Vampire Weekend and the Originality Myth Holding Rock Down

In a decade when more art is released in a month than could be considered properly in a lifetime, and every song recorded in the past century is just a quick Google away, our ideas of originality are changing. Once true uniqueness – the conquest for the unseen and unheard – was one of the first aspirations of art, but now it’s all laid bare: every source of inspiration, every melody borrowed from an unknown artist from the other side of the world or remembered in a dream. In 2017, Robert Shore’s book Beg, Steal and Borrow helped to shatter the myth of originality in art, and even more-so remove the stigma of weaving your influences together to make something new: a newfound embrace of artistic copying and pasting. 

In the art world, it was the 20th Century fashion for collages which put originality on the back-burner, by stitching together other works from across mediums (as if a millennium of painters copying Greek statues shouldn’t have done that already). Hip-hop’s sonic collages did the same for music, with producers digging crates in order to find samples and create a hot beat.

Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? Richard Hamilton (1956)

However, when it comes to music made by more traditional bands, the perception seems to remain that there is a direct correlation between the talent of an artist and the extent to which their work can be considered ‘original’ to them. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard an indie fan dismiss an popstar because they ‘don’t even write their own stuff’ – and yet this stubbornness seems to be particular to rock music. It’s no coincidence that music like this has tanked in popularity in recent years. Last year hip-hop became the most listened-to genre in America, overtaking rock for the first time, and you can see the same effect writ large just by looking at 2019’s festival line-ups: in just five years bands have gone from being challenged contenders to exceptions to the rule among a sea of solo pop stars, rappers and R&B crooners. 

Yet this month various blogs noted that Vampire Weekend seem to be doing oddly well. Releasing their first album in six years earlier this month, they haven’t exactly gone all Panic At The Disco: they’ve stayed close to the guitar-centric sound which made them famous and led to them being mentioned alongside the likes of Arcade Fire, Modest Mouse and The Strokes when music blogs ruled the world. In fact, they’ve gone even further: they scored a third US number one while leaning hard into influences like Phish, the Grateful Dead and Dolly Parton. 

I’d argue that this is because, unlike a great many of their peers, they reject the idea that anything in art can be absolutely original. Their brilliant Father Of The Bride wholly embraces the modern songwriting toolboxes of sampling and interpolation. There’s early single ‘2021’, the backbone of which is a sample of Haruomi Hosono’s 1980 song ‘Talking’ – an ambient track commissioned for the retail chain Muji. ‘Rich Man’ credits Sierra Leone guitarist S.E. Rogie because the song is built around a looped sample of his ‘Please Go Easy With Me’. Sweeping opener ‘Hold You Now’ begins as a Nashville ballad, but breaks into a soaring Malaysian choir: a sample of Hans Zimmer’s score for The Thin Red Line. 

More than these gorgeous and cosmopolitan samples, the record is full of smaller interpolations. Lead single ‘This Life’ extensively quotes iLoveMakkonen’s 2015 track ‘Tonight’, before turning it on its head. The album uses sax like Cat Stevens and the banter of country duets like Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty’s ‘You’re the Reason Our Kids Are Ugly’, it recycles a melody leader singer Ezra Koenig himself wrote for Lily Allen and learns a great deal from jam bands of Vermont. 

The point isn’t that Father Of The Bride is unusually referential to other people’s ideas, but rather that it’s uniquely open about its influences. ‘This Life’ may include a iLoveMakonnen quote but it sounds more like Van Morrisson, and features Danielle Haim processed by a tremolo guitar pedal (an effect most memorably used on 1968’s ‘Crimson and Clover’). These songs don’t sound like any one other song: they’re not copies but rather composites, stitched together so seamlessly that Father Of The Bride is one of the most fresh and enjoyable albums of 2019 so far. 

Another of the many influences Koenig has discussed is Kanye’s The Life Of Pablo. Koenig worked on an unreleased song for the 2016 album, and it’s one of the most obvious analogues of Father Of The Bride because it too utilises another popular trend in modern songwriting: that of collaboration. Hip-hop and pop has wholly embraced collaboration: those like A$AP Rocky boast their indie-credentials by featuring the likes of Florence Welsh and FKA Twigs, while rising stars like Tekashi 6ix9ne use co-signs from the likes of Niki Minaj to boost them up the charts, perhaps through intrigue alone. The Life Of Pablo took this to the extreme: 103 artists are credited, with huge names like Andre 3000 sometimes appearing for a single line. For somebody whose ego is one of the world’s most notorious, Kanye doesn’t hide that his name is just a pseudonym for the work of dozens of disparate voices working together. 

Image result for the life of pablo cover
The Life Of Pablo, 2019

Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan was prophetic when he claimed that “as new technologies come into play, people are less and less convinced by the importance of self-expression”. From rap to R&B, many have had no problem embracing this, but Vampire Weekend’s peers have remained stubbornly singular. Not on Father Of The Bride. To name a few the album features Steve Lacey of The Internet, members of the Grateful Dead tribute band Richard Pictures, Danielle Haim, Dave Longstreth of Dirty Projectors, DJ Dahi, Mark Ronson, Chromeo and Ludwig Görranson, sometimes for a single guitar line. Tellingly, ex-band member Rostam Batmanglij is just another in the roster of collaborators, with Koenig as curator. 

Perhaps Ezra learnt from his work in the years since 2013’s Modern Vampires Of The City. With Diplo he wrote the hook of Beyonce’s ‘Hold Up’, a song with a deeply-modern list of credits. Their chorus quotes the Yeah Yeah Yeahs ‘Maps’ and samples Andy Williams, while the wider song interpolates a demo by Father John Misty and samples Soulja Boy in the outro. It’s an exhaustive list, but the talent of the contributors is used by Beyonce to produce a three minute pop song which is breezy, seductive and only hints at the roster of artists who helped create it. 

It goes without saying that if collaboration and sampling is to pop music in 2019 what drugs were in the 1960s, then the old adage applies: just because you’re tripping balls, it doesn’t mean you’re writing a hit. Father Of The Bride is a great album first and foremost because Ezra’s vision ties this scrapbook of ideas and sounds together, and he writes great songs around them. The fact the guitar riff in ‘Harmony Hall’ sounds a bit like the Grateful Dead wouldn’t matter a jot if the song itself wasn’t a joyous epic. Almost every one of the eighteen tracks is tightly crafted and filled with the thrill of exploration, telling a cohesive broad story of a generation finding footing in a changing world and new relationships.

The experiments don’t always work: attempts at the auto-crooning of Soundcloud rap on ‘Spring Snow’ evoke the try-hard efforts of The 1975’s last LP, for example. But trying your hand mixing mumble rap with baroque pop on a single track is a lot better than emulating The Beatles for an entire album in order to pretend you’re presenting an authentic, unique idea. After all, their music helped them to take over the world by doing completely the opposite. 

The other side of the coin is also true: imitation will always sounds stale and dull (just ask Greta Van Fleet), but musical quotation allows you to tap into the creative commons of ideas, and use it to create something that is unlike anything else. “Immature poets imitate, mature poets steal”, said T.S. Elliot… as did Igor Stravinsky, who he took the quote from. Embracing this fact along with the rest of the music world, as Vampire Weekend happily have, could finally solve the dilemma of those dusty record collectors stood around moaning that guitar music is dead. 

Words by Liam Inscoe – Jones

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