desire for conflict and expression is deep-seated in us unless we want to accept the "armistice" and let go (the central theme of “Only God Was Above Us”). 

Indeed, in Vampire Weekend’s lyrical universe, trying to make conflicts, Manichean is misguided at best and manipulative at worst. The band of Columbia University grads, who self-consciously amplified their preppiness, are too smart for that or to portray themselves as the fearless champions of the oppressed (although that never stopped many even more privileged people in entertainment). 

From their beginning in the mid-2000s, Vampire Weekend's embrace of preppiness was a divisive gesture inextricable from their music and worldview. While they later played at Bernie Sanders rallies and Koenig himself hails from a family with a history of involvement in left-wing politics – they not only sang about the lives of the preppy gang in an arch but ultimately compassionate way but purposefully challenged the notion, popular in the arts and entertainment, that prepsters have nothing of value to add. Speaking about their decision to put an old photo of a beautiful blonde in a Ralf Lauren polo on the cover of "Contra", named both after the idea of opposition and conflict but also referencing the civil war in Nicaragua, Koenig observed that "Some people get very mad when they see a white blonde girl in a Polo shirt." Similarly provocative is their decision to finish the latest album with a song whose central point is that one ultimately needs to "let go" of activist goals, set to a protest folk music recalling Bob Dylan and Neil Young. 

If Koenig and the gang had taken themselves and their “message” more seriously and been less jovial, like most activist celebrities these days, they might have become "controversial" or even "cancelled". This way, thankfully, they can be honest about themselves and the world around them. Indeed, Koenig dislikes the overly political readings of his work. “People often talk about us like we’re some kind of conservative think tank, (…) we’re a band, just trying to make great pop songs, which anybody can sing along to, and dance to” he said in an interview

While as a fan of Ezra Koenig and the Vampire Weekend I would be happy to dissect even more of their work (as I did here), I will leave it to the readers to explore it themselves. 

Their work and worldview always bring me back to when I discovered their music in college in the late 2000s. 

Many of the prepsters I came across back then, at investment bank internships and hanging around consulting firms, were obsessed with whether their highly paid jobs would sufficiently contribute to society and were unwilling to have a laid-back, realist attitude to things as Vampire Weekend always suggested. 

In those days, it became very fashionable to “check your privilege” and somehow atone for it. The atonement usually took the form of finding an activist cause where you can identify with the "oppressed" and, well, piggyback on them to positions of even more privilege, but this time cloaked in moral supremacy. My acquaintances from those times, who excoriated peppiness, usually just changed the outward signs of material privilege to those showing moral rectitude – appropriate social media posts, supporting the right causes and consuming the right media instead of Ralf Lauren shirts and brightly coloured trousers. Many of those ended in political and foreign policy circles, and the sad results of their enlightened and idealistic worldview are apparent now, a decade and a half later.

On the other hand, those who joked that their dream was "voting Democrat but living like a Republican" unsurprisingly became more practical. Many of them were drawn to the booming start-up culture and now espouse views along the lines of its leading proponents such as Peter Theil, Marc Andreesen and Elon Musk: in essence, that of "live-let-live" pragmatic liberalism (or even libertarianism), which is aware of societal limitations and human nature. Some even turned full Trumpian and still yearn for the golden years of yuppy prepsters in the 1980s. 

Ironically, while the latter, self-conscious prepsters are being derided by their activist political opponents as parochial, opposed to diversity, and jingoist, they are at least as popular on the global plan. 

Elon Musk is probably the most emulated living businessperson around the world now, and even Trump enjoys significant support globally, especially in countries considered to be at loggerheads with the US. When Tucker Carlson, another proud prepster connected to both Musk and Trump, interviewed Vladimir Putin, not only did he become the most popular American journalist abroad, but he also made Putin look weak. 

The Russian president looked passive-aggressive and resentful, next to beaming and confident Carlson, as he was listing many occasions when Russia felt snubbed by the US as it allegedly wanted to participate in the 1990s and 2000s world order. In that interview, it felt apparent that Putin, as much as he is admired in certain corners of the world, was not able to present a political nor cultural alternative to the preppy Western-dominated globalism of the 2000s, which birthed the idea of "BRICs". Even now, despite the cooling of relations, the children of the Chinese elite still go to preppy epicentres of US Ivy League schools and Oxbridge. 

Maybe we should accept Koenig's wise and breezy preppiness to make the world a better and more peaceful place. Or maybe it is just a sign that my understanding of politics got stuck the same way musical preferences tend not to change past late adolescence