It was but a few weeks ago that we music lovers were treated to a massive ad campaign for Vampire Weekend's Contra, featuring an allegedly mysterious picture of an uberpreppy girl in a yellow polo shirt (a Ralph Lauren Polo© shirt to be more precise) with an upturned collar. Now the indie tastemakers have moved their promotional budgets to Spoon's new album, Transference, and so LA's hippest bus benches now look something like this:
The one-two punch of these two ubiquitous covers that kicked off the 2010 indie sweepstakes made us think, once again, about the persistence of this thing called "Prep Rock." Thing is, back in the pre-Great Recession halcyon days of 2006/2007, when Vampire Weekend first came on the scene--flaunting affluence, Ivy League educations, expensive haircuts, pomo fetishism about world music, and a general Salinger-by-way-of-Wes-Anderson overall vibe--we really thought they were a curious anomaly, the musical version of Nick McDonnell and his precocious novel Twelve, if you will.
But it seems we have to revise our earlier prediction and admit that Prep Rock is here to stay, at least for a while. There's nothing inherently wrong with growing up well-off, with families that value education, and with an appreciation for nice things (the perfect Vampire Weekend album title would be The Drama of the Gifted Child). But don't you think we'll all probably be having a good laugh at Prep Rock in 20 years? Is Prep Rock the 21st-century version of the 1970s' Yacht Rock?
Here's the current Spoon cover, in all its disaffected preppy glory:
Here's the recent Vampire Weekend cover:
Of course, neither Vampire Weekend nor Spoon invented this look or attitude. Few remember (with good reason) Deadsy a sometime ballyhooed prep-rock project by Cher's son Elijah Blue Allman, who renamed himself "P Exeter Blue" for obscure preppy purposes. And there's of course Pharrell's pet prepsters Chester French, who can be considered a kind of reverse preppy minstrel show and are occasionally witty about the whole conceit.
Bands like Vampire Weekend and Spoon, however, seem much more caught up in their own Rushmore fantasies of polite rebellion. MTV recently asked Vampire Weekend's Ezra Koenig about the band's aesthetic choices, and this is what he had to say:
"We know where the image came from, but we're not being very specific about her. We don't know her or anything," Koenig said. "The picture is from 1983, but the last album cover was from 2006, and they kind of look like they both inhabit the same world. When we saw this image, we just found it very striking. And part of it is the look on her face. It's not about the color of her hair, or the fact that she's wearing a Polo shirt. What makes it interesting is her face.
"To me, there's just something infinitely fascinating about a nice portrait of somebody, especially when she's got this ambiguous look, and people can read a lot into it," he continued. "So we were immediately struck by it, and we all had our own interpretations of what her look was, but we just kind of felt like it fit the album and the theme of it. It made sense to me that the first album had an inanimate object on it, and this one has a person's face on it."
"People have said it was 'haunting,' " Koenig said of the cover. "I had one person tell me it was 'porn-y.' We've had a lot of people ask us if it was sponsored by Polo or something. It's almost like a Rorschach test, because some people get very mad when they see a white blond girl in a Polo shirt. It makes you realize how much you can imagine about somebody when you know nothing about them, based on only a few signifiers."
For MTV's James Montgomery, the meaning is clear. Contra's cover "it's a logical extension of the album's central theme: conflict, both social and cultural."
Really? When you have the budget to paper public places (bus benches!) with images like these, there's not much conflict going on between the medium and the message. They are indistinguishablefrom high-end clothing ads peddling the very lifestyle the bands claim to be, in their own way, exposing and/or confronting.
It makes more sense to see them as the current versions of the yachts-and-doobies bohemia that illustrated the soft sounds of 70s rock, and that made a comeback (filtered through irony) a little while ago when all the hipters rediscovered Loggins and Messina and their ilk.
Could the current 'Prep Rock' be the new 'Yacht Rock' of the future?
[Incidentally, the Spoon cover uses a photograph by William Eggleston, taken in Sumner, Mississippi in 1970. Still, it conveys "2003 Upper West Side brat dreaming of Williamsburg," doesn't it?]