The Rules of the Game: A Fuller Thought on J. Hopper and Vampire Weekend
Yesterday I posted a fairly peeved note concerning Jessica Hopper’s Chicago Reader article about Vampire Weekend. (She’s responded to that note, very graciously, on her blog, but that seems to have vanished.) My note led to a spike in traffic, which was unexpected: if I’d realized it’d catch much attention, I might have explained myself more carefully. The essay below is an attempt to outline my thoughts beyond the mere pique of the thing. Some of you may have heard me talk about this stuff before, but it seemed worth setting down a full, coherent version of it; read at your leisure.
Let me note first, though, that the point here is not to snipe at Hopper, whose work I enjoy. More importantly, the issue I’m about to outline is not really about the music of Vampire Weekend. I do not need you to like their music. But I do want you to think about the culture of our criticism, because I feel like it’s ever more beholden to a kind of blind posturing that wants to stop it from saying anything useful or true. Let’s go ahead and call this posturing The Game.
The Game is largely played by people who are white and/or middle-class, and much of it involves trying to outmaneuver one another about precisely that fact. At the heart of The Game is fear and loathing and boredom concerning the possibility of being bourgeois. Being bourgeois is The Game’s great sin, and it is often referred to using the code word “white.” If you can’t avoid this sin by virtue of being working-class or Ghanaian or something, your best bet is to deftly corner the market on wary “whiteness”-based critiques of anything that smacks of being bourgeois. The critique will try to present itself as an incisive dismantling of class/race/privilege, but at its heart it will just be “oh noes bourgeois.” The great paradox here, of course, is that The Game is itself an incredibly bourgeois pastime, but never mind that: just keep The Game in mind as we trace some of the history of Vampire Weekend.
As the band first came into the public eye, certain descriptions accreted around them. One of the descriptions that interested me was the oft-repeated claim that they were very white. (If you are invested in The Game, pointing out that an American indie band is “white” means something specific: it’s a form of wariness and skepticism. Hence whiteness as a quality you can somehow have a lot of.) People would look at pictures of them, at lists of their names, and describe them as “four white guys,” or even “four WASPs” — WASP, of course, being the doubly pointed variety of “white.” And this was interesting, of course, because one of them is Persian, and he was standing right there. Right there! At the time, I would mention that fact — or wonder what it means to describe Jews as WASPs — and the response I tended to get was: yeah well sure but you know.
And I did know. Part of why I know is that I come from a middle-class family of black African immigrants, and I’ve spent a good bit of life watching people sort out whether they feel like that’s “black” or “white” or just “foreign.” What people seemed to mean was that Rostam Batmanglij was well-educated, seemed middle-class (at least), was relatively light-skinned, and played arch keyboard lines for an indie band, and so for their purposes he was more or less functionally “white.”* The overarching demands of The Game dictated that no matter where he actually came from, he belonged in the category of “white.” Oddly enough, this was the first thing I ever posted about on this blog — this insistence on using words about race to describe Game-like things about class. And yet plenty of people are adamant about that you know part, which tells you something interesting. They are invested enough in The Game’s scheme of “whiteness” that they would rather reassign the background of someone who doesn’t fit it — would rather paint over or pretend not to notice this person — than rethink the scheme or choose their words differently.
After some months of being described as the WASPiest pop act going, singer Ezra Koenig started reacting to this impression. I assume journalists started asking him. He pointed out that his background is Jewish and more middle- than upper-class. He pointed out that his co-songwriter’s family hails from Iran. “We’re certainly not all fresh off the Mayflower,” he said. And do you really have to be that blue-blooded to know the names of different roof styles?
Now if you happen to be invested in the playing of The Game, you are probably going to interpret these statements in a particular way: Koenig is playing a card. He is playing The Game with me. This is precisely how Jessica Hopper decided to characterize one of these statements, without even quoting it — to her, it was merely an attempt to cash in “I have a non-white bandmate” points in the great Game scheme of who’s less white than who. (In her words: “One of my bandmates is Iranian-American” has got to be the Pitchfork-nation equivalent of “Some of my best friends are black.”) So she proceeds to play Game Commissioner and rank the statement: in The Game, being a middle-class Persian does not win you any points. Sorry. Maybe if you were from Sri Lanka, though that’s sorta been done. If he were Haitian you’d get a whole extra turn.
This is why I hate the role of Game Commissioner: it’s not actually interested in other people. White, black, Persian — it’s not really interested in anyone’s particulars or what they have to say about that experience. Mostly The Game just uses non-white people as cudgels for Americans to outmaneuver one another on the subject of who’s too bourgeois. In order for The Game to criticize bourgeois “whiteness” as privileged, over-educated, too polite, and too clever, it needs various non-white people to go on representing some kind of “realness” — plus, accidentally, poverty, lack of education, and vulgarity. Better cudgels, you know? Hopper’s sub-head even appropriates the word “bougie” — a word largely used by lower-middle-class black people to describe higher-class affectations in their peers — to describe the band, which is Game-playing extraordinaire. It’s all about the small angles.
Well. Since I don’t have the ability to read Koenig’s mind, I can’t actually tell you if Hopper is right or not. Maybe he is using his friend as a defense — maybe he’s just another guy sucked into the great tussle of you’re-“whiter”-than-us. He wouldn’t be the only one. But there is, of course, another way of reading his statements: as straightforward declarations of who these people actually are.** It’s a testament to the power of The Game that this is the last option that occurs to us — that he’s earnestly stating that who you Game-players think they are is not quite exactly correct. Hopper’s response to someone’s family actually being from Iran is entirely game-based: unless who you are has Game value, it’s not important.
What’s interesting is that there are a whole bunch of good reasons to suspect that Koenig is not playing The Game in the same way others are. One good indicator is that he writes in a way that everyone knows has no hope of winning. Another good indicator is the fact that half of the guy’s lyrics are actually about the first-world experience of class — sometimes even about The Game itself. He writes from the middling position many people feel themselves to be in — knowing there’s a whole world of poorer than you and also a whole world of richer. He writes about how that works. He deploys class signifiers to describe it — both other people’s and his own — and is forthright and curious about the fact that they’re class signifiers. And here’s the weird response: a good number of educated, middle-class people, people who know what a balaclava is, people who might blog about going on vacation or heading to a Richard Serra exhibit, take a big step back. You don’t acknowledge that stuff in a song. Please just blend into The Game like indie bands from Brown do.
In the world of Hopper’s writing, this is the great sin: somehow, these guys missed the memo about how to play The Game correctly.*** Mike Barthel, over here, interprets their dealing with class as a kind of baiting or trolling, but even that subscribes to the rules of The Game: it works from the presumption that acknowledging these issues can only be an act of deliberate nose-tweaking. We don’t entertain the possibility that we are being given actual music about the experience of class — about the same topics we critics want to bring to bear when reviewing them. Hopper and Barthel seem to share a conviction: if Koenig knew the rules of The Game, he wouldn’t play it this way, a way that invites losing. Barthel assumes he’s doing it for the express purpose of baiting people like Hopper. Hopper assumes he’s feigning ignorance. In Hopper’s world, Koenig is “playing dumb” about class.
Personally, I’m more struck by the suspicion that Hopper — along with a lot of people — is playing smart about class. Because between her and Koenig, the singer is the one who’s dropped the posturing of The Game long enough to actually go out and at least attempt to say something interesting or meaningful about the workings of first-world class and privilege. On some level he is forthrightly addressing the subject matter of The Game, while Hopper is still merely playing it. And like a lot of us, she seems too beholden to the role of Game Commissioner to care all that much about who these people actually are, what’s being put into the music they’re making, or why any of this is remotely interesting — i.e., the stuff that tends to make for insightful criticism. That’s right: good or bad, Vampire Weekend would seem to be examining the workings of class with more interest and clarity than Hopper’s review of them.
This is why I think most of us could afford to stand down our participation in The Game. What it tends to draw out of us are critiques that sound fierce and penetrating but are mostly about arrogance and oneupsmanship and posturing. It’s tiresome. The critic, ever wary of a band like Vampire Weekend’s likely privilege, doesn’t look very far into what, if anything, they’re saying about class — so sure is she that her take on class issues will be more important and incisive. The critic, ever wary of the band’s interest in African music being dilettantish, doesn’t much ask how that influence is operating — so sure is she that her relationship with African music is deeper, more solemn, more respectful. And at some point we’re barely reading criticism anymore: we’re just watching the refereeing of a game we’re all too familiar with.
I don’t want to read people one-upping one another on this game anymore. I want to read criticism. I want to read criticism that acknowledges the variety of experience in the world, cares what people have to say about it, and has more than one neurotic framework for evaluating this stuff. And this game steers us ever farther from that.
* People do this especially bluntly with young east Asians. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard someone describe a group of people as entirely white despite a bunch of middle-class east-Asian kids standing right there in plain sight.
** Me personally, I frequently have to tell people I’m not Indian. This isn’t because I’m defensive about people thinking I come from a nation with a higher per-capita GDP that Ethiopia; it’s just actually true.
*** The first rule of The Game is that you don’t explicitly acknowledge The Game.
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