What do Ezra Koenig and André 3000 have in common?
For a blog focused on hidden meaning in songs, I don’t think there is a better subject for the inaugural post than Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig. The Columbia University educated Koenig’s songwriting is interesting, complex, and riddled with references to everything from 13th century Latin hymns to Lil Jon. Pick any song in their catalog, but particularly any off of 2013’s amazing Modern Vampires of the City, and there is a good chance it is worthy of some in-depth analysis. But for this post, I would like to focus on 'Ya Hey' and what possible connection it could have to OutKast’s infectious 2003 mega-hit 'Hey Ya'.
On the surface, the spelling of the song title was clearly intended to cause the listener to make an association with OutKast’s song. However, a quick listen to the song or reading of the lyrics does little to illuminate what, if any, the deeper connection might be. As Koenig wails the chorus Ya Hey becomes Yahweh, the Hebrew name for God. The song is a beautiful meditation on the incomprehensibility of an all knowing, all powerful God “[who] won’t even say his name.” Koenig struggles to try and understand what type of being could have such power yet refuse to make its presence known to its creations, asking “who could ever live that way’ and answering ‘Ya Hey, Ya Hey.” Ultimately, there is little place in the modern world for such a God. Rationalism and empiricism have permeated the culture and we now demand measurable proof of such a being before belief. And thus, Koenig laments “America don’t love you; So I could never love you; In spite of everything.”
But what does Koenig's struggle over his belief in God have to do with OutKast’s song? Before we get to that, I would like to take a detour and look at another example from Modern Vampires of the City where Koenig takes inspiration from Hip-Hop. The track 'Step' is inspired by the the early 90s Souls of Mischief song 'Step to My Girl'. The songs share many elements including lyrics and samples.
The Souls of Mischief track is a wonderful example of that smooth 90s hip-hop sound. Tajai, A-Plus, and Opio lay down bouncing rhymes describing their frustrations with chumps and all manner of lame dudes who try to flirt with their ‘flyer female companion[s].’ In an interview with NPR Koenig says he has always loved Souls of Mischief but only first heard this song in the mid 2000’s. He continues “Slowly as I listened to this song, I found myself kind of writing this alternate song based on that phrase [every time I see you in the world, you always step to my girl.” That song would become ‘Step,’ and Koenig would replace the literal girl with a metaphor for his own music/art. The first verse is largely symbolic of Vampire Weekend’s earlier work, dense with references and bordering on the verge of nonsense. The second verse spells it out for us, “ancestors told me that their girl was better.’ ‘Their girl’ being their music and art. This sentiment is pervasive and I’m sure you have all endured a conversation with someone trying to argue that ‘new’ music is inferior to the music of previous generations, or perhaps you’ve seen a stupid meme that cherry picks lyrics like the one below. Koenig doesn’t let this fret him though “[he] ignores all the tales of her past life; Stale conversation deserves but a bread knife.” The end result of ‘Step’ is a song that is true to the spirit of the original Souls of Mischief track while full of new ideas and meaning.
With the example of ‘Step’ in mind let’s turn to OutKast’s ‘Hey Ya’ and see if we can make sense of ‘Ya Hey.’ Before you read any further, stop and try and think if you can remember what the song ‘Hey Ya’ is actually about. I’m betting there is a good chance you can’t. Everyone remembers André pleading for some sugar from his neighbor and ordering us to shake it like a Polaroid picture, but most people are blissfully unaware of the emotional content of the song. Despite its upbeat and dance-y beat the song is actually about André’s difficulties with monogamy and commitment. He asks ‘if what they say is ‘nothing is forever’; then what makes love the exception?” André doesn’t know how previous generations seemed to commit to life-long relationships so easily, “thank God for Mom and Dad; For sticking through together; Cause we don’t know how.” Perhaps there is something about our generation that makes us unable to love and have relationships like previous generations (insert your favorite target for blame, the internet, tinder, etc…). And I think it is this insight that connects ‘Hey Ya’ to ‘Ya Hey.’ Again Koenig takes inspiration from hip-hop and replaces relationships for faith. Like André, Koenig wonders if there is something different about this generation which makes us unable to have faith in God like previous generations. The belief in the literal God of the Hebrew Bible, Yahweh, becomes very difficult to reconcile with a modern world view that takes into account all we know of science and history (Koenig’s family is Jewish and he is often identified as Jewish). So what do Ezra Koenig and André 3000 have in common? A longing for, or at the very least a curiosity with, how previous generations were able to love and have faith with all of their hearts and a dissatisfaction with our generation’s seeming inability to do just that.