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Vampire Weekend Backlash at SXSW

The biggest buzz band at South by Southwest, Vampire Weekend, at its highly anticipated official showcase.
BEN SKLAR

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 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.

Knowing that this was the beast I'd have to deal with the next night too, if I wanted to see the band's official showcase, I began doubting the merits of seeing them perform. That's when I met Susan Lee, a tarot card reader sitting at a table not too far from the Vampire Weekend day-party line. She said her cards would answer any questions I had. Yes, she said, even about Vampire Weekend—although she did interject her own opinion before the reading: "It's a Vampire showcase?" she asked. How sweet the naïve can be. "I don't think you're missing anything there."

Her tune changed, though, after she looked at the three cards I had picked at random from her fanned tarot deck. There was the King of Pentacles card: "He's wealthy," Lee said. "He has money. That means it's probably worth your while to go."

Then came the Justice card. "This means they [Vampire Weekend] are not a negative influence," Lee explained. "It's definitely going to be a good show. Look forward to it."

The last card showed a man named the King of Wands. "He looks into the future," Lee said. "He looks at his wand with the goal that he has something to look forward to."

Fine. But what did it all mean? "It'll definitely bring you to a higher class of prominent people," she said. And if I don't go? "You'll miss the people; you'll miss a good time. Maybe not the show, but the people."

At the time, it seemed a prescient insight, or at least enough to convince me to check out the band's official show.

In actuality, Lee's prophecy was pretty far off. The entire experience of seeing Vampire Weekend's Friday night gig at Antone's, Austin's famed blues bar, was pretty dreadful: The lines to get in were insufferably long, even if you had an elusive badge or wristband at your disposal; the people inside were disgustingly supportive of Vampire Weekend in that "I've known about them forever" sort of way (in which—and they would even admit this when I asked them—"forever" translated to "since last month"); and the bands on the bill before Vampire Weekend offered, for the most part, incredibly underwhelming performances.

(That last issue was a running theme throughout the festival, by the way. You'd think that being given the chance to open for a band like Vampire Weekend at SXSW would be an amazing get; festival-goers are smart enough to know to get to these big buzz shows early, and if your band is opening for a Vampire Weekend-like act, you're bound to be the benefactor of a large, influential crowd. But both Los Angeles' Foreign Born, which got the coveted pre-Vampire Weekend slot, and New Hampshire's Wild Light, which opened for another big buzz band, the psychedelic MGMT, were especially dreadful. These bands were either really mediocre and just lucky to make the festival or they were flat-out terrified at the opportunity of catching some of the other bands' overflowing buzz.)

Vampire Weekend's actual set, meanwhile, was...well, actually it was pretty good. Performing to a mostly easy crowd of already-won-over fans, the band performed its set engulfed in the glow of their own hype (or was it just the orange house lights?). The crowd bounced along happily and cheerily to the songs (Afro-beat and Jamaican-inspired drums tend to have that effect on people), and the band members reciprocated, jaunting through each track on their 34.5-minute debut. It was a cheery, smile-filled set. It was cute. And fun.

But it just wasn't as remarkable as the Vampire Weekend-loving crowd exiting the venue made it out to be:

"That was amazing!"

"Totally worth the wait!"

"Oh! My! God!"

Still, you can't blame them for wishing it was that good. Part of being a concert-attending music fan, at least for people who attend shows like this one, is the hope of catching something that will be talked about for years. Given the buzz on Vampire Weekend heading into this particular show, it did seem like this set had such potential.

Unfortunately for those fans, although it was a good show, it just wasn't that good. If this performance is to be remembered for something years from now, it will be for the hype surrounding it.

 

And that brings us back to the whole argument that South by Southwest isn't what it used to be. See, no one "happened upon" Vampire Weekend's Antone's show—just like no one "accidentally stumbled into" the very well-established REM set at SXSW two nights earlier.

Yet, according to word on the street, of the two shows, the REM one was the easier to get into.

Think about that for a second. Getting into the REM show was an easier task than getting into a show by a 2-year-old band that most of America hasn't heard of.

There's something wrong with that equation.

And that's just one of the reasons why Vampire Weekend is likely doomed from this point out. With the world becoming more aware of more ways to discover new music every day (MySpace and the blogosphere being the new top dogs because they offer the instant gratification of being able to actually listen to a band you're reading about), Vampire Weekend's time in the friendly spotlight more than likely culminated with its Friday night show.

The lines to see the band perform; the shit-talk happening behind the band's back (and, sometimes, to its face; at least one heckler showed up at Antone's to rib the band by yelling "Fuck Vampire Weekend!" fairly loudly during its set); the somewhat gimmicky, cutesy sound are all adding up to a pretty big backlash heading Vampire Weekend's way. Are blogs really going to risk credibility by continuing to boast about Vampire Weekend? Why? There's an unknown slowcore trio from Toledo that no one else has heard about. Are snarky teenage record store clerks going to champion their now-aged disc? Not now that the band has a video on MTV. "Oh, you're looking for that Vampire Weekend CD? Excuse me while I roll my eyes."

You could see this happening in Austin this weekend. It was evident everywhere you looked. It was impossible to miss.

Assuming you're not completely soulless, part of you has to feel a little bad for Vampire Weekend at this point because, really, we've heard their story before. Remember Clap Your Hands Say Yeah? You know, the darlings from South by Southwest in 2006? No? Maybe? A little? They were Vampire Weekend before Vampire Weekend was Vampire Weekend: distinct vocals, gimmicky sound, good-time vibes, the whole nine yards. Now, the real question: Did you know that Clap Your Hands Say Yeah released the follow-up to their 2005 debut in 2007? Yup, they did, and it was critically panned pretty much across the board.

You get where I'm going with this? OK, I'll spell it out for you: Blogs killed the buzz band. They blew it up months before South by Southwest, the traditional big coming-out party. They made South by Southwest less about the discovery of music and more about the bashing that so often runs hand-in-hand with it. They, in praising Vampire Weekend, all but set up Vampire Weekend's death this past week.

And that's how South by Southwest has changed. It used to be the birthplace of the buzz. Now it's the home of the buzzkill.


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