Wednesday, August 3, 2011


I'm not the only person who has ever tried to think of songs about states (you're rarely the first person to think of something on the internet). I don't really mind, though, because it's nice to have a fallback when I'm really stumped for songs to write about. This morning I googled "songs about Maine" and discovered that almost no one can think of any songs about Maine. The same was true for Connecticut, so I've decided to do a more general "New England" themed entry this time.

The one and only song I could find that actually mentioned either state in any relevant way was Vampire Weekend's 'Walcott.' Not surprising, considering the band's pastel-wearing, collar-popping status as the musical poster boys for New England prep culture. 'Walcott' is a song about New England's idyllic coastal towns that name drops Connecticut's Mystic Seaport alongside other locales like Cape Cod, New Provincetown, and Wellfleet. It's a veritable roll-call of cheerful vacation spots characterized by cutesy, whaling-themed taverns and gift shops full of things printed with anchors and lobsters.

In many of their songs, Vampire Weekend plays into these New England stereotypes, especially in their oddly detailed descriptions of clothing. The band is quite image-conscious in live appearances, sporting the "bleeding madras," "pure Egyptian cotton," and "Bennetton" that their songs invoke. Their attachment to a very specific, Vineyard Vines-Lily Pulitzer aesthetic underscores the peculiar culture of the New England coast, an isolated, wealthy, and hereditary enclave with a certain level of detachment from reality. See Oprah's recent interview with former President Bush and his family at their Kennebunkport, ME compound-- the elder Bush sporting a garish combination of brick red pants and pastel yellow shirt that VW singer Ezra Koenig would love-- for a perfect representation of the cultural niche of New England resort towns. The attachment of these super-rich families to their palatial vacation homes, beginning with Gilded Age greats like the the Vanderbilts (whose absurdly vast Breakers mansion stands as the boldest monument to the American dedication to vacationing), suggests an attachment to the region and its traditions confirmed by Vampire Weekend's lyrical obsession with the proper attire.

This affection, however, isn't so simple. Running below the celebration of pastels, beaches, and New England campus life in Vampire Weekend's songs is a current of uncomfortable cloistering and a desire for rebellion. In their lyrics, they harbor the same desire for escape and movement that many of their American musical contemporaries express. However, they're escaping from the polar opposite of what artists like Springsteen lament: oppressive wealth and exclusivity. VW is constantly "wanting to leave" the "compounds...lazy and safe" that epitomize the New England coast. In a moment of brash, youthful distaste they proclaim, "The Bottleneck is a shitshow/Hyannisport is a ghetto...fuck the women from Wellfleet/Fuck the bears out in Provincetown/heed my words and take flight." The denunciation-- somewhat ironic, as Hyannisport is home to the Kennedy compound-- rejects all the niches of New England culture. It's also, incidentally, a nod to the short film about a vampire attack in Cape Cod that gave the band their name. While 'Walcott' is complicated by this film connection, VW's catalogue as a whole has undercurrents of distaste for New England life, for the "uniformed gloves and courtyard gates" of 'Taxi Cab,' a track about Koenig's dissolving relationship with a girl who came from the privileged background eschewed in 'Walcott.'

VW's rebellion against life on New England's "compounds" might stem from the fact that the society there is emotionally deadened by wealth and tradition There's a reason that Vampire Weekend stands out-- there aren't a lot of other bands singing about madras and prep schools. In 'Taxi Cab,' Koenig describes himself as "unsentimental," and relates a conversation with the former girlfriend who lived "in the blocks uptown: in the shadow of your first attack/ I was questioning and looking back/ You said, 'Baby we don't speak of that'/ like a real aristocrat." Of course she isn't a real aristocrat, but this descendant of those Gilded Age lords is as close as America will ever get. Musicianship requires a level of emotional awareness and expressiveness that doesn't mesh with upper crust New England life, and it's this-- the aristocratic need for conformity, appropriateness, tradition-- that the band rebels against most. They undermine the image of New England life as elegant and perfect in a way that wouldn't be out of place in a Kennedy biopic.

However, the criticism isn't entirely successful or complete. A lack of sentimentality lingers in "Taxi Cab," as though the band questions their self-pity for being confined to opulence, or can't escape their own New England upbringing. "You're not a victim/ neither am I/ nostalgic for garbage/ desperate for time/ I could blame it on your mother's hair/ or the colors that your father wears/ but I know that I was never fair/ you were always fine." The lines in reference to parents-- allusions to prep school colors and the iconic "Bergdorf Blondes," suggest a continued attachment to, a buying-into, the stoic way of life that has been part of the New England coastal lifestyle since the Puritans. 'Taxi Cab' could also be a realization that really there's no reason to be so unhappy, because it could be far worse. What do you get if you escape to New Jersey, Springsteen's grinding poverty? Maybe that's why Koenig asks, "Don't you know that it's insane?" to leave Cape Cod. He's an indecisive rebel, hating his roots but unable to stop embracing them.

It's not exactly cool to be super rich and problem-free in a band (who's going to take you seriously?), so maybe Vampire Weekend just want to give themselves some credibility by rebelling against their dreamy, sun-dappled New England summers. But there's an undercurrent of darkness in the stories of most of the great northeastern families that suggests a genuine unhappiness in the upper echelons. Look again at the Kennedys, the Gilded giants who fell, the pathetic protagonists in the bizarre film Grey Gardens. Maybe there is a reason to escape Cape Cod tonight.

Taxi Cab
The Kids Don't Stand a Chance

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