All posts by Will Abersek

It’s (Anti-)Capital, Charlie Brown!

Are there really any holdouts?  Surely all of us—at least all of us above and below certain ages, and from a certain kind of America and possessed of a laptop or television or grammar-school-aged child—have a soft spot for Charlie Brown.  Maybe we are of the “We Love You Charlie Brown!” tribe,[1] or maybe some slightly less exuberant cohort, but especially in December, we feel that tug of attachment.  On the face of it, our fond feelings for Charlie Brown smack of a kind of cultural conservatism, that yearning for the America-that-never-was that washes across this great land as reliably as faux snow returns to the streets of Tampa year after year.[2]  Still, when you think about what the little bald kid and his spindly tree and his Scripture-spouting friend might actually stand for, you might just stop right in the middle of Target’s giant television department and scratch your head at the evidently subversive quality of the narrative of A Charlie Brown Christmas.

But you’d be wrong.  The really subversive quality of A Charlie Brown Christmas is that it invites you to consume an anti-materialistic vision of true Christmas, all the while standing  at the pinnacle of a quintessentially capitalist brand.

Think about it.

“Christmas,” a made for television special bankrolled by Coca Cola, elevates an explicitly anti-materialistic, anti-capitalistic (anti)hero in Charlie Brown who rides his rebellion against commercialism not only to (fleeting) social acceptance[3] but also spiritual illumination.  Charlie’s evident virtue, the rightness of his beliefs and actions, is thrown into relief by the evidently avaricious character of his companions and the warped and garish Christmas celebrations that surround him. Even as a child, you notice that Charlie’s sister Sally has crossed some kind of boundary when her Christmas wish list veers into a demand for hard currency: “Make it easy on yourself [Santa]: just send money.”  And we scoff at Charlie and his friends’ obsession with Christmas cards, and wince at the Christmas tree lot filled with pink and red aluminum trees and equipped with waving spotlights.  Charlie, on the other hand, intuits the emptiness of the Christmas practices that surround him and rebels, first by associating himself with a play about the biblical story of Christmas and then with a grand gesture of empathy and generosity.

Charlie’s journey in A Charlie Brown Christmas shares attributes with other Peanuts staples; Charlie is the underdog, yearning for peer acceptance and fraught with anxieties.  He is, as Umberto Eco describes him, a character whose alienation has become an abyss, yet one whose sensitivities are “Shakespearean:” Charlie Brown may not know what he knows, but he knows what he feels. At the beginning of the special, while the rest of the gang are headed toward a pond for skating, he pauses with Linus at the wall, a primary locale for soul-searching dialogues throughout the Peanuts genre[4] and wonders if it’s his fault that he is alienated by the Christmas commercialism that surrounds him:

I think there must be something wrong with me.  I just don’t understand Christmas, I guess.  I might be getting presents and sending Christmas cards and decorating trees and all that, but I’m still not happy.  I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel.

Importantly, this moment works in two ways, not just illuminating the troubled psyche of our yellow-shirted friend but also sending him down a rabbit hole that will end in a Christmas critique.[5]  Indeed, A Charlie Brown Christmas is essentially a quest, a journey that Charlie Brown rather haphazardly undertakes to reconcile his expectations about Christmas with his responses to it.  From the wall, Charlie Brown is flung across the iced pond to the feet of the Peanuts most solidly establishment figure, Lucy.  Purveyor of lemonade-stand psychiatric advice[6], Lucy hastens the process of Charlie’s self-discovery by encouraging him to take on the role of director for the town’s nativity play, a move she (mistakenly) believes will co-opt him.  But in the end, Lucy’s wish that Charlie Brown assimilate her view of Christmas backfires.

What we remember most is the tree.  Despite Lucy’s attempt to redeem Charlie by bringing him into the values of a contemporary Christmas, one in which the nativity play becomes a backdrop for “pretty girls” and jazz, Charlie is unmalleable, unable to give himself over the party atmosphere, but as yet unable to explain to himself the “why” of his unease.  So Lucy casts him off the set—with Linus, who is already ahead of Charlie in understanding what is amiss, recognizing that Christmas has become both “too commercial” and “too dangerous”—and sends him off to get a tree that will create the “proper” Christmas spirit.  This quality, no surprise, is seen rather differently by those who have drunk the Kool-Aid of a sparkly Christmas present and those who have not.  We all remember that Lucy wants a giant, big, shiny aluminum tree—Charlie doesn’t know what he wants until he sees it.

The quest for the tree is fever dreamlike, epic.  Charlie, Christlike, navigates the Sodom and Gomorrah of light polluting tree lots and redeems a little Lazarus tree[7].  Ok, technically it was Linus who elevated the tree, who made it beautiful by swaddling it in his blanket, covering it with ornaments from Snoopy’s dog house, quoting Luke, and humming “Hark! The Herald Angel Sing.”  But the moment is transcendent for Charlie Brown and for the viewer.  The narration included in the original script makes the revelatory nature of the moment clear: “At last, the season seemed 100 times brighter. And for Charlie Brown, it was truly the merriest Christmas ever”[8].

To read A Charlie Brown Christmas as a text-in-isolation, what some have called a sacred reading and Eco sees as an experience of childhood innocence, is to open the possibility of seeing Charlie as a an honest broker of anti-capitalist ideology.  If Lucy, as Eco argues, is society’s representative, “treacherous, self-confident, an entrepreneur with assured profits, ready to peddle a security that is completely bogus but of unquestioned effect,” then Charlie’s (and Linus’s) triumph in the Christmas special is freighted with meaning.  Brought together not by (modern) things but by an overarching spiritual truth, the Peanuts end their Christmas special in solidarity against commercialism and consumerism.  And lest there be any doubt that this is a feel-good moment, in which the audience is expected to partake, the special closes with the whole Peanuts gang loo-looing their way through Hark the Herald Angels Sing.  Be honest, you can hear it if you shut your eyes and think about it.

That’s a powerful moment, capable of stopping full-throated last-minute shoppers in their tracks or quelling the sibling squabbling at the foot of the tree.  But what does it mean?  What does it mean for us to have an aha, I-so-get-the-real-meaning-of-Christmas moment, while watching an advertiser-paid-for Christmas special viewed against the backdrop of our own Christmas excesses?  Thomas Frank, of course, would argue that Charlie Brown and the Peanuts and Charles Shultz are no more than stooges for capitalism.  In “Dark Age: Why Johnny Can’t dissent,” Frank demonstrates the ways in which the media and entertainment industries[9] incorporate anti-capitalist sentiments into their programming and advertisements:

Now we are sold cars by an army of earringed, dreadlocked, goateed, tattooed, and guitar-bearing rebels rather than the lab-coated authority figures of the past.[10]

Frank argues that, “for all our radical soda pops” and “alternative lifestyles,” consumers allow corporations to govern our tastes and expression—in the end, the “countercultural idea” became “capitalist orthodoxy,” and the consumer became a complicit party in that transformation. In Frank’s reading the Peanuts cannot achieve dissent—Charlie Brown cannot be truly rebellious—because they are encapsulated in a vehicle designed for selling.  To sell Coke, to sell Peanuts paraphernalia, a television channel, insurance.  Seen in this light the anti-consumerist, pro-Christian ideals of A Charlie Brown Christmas are simply another advertising strategy, designed to give a desirable moment of feel-good old-fashioned Christmas as tonic to the buying.

Frank’s argument does not presume an aware consumer and, indeed, suggests that our complicitness in the culture industry is largely unconscious and that that might make it easier for us to ignore contradictions between certain of our desires (to be rebellious, for example) and to consume.  Others, like Stephen Lind, argue that when audiences confront cultural fixtures like the Peanuts, they are able to keep a “sacred” reading in mind while undertaking a secular one. While a “secular reading,” in Lind’s view, would read A Charlie Brown Christmas through the lense of the enormous material success of the Peanuts franchise, such a reading could co-exist with one that appreciated “sacred” elements, like the appreciation of justice, generosity, and anti-consumerism:

While Schulz was certainly trying to sell strips that would sell papers, he has also indicated that there is occasionally something more lurking behind the beagle … his statements speaks towards a desire for Schulz to have his cake and eat it too … desiring to maintain the pop culture success of his strip while holding onto the ability to occasionally interject a thought of sacred value[11].

So who is right?  Eco, who sees the value in an innocent reading of the Peanuts?  Frank, who suggests that it is impossible to stand outside of capitalist culture and thus impossible for any pop cultural vehicle to have truly radical stand?  Or Lind, who seems to suggest we can have our innocent encounter with A Charlie Brown Christmas and our secular reading too?

Taken as a standalone work, A Charlie Brown Christmas does seem to evoke the ‘innocent’ interpretation offered by Eco.  The special constitutes a spiritual journey, both for Charlie Brown and the rest of the Peanuts, but also for the viewer—compelled to grapple with the same questions of fading traditionalism and alienation in the face of commercialism.  If it feels cathartic to the viewer, can it not be so?  In the end, Frank fails to appreciate the ability of the viewer to find a spark of true criticism within a co-opted object—just as Charlie Brown was able to find solace in a lot filled with horrendous aluminum trees.



[1] If Google is a barometer of pop cultural devotion, there are more than 50,000 sites devoted to the theme of “We Love You Charlie Brown,” with thousands on Pinterest alone.

[2] Happy customers book “snow blows” for the holiday season, events that dump dozens of tons of finely shaved ice in winter-brown backyards.  The locals, apparently, don’t quite know what to make of it all: “They’re just excited.  They don’t know what to do. It’s like watching a baby zebra learn to walk…” (

[3] Umberto Eco took up Charlie Brown’s insecurities and salvation in a June 1985 New York Review of Books Essay (

[4] The wall is a recurring fixture and locale of the Peanuts strips, where Charlie, Linus, Lucy, and the others mull over their old-soul problems.  It’s the local pub of the Peanuts world.

[5] A paradoxical critique, when we think about the relationship between the Peanuts empire and Christmas: games, dolls, the gigantic Snoopy that graces the annual Macy’s parade.

[6] Before she’ll share, she asks Charlie Brown for a nickel (how about, Like Sally, Lucy has her eye on the money): “Boy, I love the beautiful sound of cold, hard, cash, that beautiful, beautiful sound. Nickels, nickels, nickels. That beautiful sound of plunking nickels.”

[7] Yes, yes.  A conflation of Old and New Testaments.  But if Christ had encountered Sodom and Gomorrah it would have worked out like this.

[8] The full script can be found here (

[9] Read, the culture industry

[10] It’s the difference between being sold a Volkswagen because it will help you get your family from home to work, and being sold a Mustang because everyone is telling you to buy a VW—but in the end what you’re really being sold is a second hand Maserati.

[11] Steven J. Lind, author of A Charlie Brown Religion has probed these ideas in a number of places including in this 2008 essay on sacred and secular readings of the Peanuts (


Works Cited

Eco, Umberto.  “On ‘Krazy Cat’ and ‘Peanuts.’” The New York Review of Books 13 June 1985. <>

Frank, Thomas. Dark Age: Why Johnny Can’t Dissent <>.

Lind, Steven J. “Reading Peanuts: The Secular and the Sacred.” Interdisciplinary Comic Studies 4.2 (2008). <>

Schultz, Charles. A Charlie Brown Christmas (manuscript)


An earlier draft of this essay was read by Joey Fox.
I have written this essay in the style of David Foster Wallace.

The Simpsons Blog Post

The 21st Century Fox logo fades to black as an Apollo spacecraft lands on the moon.  An anthropomorphic cat, Scratchy, and an anthropomorphic mouse, Itchy, emerge from the spacecraft.  Evoking another moon landing, Scratchy proclaims: “we come in peace, for cats and mice everywhere.” When the dramatic music stops playing, Itchy grabs an American flag and stabs Scratchy through the chest and beats him to near-death.  In short order, Itchy returns to earth a hero, is elected president, and, when he discovers that Scratchy survived the attack, ‘accidentally’ launches the entire nuclear arsenal.

So begins The Simpsons Movie.  Given the the traditions of Simpsons oeuvre, developed over nearly 30 years of television episodes, the choice to begin with Itchy and Scratchy is both telling and completely unsurprising.  The entire series is rife with slapstick and low humor that connects closely to a host of early cartoons.  But that first sequence also elides quickly into a scene in which Homer breaks the fourth wall, allowing Homer—and the film—to point out the ridiculousness of charging real audience members to watch a television-adapted movie, but he also points out the ridiculousness of charging audience members to watch a television-adapted movie that features a television-adapted movie:

Boring! … I can’t believe we’re paying for something we get for free on TV.  If you ask me, everybody in this theater is a giant sucker, [pointing towards us] especially you!

The gag works because of its satirical observation and because it happens while breaking the fourth wall.  And the “Itchy and Scratchy” movie, like the main series shorts, works because of its slapstick humor in the vein of Monty Python and Charlie Chapman.  Together, these comedic techniques satirize the film industry, its relationship with consumers, cartoon violence, and The Simpsons themselves—all within only a few minutes.

The  grotesquerie of the opening sequence invites the viewer to connect the Simpsons to a host of lowbrow humor and, in this way, to the “carnivalesque humor” described by Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin.  In examining the work of François Rabelais, Bakhtin draws a connection between the “grotesque and scatological” jokes of the French humorist and the antics of Medieval carnivals (Duncombe 82).  For Bakhtin, these carnivals upend social structures, placing the fool in the place of the king, and the king in the place of the fool” (88). “In this inversion and “temporary suspension … of hierarchical rank,” Bakhtin argues, participants “were considered equal during the carnival” (88).  The satisfactions of this kind of inversion, according to Bakhtin, support a kind of subversive humor, one centered around upending social dynamics and presenting “world[s] inside out” and “liberat[ed] from norms of etiquette and decency” (88).

The Simpsons clearly appears to share the sort of proclivity for subversion that Bakhtin celebrates—but the movie does not fully adopt a Bakhtinian understanding of humor.  While The Simpsons Movie does employ carnivalesque humor, it too challenges it.  In its gags, the film shows the strengths of carnivalesque humor, but the film also illustrates its limitations, particularly in relation to other comedic forms.  By looking at the ways in which carnivals and carnivalesque humor succeed and do not succeed in The Simpsons Movie, some insight can be gained on how effective Bakhtin’s argument is in its totality.

The most authentically carnivalesque moments may be those that occur in “excerpts” from the Itchy and Scratchy Show.  Consider the cold opening again.  The opening sequence only provides a few-minute segment from the “Itchy and Scratchy” movie—but those moments are memorably graphic.  In those two minutes, Itchy beats Scratchy to near death using a flag pole, leaves him to die on the moon, and—when it turns out Scratchy is still alive—launches the entire nuclear arsenal of the United States.  The “Itchy and Scratchy” shorts in The Simpsons television show are characterized by similar acts of violence.  In one short, Scratchy is fooled by a sign offering free money only to be neutered; in another, Itchy hooks up Scratchy to a cloning machine in order to kill Scratchy over and over again.  These violent, yet humorous, scenes demonstrate some of the argument made by Bakhtin.  Like Rabelais and the carnivals, The Simpsons use crass humor—in this case, through over-the-top cartoon violence—as a means of upending social dynamics and as a form of satire.

But are these moments authentically Bakhtinian?  In his chapter in Leaving Springfield: The Simpsons and the Possibility of Oppositional Culture, William Savage argues that the effectiveness of the “Itchy and Scratchy” cartoons lie in their ability to satirize [many things] in their violence.  “Itchy and Scratchy” plays off of the older Tom and Jerry, but it also critiques corporate culture, cartoon violence, in a knowing way that an informed consumer of culture would immediately recognize.  There is an obvious subversion, of course, in which mouse triumphs over cat.  But there is also a knowing confirmation in which “getting” the full joke is an affirmation of the viewer’s superior position.  Read in conjunction with Bakhtin, Savage’s argument suggests that the satirical power of the “Itchy and Scratchy” cartoons lies more with the audience member, rather than the carnivalesque elements of the gags.

Of course, pure bawdy humor and comedic violence is a cornerstone of the Simpsons history, from Dr. Nick Rivera’s disastrous medical interventions to the endless radioactive anomalies—and worker injuries—caused by the nuclear power plant.  But the most prevalent example of ‘grotesque’ humor appears in the relationship between Homer and Bart.  In an early scene from The Simpsons Movie, Homer engages Bart in a game of dare, after Bart laughs at Homer, who unintentionally hit himself with a hammer in eye while repairing their roof.  The two try to best each other by forcing the other to perform the most painful and humiliating tasks: Homer has to carry a pile of bricks on his back while Bart shoots him with a pellet gun, and Bart has to skateboard to a burger restaurant and back completely nude.  The humor of the scene rests squarely on the physical pain the two inflict on to each other—but the scene also functions by subverting the standard relationship between a father and son.  Homer and Bart are in turns overpowered by one another, in much the same way as the “Itchy and Scratchy” cartoons.  And, unlike those shorts, the funniness of the scene is not predicated upon the viewer having inside knowledge: the subverted relationship between the father and son is implicit in the scene itself.

Nonetheless, it’s clear from this scene too that grotesque and physical humor alone is unable to subvert social dynamics.  Homer remains the father figure in the film as in the television series and is responsible, ultimately, for the happy ending that keeps his family and his town intact.  He may be a fool, but he also inhabits a position of “authority” that is never seriously shaken.

A Bakhtinian reading of The Simpsons is also challenged by the film’s central narrative, which exists outside of individual gags.  In brief, the film tells the story of an averted natural disaster, one that is both caused by and ultimately resolved by everyman Homer Simpson.  After an attempt by the townspeople of Springfield to clean-up their polluted lake, Homer drops a massive silo filled with pig feces into the lake—the lake is quickly covered in a bubbling green ooze and a giant skull-and-crossbones appears in the water.  The head of EPA, Russ Cargill, decides to intervene by sealing Springfield under a glass dome.  While the scenarios and scenes surrounding the glass dome offer opportunities for exploring carnivalesque humor, it is the interactions of Cargill with other characters that more so capture a Bakhtinian argument.  Cargill gives the president—here Arnold Schwarzenegger—five sealed envelopes, asking him to choose one at random.  Later on, Cargill—after being foiled by Homer and Bart—claims that there are “two things they don’t teach you at Harvard … how to cope with defeat, and how to handle a shotgun.”  But before he can shoot Homer and Bart, Maggie pushes a boulder onto him.

In each of these instances, a government official is subverted and undermined—the president is told what to do by an EPA official; Cargill makes fun of his Harvard education; and Maggie drops a boulder onto him.  These are successfully subversive acts, surely, akin to examples that Bakhtin provides.  In “Understanding Satire with the Simpsons,” Carl-Filip Florberger specifically highlights the connection between the Simpsons subversion of officials of varying kinds across its episodes in connection with Bakhtin:

  • Bakhtin pointed out that carnivals in pre-Protestant Europe created a scenario in which “…hierarchies were temporarily suspended and even inverted, no insignificant thing in a society ruled by rigid social stratification attributed to divine will” (Bakhtin 1984b, 13). The Simpsons use this play with hierarchies to criticize the country, the government and also the company that owns them, FOX Network (Florberger and Lunborg).

There is, however, one unquestionably successful subversion in The Simpsons, executed by the character with the least power — an essentially carnivalesque moment.  It is Maggie, the speechless infant heart of the Simpsons family, who saves the day by executing the coup de grace.  It is Maggie who pushes the boulder that lands on EPA head Russ Cargill and prevents him from shooting Bart and Homer.  What this suggests is that Bakhtin was right.  While The Simpsons relies upon many kinds of humor to connect to its audience, the most powerful moments are when otherwise powerless characters—like an infant child, or a idiotic everyman—are able to do something powerful.  Or, funny.

From a House You Didn’t Build and Can’t Control

When culture is mass-produced, all art is in danger of becoming the same.

The historical deepening of capitalism has led to the homogenization of culture.  At least Theodor W. Adorno—a German critical theorist— thought so.  In “The Culture Industry,” Adorno argues that “each branch of culture” has become “unanimous with itself,” as the burgeoning of mass production and mass consumption have developed hand in hand (Adorno 94).  Adorno’s “culture industry”—a theoretical system that weds technology and economics—is a structure of domination in which those with power exercise their capacity to shape the mentality of the public (94, 95).  It is in the interest of capital to reduce dissent, to create easily satisfied desires, and to perpetuate itself.  And so, Adorno argues, potentially “unruly” forms like art, literature, and music are driven inexorably to sameness (99).  The result, in Adorno’s view, is that “great” and “serious” art has been replaced by shallow forms that lend themselves to large-scale reproduction.  Art is “subordinate[ed] … to [a] formula” and the masses learn to be satisfied with that (99).

Many contemporary music critics would agree with Adorno.

Digital delivery means that consumers can stream or pirate the songs with the best hooks; music services rush to provide pre-selected playlists that further universalize the listening experience of consumers—less and less aesthetic or intellectual effort is required of the audience (Hosenager; Serra; Collins). Much contemporary popular music does indeed deny listeners—in Adorno’s words— “any dimension in which they might roam freely in imagination” (100).

In other words, we like what Apple or Spotify wants us to like, while the profits roll to the shareholders.  But is it really that simple?  Modern music has trend-buckers as well as conformists.  Consider Vampire Weekend, an indie rock band whose most recent album, Modern Vampires of the City, embodies many of the qualities that Adorno associates with great art: complexity, a willingness to counter prevailing ideologies, and the presumption of an engaged audience. Has Vampire Weekend found a way to escape the homogenizing forces that Adorno identified?  Or is their resistance only a qualified success, limited by the mass production landscape in which they necessarily function as commercial artists?

No question that Vampire Weekend embraces complexity, a quality that Adorno sees as a primary casualty of capitalism (101, 96).  From the beginning, Vampire Weekend has blended intricate lyrics and sounds.  The band—formed by Ezra Koenig, Rostam Batmanglij, Chris Baio, and Chris Tomson while they were students at Columbia University—launched their career with work that melded post-punk guitars with African pop music and ska, layered with wry vocals that addressed upper class life in New England and New York, composed by four men in Polo sweaters.  The interplay of elements in tension—vividly evident in songs like “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” and “Giving up the Gun”—is at the center of Vampire Weekend and Contra.

Modern Vampires of the City
, released in 2013, is more intricate still.  The album is fundamentally concerned with the interplay of opposites, Adorno’s “tensions between the poles” (102).  Musically, the album is constructed dually around pianos and muted guitars—and auto-tune, which is used to distort Koenig’s vocals and provide syncopated rhythms.  While more somber than the band’s earlier releases, the melodies themselves are lighter—which contrasts with the dark content of the stories they tell.

The album opens with “Obvious Bicycle,” which follows a man who Koenig sings “oughta spare [his] face the razor / Because no one’s going to spare the time for [him].”  The song is a set-up for considerations that come later in the album, but it perfectly embodies a tense relationship between music and the lyrics—the piano is soft and in the background, creating a dramatic contrast that emphasizes the harshness of the story itself.  Indeed, “Obvious Bicycle” plays on that sharp contrast.  The melody is pleasant and quiet, but the narrator tells his friend he no longer has a reason to live and that he might as well “spare the world a traitor.”  This surprising  interplay—between the lightness of the music and the darkness of the message—is the sort of “unresolved dissonance” that the culture industry seems designed to squash (Adorno 101).

Vampire Weekend’s fascination with opposites and ambiguity is matched by a predilection for social critique.  Those criticisms are often implicit in their early work, where the contrast between the lyrics’ preppy concerns and the world music overtones speak quietly about power.  But in Modern Vampires of the City, the band more powerfully and directly challenges prevailing beliefs about class and religion, calling into question Adorno’s claims about the inevitable ideological sameness of mass produced art (136).  Modern Vampires suggests there are real choices to be made—and real consequences to consider—about faith, about aging, and about our relationships with one another.

Pushback against social constructs preoccupies much of the album.  Koenig starts locally, arguing for the autonomy of the individual—himself—above the group.  On “Step,” Koenig finds himself fighting against the judgements of the  “punks who would laugh when they saw us together,” and the relatives who would only admire “tales of a past life,” finding solace in himself and his own growing up.  And on “Diane Young,” Koenig flips the narrative structure, condemning an Irish girl “with the luck of a Kennedy” and others whose youthful exuberance has led them to “torch[] the Saab” and go “tottering off into that good night,” all while the “government agents surround [them] again.”  Between the two songs, Koenig finds himself distinct from the old and new, and is satisfied in that.

The album’s most trenchant critique, though, is an ideological one.  Vampire Weekend rails against religion in an arc that stretches across three songs.  On “Unbelievers,” Koenig recognizes that he “will die [an] unbeliever” in “the fire [that] awaits,” and wonders whether this was really “the fate that half of the world [had] planned for” him.  Koenig undercuts religious ideology, asking in effect whether it was moral to be condemned for not believing what “the world” had told him to believe.

And his argument becomes more drastic as the album progresses.  “Worship You” and “Ya Hey” are directed towards God.  In “Worship You,” the narrator alludes to John Milton, demanding if God with his “red right hand” would provide a “little bit of light to get [them] through the final days”, or whether they really would “see [him] once again.”  The song is an angry criticism of a god who wasn’t there when the narrator needed him—but it’s “Ya Hey” when those sentiments are made real.  Koenig argues that he “can’t help but feel / That you’ve seen the mistakes / But you let it go,” hinting at conflicts in Israel in an surreal aside where, like a DJ, God changes songs “on the festival grounds” from Desmond Dekker’s “Israelites” to the Rolling Stones’ “19th Nervous Breakdown.”  The song in particular calls out the god of Judaism, using Ya Hey as euphemism for Yahweh, and accusing an inept God who “won’t say his name” by quoting back the Hebrew meaning of his name: “I am who I am.”

There’s no question that  Modern Vampires of the City wants to rebel against the “rigid invariants” that, according to Adorno, typically make up popular music (98).  Invoking the Old Testament in juxtaposition with characters who collectively explore their own mortality and ennui, Modern Vampires subverts the traditional pop song, or—at the very least—criticizes the same kinds of folks that would slam the “Orthodox girl who fell in love with the guy at the falafel shop” on “Finger Back.”  

Adorno reserves his most damning critique of the culture industry for its effects on the intellectual capacity of the public.  Because mass produced art demands minimal alertness from its consumers, Adorno contends, such art contributes to the “withering of imagination in the consumer of culture” and “crippl[es] the faculties” of reason (100).  By questioning his own beliefs and filling Modern Vampires with religious and personal doubt, Koenig disrupts and engages his audience, forcing us to think critically about our own lives and our own beliefs.

This is, in the end, Vampire Weekend’s strongest claim for subverting the culture industry.  Adorno allows for the value of such ‘countercultural’ art—indeed, of avant-gardism, Adorno claims that “the devices used in a work of the avant-garde … unlike those of the hit song, they serve the truth” (102).  But—despite their merit—these arguments fail to assuage Adorno’s largest concerns.

Adorno questions whether the countercultural can ever divorce itself from the culture industry: “Once registered as diverging from the culture industry, [countercultural artists] belong to it as the land reformer does to capitalism” (103).  In other words, Modern Vampires may appear to be revelatory and rebellious, but we recognize those qualities only in the context of popular culture—MVOTC is only different in that is different than something we all recognize. In this sense it is difficult for us as listeners (and surely for Koenig himself) to draw a line between what Koenig himself has offered us, and what the culture industry in turn has supplied him.

The second stanza of “Obvious Bicycle” goes like this:

No one’s gonna watch you as you go
From a house you didn’t build and can’t control
Oh you oughta spare your face the razor
Because no one’s gonna spare the time for you
You oughta spare the world your labor
It’s been 20 years and no one’s told the truth.

In the end, the man is advised to “spare the world a traitor” and “thank … the rich ones who were kind,” while Koenig himself is left “wondering if anyone could begin / To listen.”  Koenig is clearly self-aware enough to feel the irony in that statement, but can no more escape the culture industry than the subject of “Obvious Bicycle” can escape the “house he didn’t build and can’t control.”

Works Cited:

  1. Adorno, Theodor and Max Horkheimer. Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments. Stanford University Press, 2002.
  2. Collins, Nick.  “Modern Music Really Does Sound the Same.”  The Telegraph, 26 July 2012,
  3. Hosenager, Kartik, et al. “Will the Global Village Fracture into Tribes?: Recommender Systems and Their Effects on Consumers.”  Management Science 60.4, 2014,
  4. Serra, Joan, et al. “Measuring the Evolution of Contemporary Western Popular Music.” Scientific Reports 2.521, 2012,
  5. Vampire Weekend. Vampire Weekend. XL Recordings, 2008.
  6. –––. Contra. XL Recordings, 2010.
  7. –––.  Modern Vampires of the City. XL Recordings, 2013.