A Grup Speaks Up: ‘I Like Vampire Weekend. It’s Something the Whole Family Enjoys’
As a follow-up to yesterday's computer-assisted investigative feature on D.C. grups (and their apparent reliance on Pitchfork), Washington City Paper decided to track down an actual grup and figure out what makes him tick. Matt Frost is married and lives in Virginia. He has a bunch of kids. Dismemberment Plan played a show in his basement once. He is a grup. This is his story.
Matt Frost: OK. I figured out how to turn this on.
Washington City Paper: Shit. I was just trying to find a way to invite you to chat.
This part of Google could be more intuitive!
Frost: I'm trying to dig up the old, seminal article about grups from one of those New York web mags.
WCP: Yeah, that's "Up With Grups" by Adam Sternbergh! That is in the best of New York anthology sitting atop my shitter.
Since you are a grup, I think it's fitting that you open up with some thoughts. Maybe a confession, or some data.
Like, what makes you a grup?
Frost: OK. First, I'll qualify my self-identification. I'm not actually cool enough to be on, say, that GQ list.
But since "grup" is like "hipster" in that nobody will admit to being one, I thought calling myself one would inoculate me against actually being one.
Like, among my most-listened to albums from 2010 is Jakob Dylan's Women and Country. That's definitely not cool.
It's not even uncool in a cool way.
WCP: No, you are exactly right! There is no redeeming Jakob Dylan!
I was thinking maybe you were going to say the new Reba album, which is good country pop.
Frost: It's not a bold contrarian stroke, like Chuck Klosterman claiming that Chinese Democracy is actually good.
Right. That would be on another level.
Jakob Dylan is straight-up adult contemporary, but in the closet.
WCP: Well, Dylan aside, consider yourself inoculated against vicious attacks (from me)
Frost: So kind.
But I think there's a point to make about the hegemony of Pitchfork, which is that the people who like these bands aren't just all peers of one another—they are, more or less, peers of the musicians themselves.
I mean, the Walkmen went to St Alban's. Some of them have kids and moved from N.Y. to Philly.
That's the story with tons of people I know.
WCP: Oh, I like this idea.
Frost: So I don't think it's fair to say that the Pitchfork audience is a bunch of sheep, all engaged in mutual signaling.
WCP: I didn't mean to imply that! But, how many of the people polled by GQ could name 10 of the American Top 40?
One person told me he had heard one song from AT40.
Frost: Right. That's a good point.
But I think the uniformity of opinion emerges as much from commonalities between producers and consumers as among consumers.
WCP: Katy Perry didn't go to Columbia, and one could argue that her biggest fans didn't either.
Frost: The folks on that list probably would not have hung out with, say, Daughtry in high school.
WCP: Meanwhile, I don't know a single red-blooded American who actually likes Vampire Weekend!
I mean, when did this start? Is this a Velvet Underground thing?
Frost: Good question. Probably sooner. The idea that the rock star package included the role of "generational standard-bearer" came about in the '60s.
But the more subtle, fine-grained class identification came later.
WCP: You know why I've never thought about this? Because I grew up in St. Cloud, Florida.
But please, continue!
Frost: Hey—let's start calling Vampire Weekend "The" Vampire Weekend and see if it catches on?
WCP: Now you're just being antagonistic!
You sound like Terry Teachout describing "The" Family Guy!
Frost: (For the record, I like Vampire Weekend. It's something the whole family enjoys.)
WCP: My family is big into Paul Simon's Graceland, which is what Vampire Weekend is sucking the life out of every time they pick up their instruments.
Frost: So, yeah. Maybe rock star-to-audience solidarity started at the generational level. Then as audiences grew more fractured, the bonds of affinity between performer and audience followed?
WCP: Well, did they? People seem really into their bands nowadays.
I was just grooving on this idea of educated and/or wealthy people listening to the shit they find on Pitchfork, and everybody else listening to FM radio.
Frost: Reihan Salam has a few good references and quotes about the myth of eclecticism, and how people think they are culturally omnivorous, but they really build their consumption profile via exclusion.
WCP: Of course we do! I will not listen to the Beatles or the Stones.
I just won't.
Frost: Ha ha.
WCP: And yet I still consider myself well rounded musically
Frost: Wait. Really?
WCP: Yes, really.
I will not be a reverse grup
Frost: That's hard core.
The question of Pitchfork being the FM radio of the cultural vanguard is pretty good.
Part of the problem is the search costs of new music.
Unless you're really into the cool-hunting process, you are going to need some trusted source to vet cultural products and present them to you.
So whether that's the FM radio or Pitchfork, you're still just getting a highly filtered stream of material.
It's hard to really quantify how much is "out there."
So our intuitions about how much we're missing might be totally wrong.
WCP: Well, we have some tools. (One of which I am looking for!)
Frost: What if there really are only a handful of ways for a civilian like me to be "way into music."
WCP: Or what if there are only a handful of convenient ways?
Frost: Yeah, that's the "civilian" distinction I'm making.
WCP: As opposed to a tenured ethnomusicologist!
All of this, btw, runs up against the grup theory.
Frost: I knew a guy in school who was always turning us on to new (and old) stuff. He now has a really great label that cranks out equal parts old obscure craziness and new indie stuff. But he learned at an early age how to scour used bins, chat up record store clerks, etc.
How so? (I think I know, but)
WCP: Well, if a) many grups are actually following bands staffed by people in their age range and b) it would be exceedingly difficult for grups to join another "tribe" of listeners, then how is being 30 and liking The National a) their fault or b) a bad thing?
Frost: Yes! The sorting is almost inevitable, once you look at it that way.
WCP: Well, I feel like an asshole now.
And I just realized: There's more to the grup thing than music!
Frost: Now you're talking.
WCP: There are the iPods, the jeans, the hairstyles, the living in lofts with their babies in hammocks 8 feet off the floor.
All that shit is part of being a grup, too.
Matt: I think that's more Brooklyn-specific.
Making your baby wear a Misfits shirt is still cooler than worrying that having a baby will cramp your style.
WCP: Hmm, yes, being alternadad versus being an uncle!
Frost: Anyway, I think the Pitchfork grups that you ragged on today are a symptom of a cultural ecosystem that 1) prizes eclecticism and omnivorous consumption, BUT 2) is not as porous as we think it is.
WCP: I like where this is going
Frost: We think we enjoy a groovy pomo buffet of cultural offerings, and there are these master semionauts like the Beastie Boys and Kanye West who can sample like crazy, but for your average listener to really traverse the different cultural stovepipes is difficult and rare.
WCP: SAMPLES. I have no idea where my favorite ones come from. And I read about music A LOT.
You know what else is like this? Covers!
I went to college with guys who thought that Dave Matthews wrote All Along the Watch Tower
Frost: Ouch. I was just about to suggest that covers are an easier hierarchy for audiences to situate themselves in, but then there's that guy.
And ha ha, everybody knows that Jimi Hendrix wrote that song!
Let me go switch the laundry. BRB
WCP: Ha. OK!
Frost: DJs who build beats and dig up samples are busy with their own arms race of obscurity and cool. Way over my head.
But then that Girl Talk guy comes along and brings it down to a popular level, and everyone's all SQUEEEEEEEE! THIS IS THE BEST WEDDING DJ EVAR!!!!!!!
WCP: You asshole.
Frost: But really—did any of us need to be reminded of Onyx?
WCP: I have some Girl Talk on my computer.
Mainly because it's easy to collect music even if I don't want to listen to it.
Frost: Me too! It's free! And maybe against the law! So get it before they lock that guy up!
WCP: Here's what I don't understand: Why is it OK for my cool friends to like Girl Talk, which is mashed up FM hits from the last 30 years, but I can't listen to Matchbox 20?
It's like, selectively upgrading cultural artifacts.
Frost: Yeah, ironic distance is everything.
WCP: But here's the thing: I like all the artists Girl Talk samples. I grew up listening to the radio. I listened to pop radio stations when I did my homework in middle school and high school.
I'm not being ironic when I say I like the artists GT samples.
Why must we french our secret loves with acid tongues?
Frost: I decided when I was 12 that I was too cool for top 40, and switched to classic rock radio.
The notion of the "guilty pleasure" is so prominent.
WCP: Where did you come from that 12-year-olds worried about being hip?
(Mind you, in central florida our guiding light was Total Request Live.)
Frost: I think we just decided that Duran Duran were too foppy.
It's like what [Ta-Nehisi Coates] said about Prince the other day.
It takes a certain maturity for young dudes to rock out to dudes in eyeliner.
WCP: COUNTERPOINT: How do you explain sentimentalists from the suburbs putting on fishnets and listening to My Chemical Romance?
Is that like, emotional maturity?
Or maybe, "adult feelings" manifesting in less than adult ways.
Frost: Um, that's not on my radar, as they say. I'd have to google My Chemical Romance.
WCP: Oh shit! That's awesome!
You haven't heard of My Chemical Romance!
Ha. That is so cool.
Frost: No. Hip me.
I have, like, seven minutes to get with it before I have to pack it in.
WCP: Haha, you are a dad
Frost: Are they "beatniks?"
WCP: My Chemical Romance are emo kids. Lots of makeup, loud guitars, with lyrics about being a sad bitch.
I love them.
Very, very much.
Frost: OK. I can guess the rest.
WCP: Go do dad stuff.
Frost: Yeah, I have Christmas cookies to wrap up. For real.
WCP: I have some weed to smoke.
This has been fun!
Matt Frost everybody!