José James: No Beginning No End

Late at night, when tigers begin to wake and prowl and humans tuck their children too tightly under their cartoon mascot bedspreads (perfect guides for the aforementioned tigers to zero in on), thoughts often turn to romance. For those who are alone, there might be a dismissive tut-tut before falling asleep. Tigers will be satisfied with cries of terror coming from helpless deer. Some of the more sentimental among us, though, will bend our minds upward, searching through the heavens for visions of our soulmate. Inevitably, those fantasies have to descend to Earth, and when they do they often congregate around cities. Some of our most romantic cities are especially potent magnets for love fantasies. Many think of Paris, Venice, London, maybe New York or San Francisco. Coastal cities, cities with scope and brilliant architectural or natural views for gazing at. Personally, I my imagination turns toward…Minneapolis:

Don’t laugh. Prince is from there. In his wake, Minneapolis has been known as a locus of innovative funk, R&B, and soul music since the late 1970s, when José James was born in the better known of the Twin Cities. Known to this point as a jazz singer, James has broadened his musical ambitions with No Beginning No End, an album that exemplifies artistic unity even as it presents smoldering R&B songs, extended, melodic jazz pieces, and crystal-clear neo-soul jams. What holds the album together more than anything else is a unified mood, a kind of subdued passion made possible by superb singing, songwriting, and playing on the part of James and his collaborators.

Those collaborators include Robert Glasper, a skilled pianist who helmed a similarly wide-ranging project, Black Radio, which was released last year. Listening to them back to back one might think they were separated at conception. Where Black Radio sought to explore the blurring boundaries between different strands of African American music and featured a broad ensemble of guest stars, No Beginning No End is a more unified endeavor that, despite its eclectic mix of styles, retains James as a singular personality at its core.

The album, which was released on legendary jazz label Blue Note, begins with a clatter of Chris Dave’s drums that eventually congeals into a settled pattern, smoky and cool. “It’s All Over Your Body,” the song that builds up from this percussive base, sets the vibe. James sings in a clear, confident voice and tends to favour the smooth and simmering over flashy dramatics. This is largely true of the instrumental arrangements as well: Glasper’s piano, the funk horn section, and bassist Pino Palladino keep the rhythms tight and the volume down, letting the listener soak into the thick atmosphere of the track’s layered production. Even more rhythmically involved tracks, like the North African inspired “Sword + Gun” emphasize restraint and an easygoing feel that let James’ romantic, sensual songwriting shine.

Near the end of the album, No Beginning No End lays down its definitive song. At over eight minutes long, “Bird of Space” winds through spacious textures defined by an infectious bass line. Cool, but not cold, it luxuriates in its acoustic guitars, soft electric piano, and brushed drums. “See the silence of the moment/All alone inside/You belong to me,” James croons, and here the lyrics and musical arrangement come into their own in a stronger way than in any other song on the record. James’ is able to evoke feelings of closeness and passionate pining with few elements and little variation, showing how completely he has mastered the mood he cloaked us in eight tracks earlier.

With tempos this slow and temperaments this reserved, one would expect a much lower intensity level from James’ Blue Note debut. It is this album’s remarkable achievement, though, that songs that could be lethargic or merely sad are brought to life through skillful pacing, involving songwriting, and agile playing from the band. Twisting and morphing from one genre to another, the different songs sound different enough to be readily distinguished from each other but obviously exist in the same headspace. For those with an hour to spare and a desire to bask in slow-burning but passionate music, No Beginning No End will work bluesy wonders.

Hail to the Thief: External Forces

My post last week about Demon Days made much out of my view that the album focuses mainly on the internal anxieties and conflicts produced by external conflicts. Damon Albarn and company were more interested in the unique rhythms of people who are involved in perpetual war. I would attest that Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief, though it also touches on those aspects of anxiety, is more concerned with naming and confronting the enemies.

The longest and most eclectic album Radiohead has released, Hail to the Thief was rumoured before its release to be a “return to rock” record for the band. While much of this emerged from the pining of old-school fans of the band who wanted Jonny Greenwood to put away the Ondes Martenot and play guitar again, there is a grain of truth in this statement. After the cold digital Krautrock of Kid A completely reoriented the band from rock toward electronics and the hazy, fragmentary Amnesiac solidified their experimental streak, Hail to the Thief feels like a career recap in many ways. Ranging from almost straight-ahead U2-style arena rock to tender balladry to frenzied guitar noise to sparely arranged apocalyptic rants, the album does not hold together as a unified statement but has a great deal to offer in terms of dread and worry.

I have considerably less to say about this album than I did about Demon Days. I’ve had a much longer relationship with this record than Gorillaz, and much of last week’s article was exploratory more than definitive. That said, there is one main aspects of Hail to the Thief that I want to explore: naming the enemy.

Naming the Enemy: “A Wolf at the Door”

Before talking about the final and best track on the album, I want to open with a few remarks on how Thom Yorke’s songwriting, as obtuse as it is, is primarily concerned with finding external sources for internal stress and giving them a face.

First, an astute listener will notice that several of the songs here are sung from the perspective of nameless antagonists. The very beginning of the first song, the hard-rocking “2+2=5,” after a few seconds of scene-setting introduction, says this:

Are you such a dreamer

To put the world to rights

I’ll stay home forever

And two and two always makes a five

This is a question addressed to some idealistic person, never named nor properly defined. It could be that the narrator is addressing himself (assuming gender based on the gender of the songwriter). Antagonistic narrators also appear in “Sit Down, Stand Up,” and “We Suck Young Blood.” Assuming that much of the content on the album is political–an inevitable conclusion, I believe–we can conclude that Thom Yorke is putting on these distasteful personae as a way of confronting the listener with their own complicity in the terrible happenings they see. While this might seem to contradict my theory about the album’s focus on external foes, I believe that the way these personae operate allows the listener to separate him or herself from these narrators. The song, after all, is coming from outside of them. While these personae might present more complicated internal conflicts for the artist, the way they function for the listener is still largely to implicate an outside influence, a hand on their ankle dragging them down.

Turning now to “The Wolf at the Door,” we see the various indistinct threats Radiohead has interrogated over the course of the album–the vampires, the imperial tyrant, the disease of madness, the “they” that suck you down in “The Gloaming”–to coalesce into a single, potent metaphor. Borrowed from an episode in the book of Genesis where Cain kills his brother Abel and is warned by the Lord God that sin is crouching at his door, ready to pounce. Read the chorus or refrain from the song:

I keep the wolf from the door

But he calls me up

Calls me on the phone

Tells me all the ways that he’s gonna mess me up

Steal all my children

If I don’t pay the ransom

But I’ll never see them again

If I squeal to the cops

I interpret this as a personification and externalization of an inwardly-felt threat. The wolf here is there, crouching at the door. He can be fought back but not beaten, is insistently belligerent and has a special interest in menacing the weakest in society. Authorities are impotent to defeat him. This helplessness is further reinforced by the words that swirl around this refrain. For instance:

Take it with a pinch of salt

Take it to the taxman

Let me back let me back

I promise to be good

Don’t look in the mirror

At the face you don’t recognize

Help me call the doctor

Put me inside

Put me inside

Put me inside

Put me inside

Put me inside

 These words, coming to us via Thom Yorke’s uncharacteristically droning recitation, weave a dense set of familiar situations. Whatever is bothering the narrator of the song is clearly felt as oppressive, but his response is to recite banal clichés, turn away from his own face, and believe that he has gone mad, and is need of medical pacification. Later lines will make even clearer that the tensions bubbling with the distorted guitars in the background of this twisted beat poem are mostly related to economic power:

Investments and dealers investments and dealers

Cold wives and mistresses

Cold wives and sunday papers.

City boys in first class

Don’t know we’re born little

Someone else is gonna come and clean it up

Born and raised for the job

Someone else always does always pick it up

What we see in here is that the enemy is named–the eponymous wolf–but the narrator is still paralyzed by fear, unable to break out of the economic and political systems that define how he responds to the world. Scenes from a typical day, like the banal phrases from the earlier lines, mingle among denials and epiphanies in equal number. The result is a song that dances between despair and clear insight, what I would call Radiohead’s most lyrically astute song. Much of their work after Hail to the Thief has retreated from the front lines in the war on late capitalistic corporatism or however they would put it. Nevertheless, critics who want to label them ineffectual demagogues peddling guilt-cleansing music for rich people could point to the financial success of this album even as it delivers scathing critiques of Western culture’s alternately cynical and naive embrace of conformity.

What can we take away from this? I would say, in closing, that while this album has a more overtly revelatory/prophetic character, its focus on external enemies and almost mythic personifications makes it less effective at understanding personal anxiety in a society bent toward unending foreign wars. Demon Days has its own fair share of dance-related escapism and a similarly fabled and mythic ending, but I find that its embrace of a more total vision of humanity, its very incoherent eclecticism, makes it more meaningful in this way. This is not to compare their purely musical merits, and I might say more about that in the future. Nevertheless, I find both of these works compelling, and I hope that more people look back and see them as more than pop music milestones.

Gorillaz: Endangered Species and Demons


I think of entering a dream as a kind of waking. Unlike real waking, often accompanied by nervousness and a fraught feeling that clenches up in your knuckles, that makes you cling to your bedsheets, waking into a dream is a seamless experience. The relatively freeform and unorganized experience of sleep goes into a kind of illuminating flux, churning up episodes of terror, love, flight, and the grotesque. Whereas in waking life our brains synthesize and, in Western culture at least, arrange events in a linear sequence, dreams are more like pure living. We “get” the dream, but often can’t even recall what happened. Moment by ethereal moment, we encounter the verdant, organic underside of our lives.

Dreaming and living used to be scarcely separable for me. As a tiger, there was nothing in my mind to call up old memories or try to construct grand narratives out of what I was seeing. Life was a fragmentary cascade of moments; I lacked the illusion of selfhood to stitch it all into a coherent image.

Living with a humanlike mind for the last decade, give or take a year, has brought out to me how primal and basic many of the tensions in human life are. Rage, sexual drive, and other symptoms of having physical bodies certainly account for much of what happens in this world. What I have also noticed, however, is how fundamental the stories are, especially the Stories, to binding the human world together. Without the Stories that underpin ideas like race and religion, without the deep symbolism that intricate piles of concrete and glass can take on, it simply wouldn’t be a human world.

Gravity and the other basic forces keep the physical world together. Stories are every bit as much a part of the furniture of the human universe. Perhaps everything we see is material. I would say that it is not merely material.

Tigers have no reason to tell stories about demons. Gorillaz, however, definitely does. Creative leaders Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett conceived Gorillaz, an animated, genre-hopping band, as a direct commentary on the hollowness of popular culture circa the turn of the millennium.

When we get to 2005’s  Demon Days, however, the point of the bitter joke that is Gorillaz appears to have shifted from stripping away the allure of prepackaged “bagged” sunshine to pushing into the human anxieties that arise in a time of perpetual war. These wars, which still rage above my very head in the human world, somewhere beyond the watertight skies of hell, are not merely perpetual.They are like dreams, dripping into the popular conscious through media and hearsay. So few people in the West can even find their own countries on the map, much less the supposedly tumorous desert lands where, they may imagine, all the riffraff spawn from sand dunes. Truthfully, the wars are more like demons, haunting us and telling us how to think, how to talk, how to act. We are possessed by the malign spirit of war, and exorcising it is the work of prophets who have yet to arrive.

I’m not going to turn and say that Gorillaz were able, in 2005, to banish all the demons. However, the album in question is undoubtedly one whose music attempts to process fragments and anxiety and whose lyrics attempt to penetrate through some of the bullshit and peer at what is really going on.

Before moving into talking about how the artistic collaborators present here grapple with these demons in lyrics, I would like to dwell on the music for a moment more. Pitchfork’s mixed review of this album talks about it as drawing from a kind of toybox of assorted popular culture elements. I would say that it’s more like the album is attempting to find what kind of music is best for articulating its various points. Despite being labeled “alternative hip-hop” by Wikipedia, the album features no rapping until a full third of the way in. While it’s true that the mixing and synthesizing ethos of hip-hop is a governing idea for the music here, no particular genre or its trappings are able to dominate.

A dazzling variety of musical styles are put to use here. Bits and pieces of rap, rock, gospel, and electronic dance music coexist uneasily here, in my mind contributing to the inherent tensions. The feel of the album is almost too cohesive considering the cosmopolitanism is exhibits. What is encouraging is that the people who put this together appear to understand the place and context of each component they’re working with, and how to construct songs, and an album, that can communicate richer themes without sacrificing diversity.

The blunt hip-hop bounciness of “November Has Come” feels just as natural as the insensitive pounding of “Last Living Souls,” and as integral to the whole as the soaring choirs in “Don’t Get Lost in Heaven.” An album that begins with a sample from Romero and ends with an exultant, distorted reggae-driven gospel song has no chance of being entirely coherent, but I feel that that lends Demon Days a great deal of its effectiveness.

Where do we see the anxiety manifesting itself in the music in specific songs? Consider the first full song, “Last Living Souls,” which brings a bass-heavy beat to bear against a flurry of heavily distorted guitars and an almost chipper repeating synth line. Damon Albarn’s voice drones, only occasionally becoming really musical. At one point, pianos and strings enter the picture, giving us a glimpse of harmony before joining back up with the beats and guitars. Albarn is similarly deadpan in “Feel Good Inc.,” which features, among other things, a blistering rap verse and final sung verse that totally break the continuity of the rest of the song’s flow. Many songs here have similarly fragile structures, with frequent interruptions setting the listener on edge even as the album’s catchy hooks and infectious beats settle into the brain. Plus MF DOOM appears. Even at his most low-key, you can’t help but notice the chaos clutching at every verse he delivers.

Now to the lyrics. The first coherent sentence you hear on the album–the intro has some buzzy incomprehensible chatter–is a question. “Are we the last living souls?” The question seems self-directed, and it repeats over and over again like a mantra. During the song, it’s difficult to discern any situation or context for the question beyond a general apocalyptic feeling. At one point in the song, Albarn speak/sings this set of lines:

Take a gun

Or how you say

That’s no way

To behave

But just as long you need the gear

So sing a song that doesn’t sin

It grows

Hey, you know

What I find in these lines is an attempt to reconcile the demands of this new world situation. We need to take up arms, but our internals are wired to say “that’s no way to behave.” Social conditioning and necessity conflict, and the way we reconcile the two is often through objects and people who comfort us. In this, the song references songs that don’t sin. What a curious notion, I say to myself. Above, I suggested that Gorillaz’s target had shifted. I would like to revise that. Instead, I would say that Gorillaz is still aiming at the superficial popular culture that acts as so much insulation against real suffering and joy, only the work on Demon Days is more explicitly political.

Many of the songs touch on the interplay and conflict between art and reality. The most poignant example of this is on “Dirty Harry,” in which a children’s choir pines for firearms and a troubled veteran of war, animated by the quick-paced rapping of The Pharcyde’s Bootie Brown. The narrators appear to act out of a genuine concern at first. “I need a gun/To keep myself among/The poor people/Out burning in the sun.” This justification indicates a story that you can tell your children when they ask why the country is at war. What could possibly require drastic violence? Because the people back home are isolated from real suffering in the war, they can safely consume whatever ideological narrative they need.

Like a bolt from the heavens, the tranquil choir and relatively sedate beat are fractured and split open. I’ll reproduce the entire verse here so you can gauge its full effect.

In my backpack, I got my act right

In case you act quite difficult

And you is so weaken with anger and discontent

Some are seeking and searching like me, moi

I’m a peace-loving decoy, ready for retaliation

I change the whole occasion to a pine box six-under

Impulsive, don’t ask wild wonder

Orders given to me is ‘Strike’ and I’m thunder

With lightning fast reflexes on constant alert

From the constant hurt that seems limitless

With no dropping pressure

Seems like everybody’s out to test ya

‘Til they see your brake

They can’t conceal the hate that consumes you

I’m the reason why you flipped your soosa

Chill with your old lady at the tilt

I got a ninety days digit and I’m filled with guilt

From things that I’ve seen

Your water’s from a bottle, mine’s from a canteen

At night I hear the shots ring, so I’m a light sleeper

The cost of life, it seems to get cheaper

Out in the desert with my street sweeper

The war is over, so said the speaker

With the flight suit on

Maybe to him I’m just a pawn

So he can advance

Remember when I used to dance

Man, all I wanna do is dance

What we observe here is what happens when we make the move from a broader, political perspective on war to a more individualized one. In order to fulfill the wishes of the people, some volunteers are sent over and condemned to a life of split identity. Soldiers in the field who arrive back in a country that barely knows what’s going on. The country does not militarize because the war is being waged in the name of peace. Living with this contradiction is a major source of anxiety not just for the soldiers, though they might feel it most acutely, but for any conscious citizen. War is a grand and noble adventure, so we might think–the highest service one can render to one’s country. What “Dirty Harry” evokes is the experience of the unselfconscious innocence of dance and the grit of war rubbing up against each other.

Another theme that reveals itself in intriguing ways throughout the album is a certain connection it makes between the anxiety of perpetual war and decay with God. Perhaps my religious ears make too much of this, but for me there is no escaping the little flashes of transcendence. Combined with the album’s title and the dramatic turn toward the cosmic that it makes at the end, I think it’s safe to say that religion–dare I say, Christianity?–has at least an indirect role in reinforcing the album’s thematic messaging.

Roots Manuva, who raps on the agonized love song “All Alone,” begins his first verse with references to the Biblical texts of Leviticus and Deuteronomy. If you’ve followed Manuva in his work previous to this, you know that he has a conflicted relationship with religion, and this song is a good example of that trend as well. The two books referenced are Old Testament law books, given to Israel as guides for how they are to live out their covenantal responsibilities to the one God. The song, however, celebrates a more uncontrolled kind of ecstasy, one directed toward another person.

We’s about to make it clear

We happy or we lonesome

The long jump, the beat heart, from start to finish

Ten spoons of spinach

The soul and the spillage

The cup that runneth ovah

We turn up the o-god!

Like “Last Living Souls,” “All Alone” tries to find solace from the loneliness that festers amidst the artificially constructed happiness that people surround themselves with. Finding meaning in love, in a fervent passion for other people, expressed physically or otherwise, seems to be a thin solution. However, I would argue that, whether momentary or long lasting, this kind of loving and caring expression is ultimately what grounds people’s lives in order, that helps them make sense of the stories they tell.

One final close inspection is warranted before turning to the final part of the album. Consider the chorus from “Feel Good Inc.”:

Windmill, Windmill for the land.

Learn forever hand in hand

Take it all in on your stride

It is stinking, falling down

Love forever love is free

Let’s turn forever you and me

Windmill, windmill for the land

Is everybody in?

Windmills, for those not initiated into the world of pre-industrial machinery, are primarily designed to turn wind into power. Older windmills were designed to grind grain or pump water, with modern ones designed to generate electricity. While the pleasures we can find in the world are increasingly becoming refuges from anxiety and salves for guilt, the song almost commands the listener to “love forever.” Love, unlike anything that can be produced by a corporation, is free. Thus it is genuine relationship that breaks through the plastic-wrapped, sugar-coated shell we hide ourselves in.

Finally, let’s consider the three-song cycle at the close of Demon Days. The first, “Fire Coming Out of the Monkey’s Head,” is an apocalyptic fable. Here is what I had to say about it to a Christian group:

“Songs that disrupt, that leave me aching for visions of Unimaginable Sincerity and Beauty, are usually simple enough to be universal and complicated enough to resonate specifically. The songwriter here tells a childlike, if morbid, fairy tale of lost purity, a story about two kinds of people. Happyfolk are trapped in blissful ignorance. The others, the Strangefolk, are obsessed with seeing and grasping, taking what they want with little regard for consequences. If you this song to be an allegory, you can project any number of misguided villains onto them.

But I sympathize with the Strangefolk. I, too, look up to mountains and imagine their utmost depths. I want to peel back the obvious and find the Ultimately True lurking under the surface. I want to look into the place where all good souls come to rest without burning my eyes. For me the song represents two ways of living, neither of which escapes the blight of corruption. The Happyfolk are falsely happy because they don’t understand that you can’t hide from the world, that there is great strife and that the world harbors great evils and goods alike. The Strangefolk pay for their momentary visions of eternal bliss with disorder and chaos.

I want to be neither. I want my eyes opened to awe and to despair, and this song gives us an apocalypse that is undigestible, that we cannot process entirely as long as we don’t try to map easy allegories onto it. I hope that in the stories we hear sung today we can glimpse the place where we can go to rest, the Truth that comes breaking through great clouds.”

What we see in the final two tracks is a brighter vision emerging from the cosmic nothingness that reigns at the end of that fable. The penultimate song, “Don’t Get Lost in Heaven,” warns against settling into a complacent vision that allows you to sleep well at night. Hopeful for the promises of heaven, one can be paralyzed by the realities of evil in the world. Having been to heaven and back, let me tell you that it’s true. Heaven as we know it is enervating. It has no meat, no substance to ground us. Suburbia, invoked in the song, is a similar false paradise.

The album finishes with a call to repentance, a cosmic charge: turn away from the comfort and embrace risk. It calls on the listener to turn around, to face the reality of the world. “In demon days, it’s cold inside,” but there is a pivot here. Demon Days hopes to come to terms with the anxieties not by burying or denying them but by inviting its listeners to come to a new life.

That’s why I love listening to it. Those interested in a more critical, “balanced” review that takes apart the songs for likes and dislikes, I may write that someday. What I want to communicate here is how, through a menagerie of pop music modes, references to politics, and confrontations with the jitters of perpetual war, Gorillaz has managed to illuminate modern anxieties.

I didn’t write much about “White Light.” But in that song, there is a break in the clouds. Depending on my mood, I either focus on the entropy and collapse that surrounds it or get soaked into the momentary bliss. What I love is that this album includes both in their full richness.

Short Post: “The Lady and the Tiger”

Wonder of wonders, I think I saw the hazy outline of the moon tonight. I ran out into the street, even though the hungry ghosts were stalking, their eyes all aflame with desire. I wanted to risk being eaten (only a bit of my tail lost) to see this magnificent sign. All of the ghosts were staring upward, creaking and quaking at this unfamiliar sight. If you’ve spent ten thousand years or more shuffling through the dust under a flat sky, well, the moon might be a bit much to handle at first.

We have a song to listen to today. There is an old story, probably taught in more human schools than tiger ones, about a Lady and a Tiger. Choose the former and you get to marry her, choose the latter and…Here’s where I get angry. Tigers aren’t killing machines! We’re living beings. If it were me in there, even if I were starved and desperate, I think I could refrain from eating him long enough to at least apologize. Now, that might not seem like much, but we’re talking about life and death here. A few more seconds is a few more seconds.

If you want a literary refresh on the story, this song is not the place to go. They Might Be Giants are more interested in mining hyperbolic comedy and desperation from their subjects. Laser vision and literature are more compatible than you might think. Combine the witty handling of the subject matter with a grabby beat and grumbling horn section and you have a song that treats tigers with proper respect.

I need to get out of this hell. Does anyone know if they could tunnel down here? What are the metaphysics here?

Series Sneak Peak: Radiohead and Gorillaz

Weather in hell varies more than I originally expected. While the usual parade of slate grey skies has kept up its plodding march, there are signs of hope on the horizon. For one, a couple of people my Hungry Ghost friends knew, who had been here several thousand years, have suddenly vanished. Granted, they were on vacation in what are reputed to be bear-infested mountains, but those bears would pose them no danger. Every day they remain missing brings new hope to the rest of the ghosts. We all pray for a mass exodus, particularly those of us like me who are here more because of poor worldbuilding and cosmic coincidence than unquenched desires.

Yet I remain, soldiering on day after day, thinking and planning and working. I know there’s no way out, so I’ve tried to make myself at home here in the infernal doldrums. These writings are crucial sanity-reinforcement mechanisms, and I hope that you won’t think me disingenuous when I thank each and every one of my readers for their patient dedication and love of culture. Truly, you are to be saluted.

And a good audience deserves good content. Starting next week, after a short Friday post, will be a new series examining style-bending British groups Gorillaz and Radiohead dealt with issues of fame, wealth, and political anxiety in their music. This should be at least three posts long. One on Radiohead, one on Gorillaz, and another where I directly compare two of their albums. Their musical expressions took parallel turns in certain cases, and both are led by highly socially conscious lead singers.

I’m excited to see where this will lead. Stick around and find out with me.


Vampire Weekend and Cultural Appropriation

When, as a young tiger, I was first looking into human culture, I was stunned by how foreign it seemed. Not only that, but all of the sources I was using–books, television shows, movies–depicted what seemed like a fairly fixed and stable, almost unitary culture. Sure, there was staggering variety of expression, appearance, and lifestyle unknown in the tiger world. After overcoming the initial shock, however, I started to get the idea that human culture was based on some unchanging principles.

1. Selfishness. Like tigers, humans seem to prefer to be solitary, yet are forced to meet and group together for some specific purposes. For tigers, that basically consists of procreation and cub-rearing. Humans are much more social, but most of the literature I read and films I watched tended to glorify the individual. What mattered was not how the community functioned in human culture but what the culture and community could give to each constitutive person. In fact, most of the protagonists in human narratives that I read–especially more recent ones–saw being together with others as a burden except in the case of romantic attachment. That, too, generally led to difficulty and tragedy, with love being expressed as something irresistible, alien, and wonderful all at once.

2. Search for Meaning. Even the most ardent nihilists I could find in literature wanted to do. The problem with doing is that you need motivations. Whether or not you think that your life ultimately mattered, there had to be something compelling or lovable about the world. To me, that sounds like meaning, in that it means something to you.

There were others, but that’s a pair of examples just illustrating what I thought were unbroken cultural touchstones. I formed assumptions based on the cultural artifacts I encountered and that lead me, for a time, to think that human culture was mostly fixed, revolving around and around the same few key themes. Now, I still believe that there are certain aspects of human nature that do recur in many, many cultural products. However, the important thing is that I no longer approach human culture assuming that it’s basically changeless.

I’ve noticed that humans can fall into a similar trap when looking at cultures beyond their own. I give you Vampire Weekend.

Having recently announced their third full-length LP, Vampire Weekend has been on my mind lately. Even in the depths of the land of Hungry Ghosts, there are times when I want a bit of highlife/indie rock jangle to start off a day in the doldrums. I am certainly not the most partisan supporter of Ezra Koenig (lead singer) and company, but I’m here today to defend them against a serious charge. That charge is aptly summarized in the following quotation, which comes from a Telegraph article by Andrew Perry:

“Vampire Weekend’s success rests upon their initial revamp of common-or-garden indie-pop, using the tingling guitars and jittery rhythms of African “highlife” — an inspired marriage, rather like Belle & Sebastian meets the Bhundu Boys. During their upward trajectory, though, there have been dissenting voices – occasional accusations of cultural piracy, with the subtext that the four alumni of Columbia University are some clique of Ivy League imperialists, stealing sounds from a less privileged continent.” (emphasis mine)

Let’s carefully enumerate the charges laid against the swank, musically talented defendants.

1. They are accused of being white, educated, rich, and privileged.

2. They are accused of incorporating African musical conventions into their music.

3. The combination of these two means that they are being imperialist or colonialist. In other words, they’re making music with diverse cultural influences in an insensitive way.

I think we can confirm that they are guilty of both 1. and 2. They all graduated from Columbia. Just having a college degree in this world makes you privileged. Their whiteness is a little less clear, since there are members of the band who are of Hungarian Jewish and Iranian descent. Let’s be clear; fifty years ago, there would be significant controversy over calling a Jew “white,” not to mention an Iranian. Technically, yes, Iranians are Indo-European people. Still, their status as “white” might be considered a little hazy, especially if they’re Muslims.

Just look at them in the picture above, though. So hatable. So smug and “cool.” I’ll bet they think the Belgian Congo was “cool.”

I have leopard friends who lived during the Belgian Congo. Well, they’re dead now, but we keep in touch. I think that, even if you do want to accuse a cosmopolitan indie rock band of colonialism and an imperial attitude, you have to grade your fury down. This is not to diminish in any way the horrific nature of European exploitation of Africa or the role that economic oppression and the remnants of colonial legacy in causing unrest and political trouble in Africa. Instead, I would like to argue that, though Vampire Weekend is guilty of being privileged and equally “guilty” of appropriating African music into their own, that is by no means a crime punishable by hanging. Or any other punishment, unless you think critical conversation is punishing.

First, let’s understand the genre of African music that from which VW most often borrows. That would be highlife. Now, to call it “African” would be accurate but misleading. It would be like calling mariachi “North American” music. True, but it suggests that North American is some kind of homogenous cultural mass. Highlife originated and achieved its greatest popularity in a West African country known as Ghana. It also achieved a certain degree of renown in Nigeria, Liberia and Sierra Leone, but Ghana was its home. According to Carole Boyce Davies’ Encyclopedia of the African Diaspora, the genre was particularly notable for its adaptation of the Spanish guitar. Think about that. Highlife did not emerge whole cloth from some untouched African village culture. It was a product of interaction between two cultures. For that matter, think about that Spanish guitar.

Guitars themselves were the product of centuries of refinement and transmission from one culture to another.

What I’m saying here is that Vampire Weekend is a band that sprung from one of the most multicultural and cosmopolitan cities in the world. They’re not Africans themselves, and perhaps there are of course some uncomfortable historical problems raised with this kind of mixing. However, I think VW has a style all its own and embodies it pretty honestly. Let’s not start pointing fingers at bands just because they incorporate aspects of other cultures. Cultures are fluid, and mixing things up can often result in something wonderful.