A Different Kind of Weekend
Vampire Weekend can’t seem to get enough of Weekend, French director Jean-Luc Godard’s 1967 fable about a bourgeois couple caught up in the collapse of capitalist civilization. First, the band used a version of the film’s iconic title to open the video for “Mansard Roof” off of their last album. Then they released a video for “Oxford Comma” that borrowed the film’s imagery (babes with ammo belts slung around their hips, cars strewn incongruously around the countryside) and its cinematic techniques (the video, like many scenes in the film, is one long take—that is, the camera never cuts away from the original shot). The preppy outfits worn by the protagonists in the film also work well with Vampire Weekend’s aesthetic, which is pure Ivy League: the band members met each other as undergraduates at Columbia University. Now, on their sophomore release, Contra, the band seems to have been further penetrated by the film’s influence. For instance, a lyric from “Holiday” seems to describe a young woman’s first encounter with the film by evoking bright pop colors, toy-like weapons, and inter-titles printed in Futura:
A vegetarian since the invasion
She’d never seen the word BOMBS
She’d never seen the word BOMBS blown up
To 96 point Futura
She’d never seen an AK
In a yellowy Day Glo display…
Vampire Weekend’s obsession with Weekend could seem misguided to those familiar with the film. After all, Weekend is about the dramatic collapse of bourgeois society, while Vampire Weekend is often accused of celebrating bourgeois privilege. The semiotics of their blazers and boat shoes have been endlessly analyzed by critics: it’s agreed that these articles of clothing stand for Privilege and Empire and Old Money. Even worse, the band brings these toxic garments into close proximity to West African instruments like the marimba and kalimba, a juxtaposition that stirs up the demons of colonialism and exploitation as well. Seen in this light, Vampire Weekend’s engagement with the Marxist themes of Weekend is, at best, a joke.
The thing is, the band doesn’t seem to see things this way. They seem aware of but unperturbed by the fact that at the end of Weekend, bourgeois civilization eats itself alive, leaving everyone’s blazers torn and sullied and forcing them to give up their boat shoes for combat boots. In fact, the violent aspects of Godard’s film may be just as important to Vampire Weekend’s music. On their previous album, they sang about guns and colonialism in “M79”; now the title of their newest release, Contra, refers to the Nicaraguan guerilla movement that challenged the Sandinistas. Although often criticized as dabblers and dilettantes for it, Vampire Weekend seems to feel a compulsion to incorporate reminders of violence and mayhem into their otherwise cheerful songs.
The band’s motivation for this has always been mysterious, but the new album may bring us closer to the answer. The aspect of Contra most reminiscent of Godard’s Weekend is its cover art. The central image is a candid shot of “a tow-headed Connecticut WASP” (in the words of MTV Newsroom) nicknamed “Kirsten” that looks like it was taken in the eighties. In a viral marketing campaign conducted this past fall, Kirsten’s image was splashed across music blogs without accompanying links or text, leaving readers to guess at her true identity. Even the most fevered speculation, though, never fingered her as a counter-revolutionary guerilla. The actual cover, on which the word “Contra” is emblazoned across the pretty preppie’s polo, looks more like a mug shot than a party photo. Kirsten, it seemed, led a double life, like some of Godard’s innocent-seeming heroines who turn out to be revolutionary assassins and gangsters’ molls (of which Anna Karina’s duplicitous Marianne in Pierrot le fou is the archetypal example). Since Kirsten had come to symbolize the album, it was hard not to wonder whether Vampire Weekend’s sophomore effort would, like her, defy our expectations. Was the band about to make a radical break with its past?
The answer is certainly no. With a few exceptions, most of Contra’s tracks could have just as easily appeared on the band’s self-titled 2008 debut. Yet the album as a whole still sounds fresh and enjoyable, and the band stretches itself musically on a few tracks. The single “Cousins” is refreshingly loose and punky, while the M.I.A. sample on “Diplomat’s Son” gives the song a pleasing jagged texture. The best song on the album is the calypso tune “White Sky,” in which Koenig celebrates the protagonist’s arrival at New York’s Museum of Modern Art with a joyful whoop reminiscent of an Avey Tare vocal. The only notable failure is the autotune experiment “California English,” which at least sounds bland instead of embarrassing. (It’s better than Bon Iver’s “Woods,” the mother of all indie vocoder trainwrecks.) So while there’s nothing revolutionary about Contra, its sameness isn’t stagnant. Instead, it’s evidence of the band’s confidence: Vampire Weekend clearly believes that it’s been doing things right all along.
To Vampire Weekend, then, Godard’s Weekend isn’t a call to radical change. Instead, the film may be a reminder that the privileges of First World existence are not to be taken for granted. The unpredictability of Weekend’s world, where vacation plans are derailed without warning by world revolution, may inform Vampire Weekend’s celebration of simple pleasures like tea drinking and visits to art museums. It’s trite, but “enjoy each day as if it were your last” is an apt description of Contra’s attitude. Its jangly pop is powered by uncertainty. The reminders of violence that pepper Vampire Weekend’s songs, then, are central to the band’s concept for its sound: it celebrates a world that is constantly under threat.
Nathalie Lagerfeld is director of a Writing Center at North Lawndale College Prep High School in Chicago.