There’s a scene in the quintessential ‘90s film Clueless in which Beverly Hills princess Cher, played by Alicia Silverstone, confronts her stepbrother — and later boyfriend, but that’s another story — about his sorry taste in music. “Yuck, what is it about college and crybaby music?” she mocks. Later, she insults his geographically inappropriate clothing: “So this flannel thing. Is that a nod to the crispy Seattle weather, or are you just trying to stay warm in front of the refrigerator?”
For a person barely alive in the ‘90s, college rock was baggy, unwashed clothes and bands I would never get into, like R.E.M. and Pavement. It wasn’t until I was in college myself that I found a definition of the genre to which I could relate. Unsurprisingly, it involved a band that actually wrote songs about academic life: the learning, the fucking and of course, the stupendous irony of teenagers and higher education. In late 2007 I was a college freshman in New York City. A friend I’d met at a party downtown told me about a new band that had formed up at Columbia University. The singer had grown up in her town of Glen Ridge, N.J. “You have to hear them,” she said. “They’re called Vampire Weekend.”
Not much of a name. Vampire Weekend’s self-titled debut dropped Jan. 29, 2008, smack dab in the era of blogging, Blackberries and Barack Obama. A polished collection of sharp, jangly songs with unusual garnishes (harpsichords, marching drums, live strings), the record blurred the lines between indie rock, pop, and influences that had been largely relegated at that point to the adult-contemporary shelves, like Afrobeat and reggaeton. The band’s members—the aforementioned Jersey kid Ezra Koenig, bassist Chris Baio, drummer Chris Tomson, and multi-instrumentalist and producer Rostam Batmanglij—started playing together while at Columbia (the album’s cover is a polaroid photo from their first show at a campus party). Vampire Weekend was recorded in Brooklyn after the band members had graduated, and it featured real, and impossibly wily, references to experiences that every college kid in a city could relate to, like napping between classes, hanging out on campus, and riding the crosstown bus. For New York City students, it was the smart, slice-of-life record we’d never heard before—maybe because it sounded more than a little like Paul Simon’s ‘80s solo albums.
From the start, Vampire Weekend’s preppy brand of appropriated, popped-collar punk was divisive, in part because those city narratives were colored with less-familiar stories of vain kids idling through opulent summers. (Sometimes in the same song, as in the last line of “One (Blake’s Got a New Face)”: “Oh your collegiate grief has left you / dowdy in sweatshirts / Absolute horror!”) As popular as they quickly became, there was also a lot of hate. Songs like “Oxford Comma” and “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” mixed high- and low-brow references, like Louis Vuitton and Lil Jon lyrics, in ways that were surprisingly seamless and, to some, utterly inauthentic. Who could trust an Ivy Leaguer in docksiders singing in a nasal voice about Atlanta crunk music? “To me it’s very obvious that we’re using satire and irony,” Koenig said in a 2010 Rolling Stone profile. “But some people, when they hear a song called ‘Oxford Comma’ and that the guys who made it went to Columbia, all they can do is roll their eyes.”
Whether or not you believe there was more to Vampire Weekend than pastel polos, looking back now, it’s amazing to consider that it was their buttoned-down, literate take on indie rock that left the deepest impact of all the New York rock revivalists of the early aughts— more even than the fuck-it garage-rock attitudes of The Strokes and The Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Today, Vampire Weekend’s scholastic subjects and incisive lyricism have become more the rule than the exception. Walk into most shows in Brooklyn these days and the bands probably formed at NYU, the School of Visual Arts, the New School, or any number of New York higher-ed hubs. Most local acts that play around the city —LVL Up, Washer, Crumb and Yucky Duster, to name a few—write a lot more about post-grad anxiety than meeting people in awful Bowery bathrooms. Despite (or maybe because of)) their Ivy League roots and colorful clothing, Vampire Weekend were among the first very popular bands to flip the script on what it meant to be a young person making music in New York City, and they did it in ways that were consistently more clever than their peers.
Even haters should agree that Vampire Weekend was a radical release. Like another band that many critics drew early connections to, Belle & Sebastian, the record’s sunny pop tracks hide an astute undercurrent of darkness and neurosis. Just as Pavement mocked the idea of what a successful rock band should be a decade before them, Vampire Weekend parodied the wealth and hypocrisy of the upper class that they appeared to covet. And you didn’t have to be a child of privilege to be in on the joke. An English major like Ezra, I fell hard for Vampire Weekend lines about “diction dripping with disdain,” and was impressed with the agile ways the record drew connections to and from places like the Mystic Seaport and Dharamshala. But it wasn’t just the record’s bookish references that sealed the deal on its legacy. Few songs are as instantly catchy as single “A-Punk,” with its prickly guitar and snappy, irresistible beat, though “Oxford Comma,” Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” and “M79” come close. Vampire Weekend wasn’t crybaby music, but it did expertly tap into the frenzied feelings of youth—and you could dance to it, too. Wayfarers aside, that was its most authentic contribution of all.