The convergence of bands, record execs, media watchers and tastemakers have turned SXSW into a perfect, yet bizarre, laboratory for the study of rock band promotion. In this maelstrom it seems like every year a handful of bands rise above the background noise and get singled out as the next big thing. As you’ve probably heard by now, Vampire Weekend, an indie pop band comprised of fresh-faced college kids who wear boat shoes, is this year’s must- see act. This band’s rise to SXSW superstardom displays an incredibly calculated awareness of music trends. In many ways they are the most purposfully, intelligently and agressively marketed bands of the last few years.
This band is almost aggressively uncool. Sure, there is some irony, but they proudly flaunt the fact they’re a bunch of foppish ivy leaguers. They are utterly non-threatening; their press photos show clean-cut, unremarkable dudes with tucked-in shirts and flip-flops. It’s preppie-pop with some world music influences. They sound a little like a few dorky Paul Simon fans who got way into a stack of bizarre, late-period Sting albums. This is not edgy rock. My mom likes this band. So why are they selling out clubs?
Knowing this, I got in line about an hour early, which it turns out wasn’t close to early enough, since the line was already 200 deep. My place on 4th street was near enough the stage door to see the band load in: beardless nerds in pink pants and blazers. Resigned to the fact I wasn’t getting into Antone’s, I played roving reporter and talked to the other doomed show goers to try to find out why they were cool. An alarming number of people in line had never heard this band, and came just to see what the hype was about. Also notable was people who mentioned that they enjoyed this band “because of who they are” or “because they’re Ivy Leaguers.” When I pointed out that an Ivy League education was not very rock and roll, no one seemed to mind.
At some level, they seem to be a reaction to the insider rock culture that dominates the Internet and SXSW. For example: the continuing trend to write music reviews in obscure, subcultural jargon; SXSW’s increasingly exclusive parties and high-velocity buzz bands are all relatively recent developments. These trends arose, at least in part, from the mainstreaming of the “hipster” archetype that dominated so much pop culture the last several years. The image of the scenester Adonis was carved out of bad haircuts and silly bandanas that are marketed so aggressively (yet cheesily) that a few years from now it’s going to have the same kitsch as an 80’s movie.
Like all bands, blowing up is part luck. Vampire Weekend having their producer on the Pitchfork Media staff (as disclosed in their 8.8/10 review) doesn’t hurt. But even more than their predescessors, Vampire Weekend is a carefully calculated product manufactured by people acutely aware of the type of marketing and branding required to stand out from the crowd. Their squeaky clean image is a big part of it. Lyrics about sitting around the quad and summering on the Cape are subtly confrontational. Rock kids get riled up to imagine the yuppie beach-house set invading the gritty world of indie college rock. Also, there has long been much talk about the materialistic hip-hop scene, but there is an aspirational quality to Vampire Weekend’s music. Their lyrics paint a picture of an easy, comfortable life that is specifically not that of a rock star. One music video shows them sailing on a yacht! But beyond that, I think fans aren’t looking for music to be dangerous anymore. Vampire Weekend is safe, scrubbed rock and roll, that feels subversive enough to get the indie stamp of approval. Whether or not they live up to the hype remains an open question for me, and the other 400 people shut out of the showcase last night. But honestly? Seems unlikely.