Thursday, August 20, 2009

Pitchfork, Vampire Weekend, Dan Deacon: The Unholy Trinity

[Note: I, Ethan, composed this essay, but most of the material comes from a conversation between me and Chris, who deserves equal credit for it.]

I don't know why I want to hurt myself, but I'm reading through Pitchfork's ludicrous list of the "best" 500 songs of the decade. They include the occasional genuinely good song, but all that does is reinforce to me the ridiculousness of the ordering scheme. Are you really trying to tell me, editors of Pitchfork, that The Darkness's "I Believe in a Thing Called Love" is in any way better than Johnny Cash's "The Man Comes Around"? You put "Pass That Dutch" at #291, and then try to tell me that Feist's "Mushaboom" deserves to be #103? Coldplay's "Yellow" and Jim O'Rourke's "Good Times" are so close to one another that the fact that "Yellow" is ranked higher is even more insulting that it would be otherwise. None of this is surprising to me, coming as it does from Pitchfork, the internet's original home for precious idiocy, but my mind has kind of been paralyzed by its encounter with other minds that can simultaneously be aware that Burial's "Archangel" is a great song (which it truly is) and also think that Modest Mouse's "Float On" is better.

Perhaps the most delightful thing about the list is its ability to rekindle some old passions of mine that I had forgotten about, like how entirely fucking awful Vampire Weekend is, and how even more entirely awful their critical reception has been. Pitchfork put "Oxford Comma" at #191 (admittedly far lower on the list than I would have expected, but still, to pick a relevant example, 195 songs higher than #386, Konono No. 1's "Paradiso"). What they wrote about it inspired me to give the band one last chance. Here's what they said:
There's plenty about "Oxford Comma" that screams "Kitsch!": that Lil Jon shoutout, the fact that Vampire Weekend, already with a reputation for overbearing bookishness, wrote a song ostensibly about grammar. But "Oxford Comma" is compositionally brilliant; clocking in at 3:15, it's a microcosm of momentum-building, beginning with a slow thudding beat before, in short order, ramping to its double-chorus finale, resplendent and victorious without ever being angry or loud or fast. Montessori, finishing school, whatever it took: "Oxford Comma" is well-mannered punk rock.
Now, most of those absolutely ludicrous claims struck me as obviously false and safely dismissed, particularly the "punk rock" bit. People say this a lot, and it's a complete fucking mystery to me. Vampire Weekend is not "punk". Vampire Weekend is Paul Simon, but even wussier. Paul Simon would never be described as "punk". If Vampire Weekend is "well-mannered punk rock", everything might as well be fucking punk, so long as you put an appropriate modifier in front of it. Ciara is urban punk rock. Toby Keith is country punk rock. Britney Spears is prefab pop star punk rock. ABBA: orchestrated Spectoresque disco proto-punk rock. Ladysmith Black Mambazo: delicate, bubbling Afro-punk rock. Steve Reich: process punk. Pitchfork: Meta-journalist-bullshit punk.

So I was fully prepared to just pass over and let Pitchfork be the worthless sputum I already knew it to be, but two words brought me up short: "thudding beat". The song I remembered contained nothing that could conceivably be described that way. But surely such a simple descriptor couldn't be so hugely inaccurate, could it? So I plunged into youtube and, shudderingly, searched for "Oxford Comma".

And fuck you, Pitchfork. "Thudding beat"? Please. Might as well say Anna Nalick's "Breathe (2AM)" starts with a thudding beat. And yet, at the same time, thank you, Pitchfork, because the sheer monstrosity of Vampire Weekend is on such a level that, when one has not directly faced it in some time, it seems impossible, exaggerated. It is not. I'd go so far as to say that the only thing in the entire world that's worse than this song, aside from the Barenaked Ladies, is its video. This is of course equally true for every other Vampire Weekend song. Every one of their songs has the ability to become the worst thing in the world simply by being played, and the experience of listening to them is incomplete unless accompanied by looking at their smug fucking faces and having extremely vivid fantasies doing severe violence to them. Every cell in my body screams for murder when I encounter them. Seriously, if I had any member of that band in front of me and knew I could get away with it, I would inflict a great deal of pain on him before I let him die. The only thing I would stop and consider would be methods.

"Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa" didn't make the list (unless they're holding it back for the yet-to-be-revealed top twenty, which is entirely fucking possible), which is really too bad because while each of Vampire Weekend's songs is a perfectly manufactured summary of everything that is wrong in the world, that one is quite possibly the most perfect. I mean, I don't need to say anything about how absolutely, irredeemably repellent that title is, do I? It's obvious? OK. And here's something to try if you have the stomach for it. Watch the video. Not the whole thing. Start at around 1:20, and trust me, you will vomit at 1:35. And, ridiculous as the girl in the video is, I get really pissed off on her behalf during the scene immediately following. Leave her alone, dudes. I emphasize "dudes" because they are dudes in the fullest sense of the current use of the term.

Vampire Weekend is both the sound and the look of entitled privilege, distilled to its purest form. The fact that it takes from African music just reinforces that.

And, again, why the critical respect? They are such a folk jam band. They might as well be Guster. As a matter of fact, they are exactly Guster, except more entitled and smug, less clever and catchy. This is of course saying very little. But hey, at least Guster tries to sing threateningly about joining the Hare Krishnas instead of fucking Oxford commas and Cape fucking Cod kwassa kwassa. It's amazing, the power this band has to enrage and confuse me, more than just about anything else in the world today. Of course it's not so much the band itself, which in isolation is entirely unexceptional; it's the reaction people have to them. If they were passed off in an even remotely reasonable manner, I would not even consider them for a second. I would look at them, say "ew," and then move on. They are such an atrocity that their positive reception just completely blows my mind. In all honesty, shitty crap like Nickelback deserves more praise. I'd rather hipster media swoon over Vertical Horizon than Vampire Weekend.

Moving on, after significant amounts of trauma that are less interesting to talk about, we reach #149, which is Dan Deacon's "The Crystal Cat". One of Pitchfork's excretions wrote a whole paragraph in praise of this song, but I am not lying when I tell you I was incapable of reading beyond the third sentence. This is what I managed to get through:
What a lonely, lonely sound. Dan Deacon's shows are about the high of communal experience-- about surrendering your ego to a crush of overheated strangers. But his music is solitary.
What the fuck are they talking about? This is patently ludicrous. My only theory is that this is one of the longest, most complicated typos in history, and that what the writer meant to say was something more like this:
What a bland, bland sound. Dan Deacon's shows are about standing back and watching, mystified, as morons dance insecurely, each hoping to impress more than the rest, each failing as they flail about wildly and idiotically. But his music is just boring.
Dan Deacon's music isn't about surrendering your ego or communal experiences or loneliness or any of that nonsense. Dan Deacon's music is about video games and swirls of color most sensible people forgot about sometime after the age of seven. It is the height of pretentious, spazzy shit mistaken for spirituality by hipster ninnies. People try to act like he's got some kind of claim to great art because he has a degree in electroacoustics. Big fucking deal. Condoleezza Rice has a PhD in political science, and she still managed to be a pretty good approximation of an evil moron. Even she would presumably know better than to name a release Twacky Cats.

I was just mentally preparing a big long final paragraph about how in addition to their often perplexingly awful taste in music, the Pitchfork reviewers are the single most incompetent gaggle of writers ever to be collected in one place, but then I remembered the last sentence in their paragraph about The Killers' "Mr. Brighstide" (which entirely non-notable song, incidentally, is apparently the 72nd best song released between 2000 and 2009, which would be an alarming prospect if not for the fact that it is entirely untrue). This one sentence, particularly coming at the end of an entry, says more about their awful writing than anything I could ever dream of saying myself. This is the one-two punch, the slam dunk that some writer whose name I don't want to look for (because it would involve me seeing the paragraph it's attached to again) saw fit to end his tiny masterpiece with:
Rampant melodrama is their BFF.

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