“Perhaps the young of this generation haven’t the stamina to launch the epochal transformation they seek; but there should be no mistaking the fact that they want nothing less. ‘Total rejection’ is a phrase that comes readily to their lips, often before the mind provides even a blurred picture of the new culture that is to displace the old.
– Theodore Roszak, The Making of a Counter Culture
The opening lines of Modern Vampires of the City speak a thousand truths: “Mornings come you watch the red sunrise/ The LED still flickers in your eyes/ Oh, you oughta spare your face the razor/ Because no one’s gonna spare the time for you.” It’s an idea that’s been explicated several times within the year by other works, particularly and obligatorily in Frances Ha and Girls. Both vamp on the notion of wading through the uneasy waters of expectations. Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig details the morning of every twenty-something post-grad in 2013: we wake up, glare at the alarm clock, and realize that we have no control. Are we entitled? Or is this the very issue Erich Fromm hoped to expose in his book The Sane Society? As an opening track, “Obvious Bicycle” is immediate, jarring, and bright; it shakes the listener, luring them into the context that Ezra is attempting to establish.
But it’s safe to say that, at this point, what Vampire Weekend has to say with Modern Vampires of the City is relevant and tired all the same. It’s an honest delivery, but they are essentially preaching to the choir. The constraints of the social/patriarchal scheme is a recurring theme in Western art. From The 400 Blows to Girls, Western art has spoken to the youth’s struggle to free themselves from expectation. There is something about American independent releases (especially those from New York and other parts of the northeast) that carry the weight of academia and family tradition. Which is of course bound by and extended to Ezra’s Jewish background. Religion, in fact, is a recurring theme in the album, one that’s been largely ignored by critics. When speaking against the preemptive plans for his life, Ezra seems to be speaking past the graduate-esque scenario of spending four to five years at a university studying political science for the sake of your parents, but he’s really speaking to its spectral and impeding nature, the religious and contextual roots, the endless ceremonies and endless rites of passages.
A recent NPR article on modern youth distancing themselves from religion extracts this very idea:
I realize maybe there’s a disconnect there — why are you doing it if you don’t necessarily have a belief in God? But I think there’s a cultural aspect, there’s a spiritual aspect, I suppose. I find the practice of sitting and being quiet and being alone with your thoughts to be helpful, but I don’t think I need to answer that question [about God] in order to participate in the traditions I was brought up with.
The lyrics in this album are tell-all and pure, despite the cliched subject matter. The things that bind twenty-somethings are explored, are from experience, and are certainly from the heart. I hate to mention Woody Allen in this case, but his anxious and loaded films of the 1970s are an applicable analogue to Ezra’s strife, obviously given the album cover in relation to the weighty yet prestigious black and white lensing of Manhattan. Like Allen, Ezra’s concerns are broken into the following categories: existential ennui, social commitments, and women. The lyric, “Girl, you and I will die unbelievers bound to the tracks of the train” is a bit of a double entendre that Ezra has coyly avoided explaining in interviews, but it leads to everything that Ezra is, or can be surmised to be: a possible atheist who is afraid of commitment to his body and to his world. He very quickly appears to be a teenager again, a slave to his hormonal body and a slave to his parent’s will. Women, like in Allen’s films, are an escape, but a dangerous one. He calls the girl to arms, but is himself slipping.
“I’m not excited, but should I be? Is this the fate that half the world has planned for me?” sings Ezra on “Unbelievers.” The path laid out for the latest generation has disenfranchised them, leaving the youth disengaged and full of solely scholastic knowledge without the skills to apply them. And the dominant youth can only feel trapped by the dominant language: that of their fathers. The rejection of religious and scholastic ideas (the father’s language) is a double-edged sword: on one hand, you are free from expectation and the weight of scrutiny; on the other, the weight of nothing (no worries, no expression) makes you cold.
The avoidance of “growing up” seems to be something of a misnomer here, but arrested development is certainly the inspiration for this album. The filter through which we see Vampire Weekend is irksome for most, obviously; but taken into context, there is a very sad realization: they simply are not free. Throughout the album, Ezra alludes to his suffering, which I can only sympathize with (especially considering my tender age of 22), but how many generations will succumb to this weight? The image of shedding of teeth and the destruction of religious symbols pervades Modern Vampires of the City. When Ezra sings “Wisdom is a gift that you traded for youth; age is an honor, but’s still not the truth,” one can feel a struggle occurring, even at his near mid-age. When will we take the words of Ranciere’s The Ignorant Schoolmaster (the father’s language overturned) and divorce ourselves completely from their scrutiny? Of course, one could argue that Ezra, in all of his artistic success, has moved far past place, so the verdict here is mixed: are millennials simply whining, or are these artistic documents our warcry?
What comes to mind is the youthful existential wallowing in Brett Easton Ellis’ book, Rules of Attraction. Are millennials self-absorbed or enslaved by a system that we didn’t ask to be born into? Ellis’ character Victor has this to say in response:
I really believe that the extent of their pitiful problems didn’t exceed too far from what I thought. They didn’t have to worry about keeping warm or being fed or bombs or lasers or gunfire. Maybe their lover left them, maybe that copy of “Speaking in Tongues” was really scratched — that was this term’s model and their problems. But then I came to understand sitting there, the box vibrating beneath me, the band blaring in my head that these problems and the pain they felt were genuine.