Rockonomics: The California-Prep Style Rebranding of Vampire Weekend

A found-everywhere band of the last two years, Brooklyn-bred Vampire Weekend's back with a new album, and new press lines to go with it: they've transitioned from their "prep-chic" Ivy League linage image into ostensibly different "California"-style brand identification.

This all naturally culminates in the following Wall Street Journal headline:

Vampire Weekend Goes from Columbia to California on Its New Album, "Contra"

The nice thing about a band like Vampire Weekend is that they make the duties of a mostly-stupid music press' job really, really easy, by giving them easy narratives to fill in.

First it was "Here's a band the Ivy League enjoys!" Sample headlines:

- Operation Ivy League: On Vampire Weekend's Vastly Bewildering Contra
- Ivy band Vampire Weekend cuts teeth on Afro-indie debut
- Vampire Weekend moves from the Ivy League to Flavor Flav
- Columbia grads Vampire Weekend bypass the hype on debut album

Etc, etc. For every article that didn't note that they were from the Ivy league or went to Columbia, there was certain to be a lede in one that did. Music journalists have a hard time talking about music! Because context is important. But it'd be unfair to say that Vampire Weekend doesn't absolutely bring this upon themselves. After all, in rock, image is everything. Just ask Fucked Up or Les Savy Fav, who will never be as successful a band as Vampire Weekend, not because their music isn't mainstream ready—which, to be fair, it isn't—but because they're led by fat, hirsute guys who don't fit a specific visual appeal.

But Vampire Weekend could only volley the Ivy League Press Line with their music—and with music journalists—for so long.

So now it's "Here's a band trying to shed their Ivy League identity in Golden State culture!" And it's hard to be sure exactly what California-chic is, suffice to say that Vampire Weekend—a band who's first album was often predicated on imagery of the east coast and days spent on campus at Columbia—are trying to embody it.

Places very far from California like to use the image of a sun-soaked republic of beauty ("California Pizza Kitchen," for example) to transport their patrons to, uh, the brick pizza ovens and complex Cobb Salads of California. Same with Hollister, a store owned by Abercrombie & Fitch, which is also in the business of selling a regional style (see: East Coast Wealth).

Examples of Prep Chic: Boat Shoes, Polo Vests, Cable-Knit Sweaters (like you'd find at Abercrombie & Fitch or J-Crew), Paul Simon comparisons.

Examples of California Chic: Skate Shoes, California T-Shirts (like you'd find at Hollister or Pacific Sunwear), Dick Dale comparisons.

But how conscious is this effort on the part of the band? Well, their new album does have a song called "California English," and they were shown on Pitchfork playing it while lead singer Ezra Koenig wore a T-Shirt with a picture of California on it.

Rockonomics: The California-Prep Style Rebranding of Vampire Weekend

The self-awareness is undeniable:

Koenig has a theory that his most ardent detractors – "mostly," he guesses, "white, college-educated critics" – are just using Vampire Weekend for some easy point-scoring. "They don't often get the chance to be activists, so when they see us come along, it provides them with a brilliantly simple opportunity to be activists: 'This is an outrage! These people are exploitative!' Of course people should be on guard for exploitation, but ..." Their argument has one tiny flaw, Koenig suggests: "They're attacking a version of us that doesn't actually exist – the myth of Vampire Weekend."

But as far as manifesting an image goes, they're making it too easy on writers. Two paragraphs earlier:

"The way I look at it is: it's my God-given right to wear a cricket sweater just as it is my right to wear a [Ralph Lauren] Polo shirt," asserts Koenig at a Chinese restaurant the day after the skate-park siege and an hour before another out-of-town gig, this one mercifully indoors.

A New Yorker writer goes with them to—where else?—California for their profile. A California T-Shirt worn while playing a song with the word "California" in the title. Talk, talk, talk about Calfifornia:

As a band, how do you reach a consensus on California as a theme for your album?

Ezra Koenig: Originally I threw it out there as an idea that I had. But when you have a theme that's as vague and general as California you don't need consensus, because you can take that idea and run with it. Even when you come up with some guiding principal, you still don't know where it's going to take you.

Oh, really? Not so much. That place is called "The Bank," as California's an image that sells well with all kinds of consumers everywhere. Just ask the Red Hot Chili Peppers, whose Californication revitalized their careers. Regionalism and brandings are a staple of pop music. Whether a conscious decision or not, and the quality of the album aside—which I happened to think is actually pretty high—it's hard not to see a few things *pop* out:

1. The short distance between the branding of mega pop stars and the branding of "indie" rock bands like Vampire Weekend.
2. That both are selling lifestyle choices as much as they are their art, and that it's a conscious effort all around. And
3. How easily music writers play into it. I'd wait for the New York Times to write their Vampire Weekend profile so they can do the same thing they keep doing with other Styles pieces (excessive redundancy), but there's always the slim chance that Jon Caramanica could show up and save the day. Then again, $50 if the Times can go without mentioning California, Columbia, Paul Simon, or the Ivy League in the first two grafs. Any takers?

Didn't think so.

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