The surface of Vampire Weekend’s “Holiday” is all sun, but darkness lurks underneath its ska-punk bounce. “It’s about a member of my family who gave up meat when we invaded Iraq,” lead singer Ezra Koenig explained to British music weekly NME in 2010. “They were horrified by what was happening, and they lost their taste for meat. It wasn’t even an overt protest, it was a physical reaction.” It’s a strange origin for a single that many (including advertisers) interpreted as a non-denominational song written specifically for the end-of-year holidays, but then again, most everything about Vampire Weekend seems conjured in Victor Frankenstein’s laboratory: college students in polo shirts fusing street music from globe-spanning locales with trends from across American pop history, their career was jolted to life by the internet, a then-emerging technological force the nascent Vampire Weekend leveraged in fresh, fascinating ways.
The Vampire Weekend story begins in 2006 at New York City’s Columbia University, the Ivy League institution that defines the band as much as its sound. Koenig grew up an avid music collector in the New Jersey suburbs; multi-instrumentalist Rostam Batmanglij, meanwhile, was raised in Washington, D.C., with a budding interest in painting and music theory. Koenig and Batmanglij crossed paths at a Columbia student party and started sending each other instant messages and MP3s, discovering a mutual interest in meticulously dissecting and recombining pop music. Around the same time, Koenig began performing with drummer Chris Tomson as L’Homme Run, a novelty hip-hop act featuring collaborations with Batmanglij. The limitations of L’Homme Run’s setup — just a microphone and an iPod on stage — inspired Koenig to form a group using real instruments, and the addition of dormmate Chris Baio on bass completed Vampire Weekend’s original lineup.
A distinctly millennial pragmatism was key to Vampire Weekend’s early success. By the time its music reached the ears of label executives, the group developed a signature aesthetic — tight, fleet-footed tracks antipodal to the druggy, jacket-bound, era-defining smear of The Strokes — that felt apropos to the environments they aspired to play. They even dressed in button-down shirts to headline upscale parties at Columbia’s coed houses. “It’s not like we were just picking up instruments, like ‘Let’s start a band,’” Koenig recounts in music journalist Lizzy Goodman’s 2017 oral history Meet Me in the Bathroom: Rebirth and Rock and Roll in New York City 2001–2011. “It was like, ‘Let’s start a preppy band and make the guitars have this Johnny Marr African tone.’ We already had some pretty strong ideas going.”
It’s almost impossible to understate the importance of the internet’s role in Vampire Weekend’s rise. For starters, the mainstream’s exposure to the band took root in the dingy annals of the early blogosphere — a place that, by the mid-2000s, had evolved into a network of file-sharing amateur critics wielding an outsized influence over the music industry at large. Many acts that ultimately gained worldwide renown, including Arctic Monkeys and Beach House, were platformed early on by influential online voices like Stereogum and Pitchfork. Vampire Weekend is inextricably part of this story, as the incessant blog-based chatter surrounding the band (along with the track record of success among these blogs’ previous discoveries) inspired immediate and fervent interest from high-profile labels like RCA.
No less important, the diverse range of musical influences proffered by the internet was crucial in shaping the Vampire Weekend sound. While previous generations of performers were forced to adapt to the emergence of digital technology, the members of Vampire Weekend were raised in its embrace: peer-to-peer sites like Napster and LimeWire allowed them to gallivant across the breadth of recorded history, including music outside the Western canon. The way Vampire Weekend looked at it, new musical ideas didn’t have to come from your immediate surroundings; they could be collected from any place or time, and then pared down to specific sounds — a process of shrewd subtraction instead of blanket addition.
Vampire Weekend ultimately signed to XL Recordings, and the trilogy of albums the group produced for the British independent between 2008 and 2013 evolve and expand this signature combination of pop accessibility and intellectual edge. “Holiday” (from the trilogy’s middle chapter, 2010’s Contra) is but one particularly effective example. Ska-punk — specifically the third-wave ska of bands like Operation Ivy — forms the song’s stylistic foundation, although the genre’s influence didn’t come into focus until the band fleshed out its piano-based demo with the syncopated guitars that imbue the track with Vampire Weekend’s melodic and harmonic hallmarks; the “ska-punk” aspect derives specifically from these guitars, which generate a sound so rounded and chiming it could just as easily have been lifted from a keyboard. Isolating the guitars here in KORD reveals how they need a solid rhythm section to work correctly, however, and in that regard, both Baio and Tomson impress. Tomson’s deft construction of rim clicks and tom hits forms the brick wall that Baio’s bass climbs like ivy; the bass line on the chorus is a particular standout, Baio’s fingers pacing up and down the fretboard like a harried mind looking for an exit. Cleverly, “Holiday” changes up the energy on the second half of the second chorus, with Baio switching to sets of eighth notes and Tomson laying on the crash cymbal as the guitars triumphantly blare.
Koenig’s lyrics for Vampire Weekend consistently succeed at merging the erudite with the plainspoken, and at a glance, “Holiday” leans toward the latter. It’s a song about escapism, but not the kind gated behind a plane ticket or a hotel, and its opening verse (“Holiday, oh, a holiday/And the best one of the year”) is anchored by a sentiment so simple and inoffensive, it might seem like it was written intentionally for commercial placement. It’s not until the plinking bridge that Koenig reveals the meaning behind his wish for respite; without this war-torn context, his character comes across as yet another in a series of unnamed subjects (usually women) scattered across the Vampire Weekend discography. Here, she’s somebody in the process of discarding her naïveté, caught in the headlights like Ann Kirsten Kennis, the fashion model whose discarded Polaroid adorns Contra’s cover.
Koenig remains a dispassionate, rather than compassionate, observer of his protagonist’s path to enlightenment; it’s hard to tell whether his lilting tone is one of empathy, ridicule, or some combination of the two. In fact, Koenig questions the efficacy of seeking an escape: his version of a holiday more closely resembles an abdication of responsibility, taking the form of what we now call a “mental health day” — a response to the growing horror of the outside world. Of course, today’s iteration of the internet makes it easier than ever to retreat, whether by diving into pointless social media discourse or getting lost in myriad entertainments via a pocket supercomputer — activities we used to call “self-care” that now more closely resemble self-destruction. This internal tension (what, in the song, Koenig calls “half gasoline, half surf”) subsumes our current era, and it makes “Holiday” feel eerily prophetic.
Contra is filled with these inquiries into modern living, and yet the upbeat nature of Vampire Weekend’s music ultimately reigned supreme among the listening public. Soon after its January 2010 release, Contra reached number one on the Billboard 200, making Vampire Weekend the first act since the 1991 introduction of the Nielsen SoundScan sales tracking system to top the album charts without the support of a major record label. “Holiday” was also omnipresent during the 2010 holiday shopping season, when both Honda and Tommy Hilfiger used the track in their television ads. For some onlookers, these brand partnerships caused the song to lurch toward overexposure; others whispered “sellout,” ignoring evidence that once-traditional avenues for revenue (in particular, record sales) were eroding as file-sharing and digital downloads gained traction, rendering commercial licensing agreements increasingly necessary for creative survival.
Aligning with Madison Avenue certainly wasn’t the beginning of Vampire Weekend’s flirtation with dissent. Today, “Holiday” and its ilk bear the standard of “millennial” music, but in the band’s heyday, many writers and critics recoiled at both their music and image. Perhaps critics mistook Vampire Weekend’s genuine preoccupation with the alchemy of pop songs for a lack of authenticity. Perhaps they believed it some sort of blasphemy to merge academic rigor with the ragged cheesiness of ska-punk. However, that supposedly treasonous act matters far less now that context has virtually been eliminated — now that we live in a world where everyone has access to everything in seconds. In hindsight, Vampire Weekend’s ability to construct catchy and indelible pop songs aged far better than the oppositional discourse that once surrounded its music.
Such discourse feels even more ridiculous in retrospect, as Koenig himself points out. “I felt the most excited when I’d see people describe the music as ‘preppy,’” he recalls in Meet Me in the Bathroom. “It doesn’t actually make sense to describe music as preppy, but suddenly people were describing it as if ‘preppy’ had been a genre for the past 40 years.”