Against "The Historical Pullback" and "The Problem"


One thing I very much enjoyed over my Christmas vacation was the New Yorker profile of Vampire Weekend. It was pretty great! It is not online, because why would you put a piece on a band that is wildly popular amongst the youngs up on the Internet? (I KNOW, you have your reasons, New Yorker, I’m sorry, I will shut up.) But here is a “fair use” (??) excerpt of one of the best parts of the piece. In it, the members of Vampire Weekend-who are being followed by, in addition to the New Yorker reporter, a documentary camera crew-go to visit and interview Tom DeLonge from Blink 182, who greets them with his own documentary camera crew. Amazing! This piece is so highly enjoyable, from beginning to end. And yet I will complain that it suffers a bit from between .75 to 1.25 of the two big afflictions of magazine essaying.

First? Some amazingness:

Then [DeLonge] screened a trailer for a movie that his new band, Angels & Airwaves had produced, called “Love” — images of an astronaut in a space station over swelling music.

Batmanglij started giggling, and DeLonge turned and looked at him.

“Uh, I just thought of something fun that we could do with our band,” he said.

“That’s rad,” DeLonge said evenly. “Cool.”

The Vampire Weekend members got up to leave. DeLonge shook their hands and said, “Consider this stuff.” Then he asked, “Why are you guys so mellow?”

Basically I am all “asd;fjklasdlf;jadsf” over this.

So these two afflictions!

You are all familiar with the Historical Pullback. This is the often-tedious thing where, when you are documenting a modern life, suddenly there is a section that begins, “In 1680, a man first affixed a stamp to an envelope. Meanwhile, in Denmark….” And this is sometimes fascinating and most often irrelevant.

Remember in Rebecca Mead’s excellent College Humor profile, when, after discussing REVENUE MODELS of the website’s attendant business arms, she suddenly comes out with this:

Students have been prone to bawdy humor since at least the Middle Ages-witness Chaucer’s “The Milleres Tale”-and the themes of American college humor have proved remarkably resilient over time. An editor of a book published in 1950 entitled “A Treasury of College Humor” remarked that “although the atomic bomb, and other timely trivia, may momentarily intrude, broad and universal themes-the fate of the football team, the perusal of sex, and the imbibing of alcoholic beverages-remain predominant.”

That goes on for a while-”College humor suffered a decline in currency in the nineteen-sixties and the first half of the nineteen-seventies”-until we return to our young heroes.

This is all interesting but it is irrelevant to the piece in particular because the young fellas of College Humor are, by and large, completely uninterested in the history of humor in colleges. Should it be relevant to them? Maybe! Do they stay up at night thinking about Chaucer? Oh, how I doubt it. (What does Chaucer know about CPMs, hmm?) My point is that having information-dumps in a profile that is totally unrelated, in any real fashion, to the lives of its subjects is wrong-thinking. That it’s relevant to the reader-maybe-is secondary.

You are also definitely familiar with The Problem, which is a thing that happens earlier in this piece.

The Problem is what gets pitched in a meeting or in an email, and sometimes accidentally ends up in a piece The Problem is, in this case, that Some People Say Vampire Weekend Burned Too Fast, or maybe They Sold Out, or There Was Some Controversy From Some Quarters Over Whether They Were Ripping Off African Music, or Can They Have Sophomore Success In This Critical, Critical World, or whatever people were arguing on their blogs.

You know what? I don’t want my magazine profiles to “teach the controversy!” I don’t really care what some people have asserted. It’s fine if you have to get some hook to get the editors to cover something that is maybe outside their comfort zone. Leave it there!

There is so much exquisite, revelatory live action in this piece that The Problem section-which, to its credit, is fairly brief-seems extra-deadening. But once you skim past it-which is all you can do, as a reader-the rest is heaven.