Pitchfork: “Ordinary Machines”
The following was originally posted on Pitchfork by Lindsay Zoladz:
“A couple of years ago, when I had one of those desk jobs where you have time to sit around and read the internet all day, I had two favorite pastimes: reading articles about “millennials,” and cringing at them. Like a lot of my peers, I’ve always had an uncomfortable relationship with the M-word, and even now my fingers cramp up when I try to type it without a protective force field of scare quotes. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who self-identifies as a “millennial,” and when people my age (26) hear that word, it generally strikes us as a story being written without our consent– like a cheesy made-for-TV movie about our lives. But, with or without our approval, it seems like a new one of these articles crops up every other day, an endless series of jabs at the pause button, each one trying to capture a more perfectly composed freeze-frame of right now. They are usually written by people from previous generations and published in places like The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times andTime; I even have a recollection of one in Amtrak’s seatback magazine, illustrated by a dynamic photo of a Cool Millennial Dude in sneakers and a business suit, breakdancing on a conference table.
I remember this last one vividly, because I read it on a momentous occasion: the first business trip of my “adult” life. In this case, the scare quotes are there to indicate that I had to sheepishly phone home and borrow money from my parents to front the cost of the train ticket until my office reimbursed me. And yet, even as I sat there acting out a real-life Lena Dunham punchline, I still remember coming to the end of this Amtrak article about “millennials in the workplace” and thinking: “This isn’t me, exactly.”
This was the year, let’s call it 2010, that I first felt my sense of time breaking down completely. It was, not coincidentally, the first year I had a desk job and thus the first year I spent eight-plus hours a day in front of a screen. The days lapsed in disorienting flickers in the bottom right hand of my screen: 9:51 a.m. turning to 12:33 p.m. and how did it get to be 5:36 p.m. in what seemed like a couple of blinks. But even when I looked up from my monitor, a shift seemed to be happening on a larger scale, too. For one thing, the nostalgia cycle was all out of whack. The 90s were back, but simultaneously so were the 80s, and the 70s, and the 60s–and the 1890s. Mythic records and out-of-print cult movies I’d spent half my life searching for were now available in a single, anticlimactic click, and the Willy Wonka-brite buffet of the internet meant that everybody was gorging on the recent past, but perhaps at the expense of the now. The wheels of time started to resemble a jammed cassette: The past was coiling over on itself in such a tangle that it didn’t feel like there was much room for the present. And maybe that was part of the reason why I found the vague idea of “millennials” so difficult to identify with, to claim as my own.
Accordingly, as a music fan, 2010 was the year I really started to worry that we were losing the thread. It was easy to say what 1991 or 1994 or even 1999 “sounded like,” but what did 2010 sound like? Even in retrospect, would it have any solid identity? Did it need to? In time, would the expectation of “progress” become an outdated relic? Music critic Simon Reynolds’ 2011 book Retromania thoughtfully took up these and plenty of related questions, and though his tone was encouragingly hopeful (spoiler– the last line of the book: “I still believe the future is out there”), I just as often found myself mulling over a quote he included from the computer scientist Jaron Lanier’s polemic You Are Not a Gadget: “Play me some music that is characteristic of the late 2000s as opposed to the late 1990s.” I constantly updated a mental list of things I’d play Lanier to prove him wrong– Nicki Minaj! Flying Lotus! The Weeknd! Rustie! Frank Ocean! Grimes!– but the truth is that deep down, exhausted by unimaginative revivalists and photocopied nostalgia, a skeptical voice nagged in my head almost constantly: Maybe it’s true. Maybe there’s nothing new under the sun anymore. Until 2013, which is when, rather abruptly, I once again started believing in right now.
“I’m a senior at Yale, graduating in May, and I’m terrified,” a student named Bijan Stephen wrote in an op-ed published on Quartz this past spring– but it was a sentiment representative of countless, decidedly less publicized Tumblr rants, too. The article’s title was a play on a song he proposed as a kind of generational anthem, a track off Vampire Weekend’s 2008debut album, “The Kids Don’t Stand a Chance”.
The term “millennial” was around when Vampire Weekend put out that first record (it actually goes all the way back to 2000, when Neil Howe and William Strauss published the book Millennials Rising), but it wasn’t nearly as ubiquitous or exhaustively debated as it is right now. In this moment of SEO-crazed “content creation” and clickbait contrarianism, millennials have become the new milk: one minute their iconoclasm and disillusionment and dogged self-aggrandizement is good for society, the next they’re said to be corroding its very skeleton with their selfies and parents’-basement apartments and inextinguishable sense of entitlement. (Somehow the exclamatory title of this recent Salon op-ed speaks volumes about thinkpiece fatigue: “I Don’t Hate Millennials Anymore!”) So earlier this year when Vampire Weekend put out their third album Modern Vampires of the City– a record that dares not only to take the Lord’s name in vain but to pitch-shift it, and to deliver such shruggingly anthemic lines as “I’m not excited, but should I be?/ Is this the fate that half of the world has planned for me?”– it’s no wonder that fans and critics alike were going to try to make the M-word stick to it.
And I’m not sure which surprises me more: the fact that the band hasn’t really tried to shake the word off (when faced with the term “millennial unease” in a recent Pitchfork interview, frontman Ezra Koenig replied with a laugh: “I like that phrase. It’s a concise way to describe a lot of the feelings on the album.”), or the fact that talking about this record has marked one of the first times in my life that I don’t feel entirely icky using it. Maybe that’s because– although it’s obviously meticulously crafted– Modern Vampires‘ aphorisms feel so nonchalant that their resonance comes off like a happy accident. It’s not a political record, but it specifically captures something elusive about what it feels like to come of age in an era that is simultaneously hopeful and post-HOPE, and when the limitlessness of the internet has become so thoroughly internalized that any direct talk about it runs the risk of being unforgivably cheesy (Koenig: “Even the word blog sounds a little grandma-y”).
So the slyest– and maybe smartest– thing about the omnivorously referential Modern Vampires is that it manages to be earnest but never too on the nose. Chief arranger Rostam Batmanglij envelops the music in a dense-yet-airy fog, which provides the perfect foundation for Koenig’s lyrics, which are at once hyper-articulate and playfully evasive. “The perfect tone is halfway between deeply serious and totally fucking around,” Koenig said, pointing specifically to the single “Diane Young”. The band thought about calling the song “Dying Young”, but quickly decided to go with a cheeky homophone instead; “Dying Young” sounded “so heavy and self-serious.” And maybe that seemingly tiny pivot is the most profoundly millennial thing about it. How do you make a record about post-ironic characters who cringe at the phrase “post-irony,” a record that sneakily defines a generation that’s always going to approach something generation-defining with an air of “this isn’t me, exactly?” The answer may exist somewhere in the space between dying young and “Diane Young”.
Both sonically and lyrically, the album is richly panoramic, but one particular thing that strikes me every time I listen is how often it references time. From the persistent second hand tick in “Don’t Lie” to the way the refrain “there’s a lifetime right in front of you” becomes, in a flicker as unceremoniously devastating as a lost afternoon lapsed on a digital clock, “there’s a headstone right in front of you.” There’s something strange, illogical, and uneasy about the way time passes on this record; you could definitely say it’s on some Benjamin Button shit. Koenig’s characters age erratically (“young hips shouldn’t break on the ice”) or live, stubbornly, forever (“hold me in your everlasting arms”), but it’s a testament to Batmanglij’s vision that you feel this tug-of-war between past and future on a wordless, gut level too. We’re living, as the writer Michelle Orange observes in her very good new essay collection This Is Running for Your Life, “in a time that is no time and only time and all times, all the time.” Modern Vampires renders exactly what that sounds like and acknowledges it as a perfectly good reason for an identity crisis. Somewhere between the lines, though, it also reassures– “oh, sweet thing”– that this is not the end of the world: to some extent, things have always been this way. Time marches on.
The album’s centerpiece (and my favorite song of the year so far), “Hannah Hunt”, feels simultaneously hyper-modern and timeless. It’s about the allure of going off the clock and off the grid, which might seem like a distinctly 2013 concern to somebody who’s never readWalden or heard “Born to Run”. So maybe the only new thing about “Hannah Hunt” is its context– that it sees human connection as a potential relief from today’s no time and only time and all times, all the time. It’s a break-up song, and a devastating one at that, but in this four-minute world, love is both a freeze frame amidst the rush and a belief in the primacy of the present: “You and me, we got our own sense of time.”
Last month, two of my friends got married and, as everyone moved from an antiquarian, marble-surfaced atrium to the adjacent reception hall, one of the first songs they played was Vampire Weekend’s “Step”. “Wedding DJs playing Vampire Weekend!” seems like a detail someone might include, with outsized anthropological significance, in an article about millennials getting married– though, if I were to read something like it now, my response would be, “Well yeah. And… ?” Sometimes it takes a record to clarify something very obvious, and in this case it’s something young people have been allowed to believe since the beginning of time: Our present is just as good as your past.”