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Opinion: Who’s Culture Is This? The Strokes, Vampire Weekend & The Authenticity Dilemma

While time has judged them to be the great rock ‘n’ roll band they always were, it’s important to remember a big factor in keeping The Strokes from becoming a capital B big band was the heaving push back they had to deal with from day one. When they first gained notoriety as NME’s latest saviors of music, they were dealt the typical hand of “overrated” backlash, but they also experienced a different kind of criticism; that they were frauds.

In the documentary Kill Yr Idols, which chronicles the New York No Wave scene of the early 80’s, a good 30 minute chunk of the running time is dedicated to stalwarts of that scene taking shots at The Strokes. Aging scenesters roll their eyes at these prep school charmers who used their looks and moneyed connections to take the escalator to the top, all the while positing themselves as purveyors of LES hipness. This perception wasn’t limited to neighborhood vanguards who twice voted for Dave Dinkins.

Around the release of their almost-as-great follow-up Room On Fire in 2003, one was more likely to see NYU students wearing shirts mockingly emblazoned with “The Socialites” in The Strokes signature emblem than the genuine article. This perception of phoniness, coupled with a semi-blackballing by MTV for snubbing the VMAs ensured that The Strokes would never become the saviors of rock they had been anointed by the press.

Fast forward 6 years. In the intervening time, our general perception of “authenticity” changed a lot. Due in large part to a broader critical rejection of the rockist concept of legitimacy, the idea of a band like The Strokes being criticized for emulating a sound of the past seemed almost quaint. However, Vampire Weekend soon proved that old habits die hard. Riding a web 2.0 version of the buzz train The Strokes took, Vampire Weekend found themselves the subject of breathless critical praise before they had even released an album. Once that album was released, they were subjected to a more racially fueled version of the indictment The Strokes had received. Earning the title of “whitest band in the world”, Vampire Weekend were framed as upper crust tourists, shamelessly poaching the rhythms and instrumentation of third world cultures to fill their already bloated bank accounts.

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The fact that they were mostly middle class, and had gotten though Columbia on grants and student loans didn’t much matter, nor did the fact that their music was pretty damn good. In the minds of the great screaming majority, their image was set in stone. Even as their third album is being rightly praised as a modern masterpiece, there is no band people hate out of sheer momentum of perception like Vampire Weekend.

No one is crying for The Strokes or Vampire Weekend. They both continue to draw huge crowds, and, in the case of The Strokes, the backlash has largely faded in favor of overwhelming appreciation, at least for those two initial albums. While it may be ridiculous to hold a band to a phantom status of authenticity, there is certainly a measure of validity there. Even as I write this defense, I could write an equally disdainful piece about Mumford and Sons, and the way they appropriate the sound and image of Americana for their own formulaic rendition of folk/bluegrass.

To me, the difference is simply in the fact that M&S’s music is bland and unoriginal, a cheap cash in on the indie-folk sound that better, more interesting musicians have been mining for much more rewarding results for years. The key here is that I just don’t care for Mumford and Sons, so finding reasons to delegitimize their fame is appealing. Authenticity is real, and even in our mashed up, remixed modern culture should be taken into account, but more often than not musical authenticity is earned in the ear of the listener.

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