Vampire Weekend Backlash at SXSW

The hype factory had everyone ready to hate on Vampire Weekend before the band arrived in Austin

Used to be that you went to South by Southwest to find out about new bands, to discover a couple acts on your own, to see the few bands everyone would rave about over the next few months and, if you found something really amazing, the next few years. Used to be that it was a place where bands broke out big and found their niche among the thousands of journalists, industry types and fans who flood Austin each March.

Used to be.

In this MySpace- and blog-driven age, South by Southwest—through very little fault of its own—has changed, and for the harsher.

The biggest buzz band at South by Southwest, Vampire Weekend, at its highly anticipated official showcase.
BEN SKLAR
The biggest buzz band at South by Southwest, Vampire Weekend, at its highly anticipated official showcase.
A typical sidewalk scene in Austin last week.
BEN SKLAR
A typical sidewalk scene in Austin last week.

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For concert reviews, photos, MP3s and other notes from our five-day trip to Austin for South by Southwest, check out our music blog, DC-9 at Night, at blogs.dallasobserver.com/dc9.

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The proof of that is in the buzz.

This past week in Austin, the buzz circled specifically around one super-hyped act: Vampire Weekend, the Columbia University-bred, kinda snobbish, Talking Heads-meets-Paul Simon foursome from New York City. Seems you couldn't walk 5 feet down Sixth Street (or, for that matter, any other street in downtown Austin) without hearing the band's name more than once.

The intentions behind those mentions varied; some were kind:

"Oh my God! Have you heard that Vampire Weekend CD?"

"I really want to see Vampire Weekend this week."

"I wonder if we'll be able to get into that Vampire Weekend show..."

But, really, most of the comments were of an uglier variety: "Fuck Vampire Weekend" was the unifying rallying cry amongst the 1,600 or so other (and surely jealous) bands booked to perform at the fest.

It went only downhill from there. Not surprisingly, Vampire Weekend was the top choice when it came to name-dropping an act in hopes of cutting a line for a show ("Oh, c'mon! Let us in! We're Vampire Weekend!"). Most people, though, used it as a way to endear themselves to strangers standing nearby. It was foolproof. Need a witty comment to break the monotony of standing in line with a bunch of people you don't know? Drop a Vampire Weekend slight. Want to strike up a conversation with that cute hipster standing near you as you await a drink at the bar? Dump on Vampire Weekend—at the very least, you'll get a smirk back.

The best crack, though, actually came from another band with a decent amount of buzz at the festival. As his band headlined the Sub Pop label showcase on Friday night, the lead singer for the low-fi indie rock outfit No Age reportedly told the crowd, "We're Vampire Weekend. This is our new song. Want to hear it? It's called 'College Dickface.'"

What, would it have been too harsh to ask the crowd to roll up the most recent issue of Spin—you know, the one with Vampire Weekend on the cover—and shove it up their butts?

It all made you hope, for their own sake, that the guys in Vampire Weekend—who sing about such low-brow, Everyman topics as punctuation use and summers on Cape Cod while wearing cable-knit sweaters, scarves and Oxford shirts onstage—are members of the "There's no such thing as bad publicity" camp.

Although to be fair, for the past eight or nine months, since the blogosphere really caught fire in hyping their band's sounds, the Vampire Weekend guys have had more than their fair amount of time in the limelight.

So, by the time South by Southwest rolled around, the band was bound to be a polarizing act. They were just as likely to be invited to play the mainstream day-parties hosted by Spin and National Public Radio (which they were) as they were to be hated on (which they also were). They were just as bound to be avoided as they were to be waited for. It was one or the other and definitely nowhere in the middle.

When you boast an imbalance of having more than 2.5 million MySpace profile views and having only recently released your debut album (at the end of January), for better or worse, people tend to judge you by your buzz and not by your sound or performance ability.

And that's why, all week long, as I prepared to head down to Austin—hell, even once I got down there—I continually wrestled with whether it was worth trying to catch one of Vampire Weekend's shows. I'd heard the band's self-titled debut, and I kind of dug it. Yes, it's smug in the worst prep-school way possible to sing about commas, college campuses, Peter Gabriel and various kinds of tea. But Vampire Weekend also manages to make it pretty gosh-darn charming—especially in pairing those references with Jamaican and Afro-beats, playful guitar parts and light, upper-register vocals.

But everyone knew what was coming if they tried to catch the band this past week: long lines, packed houses and, more than likely, wasted time. If Vampire Weekend didn't disappoint, it was almost certain that the time spent waiting for them to play (and, thus, time spent missing other worthwhile bands) would do so.

Or so I had assumed. Knowing that I only had two chances to see the band perform (a chance to see The Black Keys, The Little Ones, The Helio Sequence and British Sea Power perform elsewhere during Vampire Weekend's third show, held at Friday's Spin day-party, was too much to give up), I walked down to Sixth Street on Thursday afternoon to see if the lines weren't too bad for its first SXSW show, an NPR-broadcasted day performance. The lines were that bad, though, stretching a whole block past the door of the venue where the band was playing.

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