Was That It? On the Strokes Paradox

The Strokes, June 2002. Photo: Kevin Mazur/WireImage

Somewhere in a Connecticut attic lies a heavy and outdated Dell computer with MP3s of the Strokes’ first EP, The Modern Age, buried deep on the hard drive. The attic is my mother’s, the computer is mine and the MP3s are ripped at 64 kilobites per second — a quality that makes the songs sound like they’re sloshing around inside a digital garbage disposal.

I listened to them anyway. I listened to them because I couldn’t wait for the EP to come out in the U.S., but I was forced to. Even though the Strokes were from New York, and marketed as being cool in a way that could only exist in New York, The Modern Age came out in England before it came out here.

The pitch about the Strokes was that they were saving rock ‘n’ roll. Or bringing it back. One of the two. Both were silly ideas designed to sell magazines and neither were very smart. Three of the bestselling albums in 2001 — when the Strokes’ Is This It came out — were by Staind, Creed and Linkin Park. Rock didn’t have to be “brought back” because it hadn’t ever gone anywhere. It’d just gotten really, really awful.

What the Strokes did do was build a simple and explicitly retro sound at a time when retro culture wasn’t the norm. Albert Hammond and Nick Valensi’s clean, interwoven guitar lines, Fabrizio Morretti’s toylike drumming, Julian Casablancas’s answering-machine vocals — the whole sound of Is This It had an agility and smallness that hadn’t been popular in rock music since 1980s New Wave and before that, early Beatles. (The counterpoint being a band like Led Zeppelin, who made rock beefy and assertive and generally more penis-oriented.)

Now, it’s hard to remember a time when we were weren’t remembering. Most contemporary indie pop and rock — which theoretically should be able to indulge in new ideas without worrying about whether or not they’ll sell — works by stirring up a bunch of old ideas in ways that plays tricks on our cultural memory. LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy called it “borrowed nostalgia for the unremembered ’80s.” Examples are countless. Even Lady Gaga, our supposed ambassador from the future, is a rehash: The strategy of perpetual self-reinvention is Madonna’s, the talking points about fame are Andy Warhol’s and the music is mostly a cross-section of anonymous ‘90s-style Europop.

Here, for the sake of comparison, are some important alternative artists who existed during or before Is This It came out: Nirvana, Radiohead, Beck. Kurt Cobain covered some ‘80s bands and got caught up in heroin, but that was as retro as they got. By 2001, Radiohead were dismantling suburban minds by using the goodwill they’d built up with “Creep” to make synthesizer-heavy records whose whole premise was a kind of disgust for traditional rock music. Beck’s adventure was to wade through thrift-store junk with the ambivalence of the slacker era in ways that were completely contemporary — after all, the junk he waded through was once shiny and new. (This was around the time that “thrift” stores became “vintage” stores. Before retro culture existed, old clothes were primarily for people who couldn’t afford to buy new ones.)

The idea that the Strokes “saved” rock, then, is ironic — if anything, they killed it. They extracted it with a syringe from a chunk of old amber. And as good as they were — and Is This It still sounds as perfect to me now as it did in 2001 — the Strokes success made it possible for a lot of bands in Converse hi-tops and leather jackets to get label advances and press coverage for what was, at heart, a lot of heinous and unimaginative garage rock. (When Rolling Stone finally ran their “Rock Is Back!” cover in October 2002, they put the Vines on the cover. I’ll give you a second to look them up on Wikipedia.)

The unfortunate responsibility of changing the conversation is that you either have to change it again or just sink into the corner and deliver your same line over and over. (The Beatles are a good rock band example of the former; AC/DC is a good example of the latter — they’ve made the same record nearly every year since the Ford administration.)

So, where is Angles, the new Strokes album, in that conversation? In 2001, they seemed truly cool — rumpled, shrugging, effortless. Watching them now on Saturday Night Live, they look disinterested, and not just in the music, but in each other. That paradoxical, un-forceable kind of cool — like they’d been a bunch of friends drinking beer who accidentally started a band — has been replaced by Julian Casablancas sending vocal tracks over email and Nick Valensi doing recording sessions alone, with an engineer sitting behind the glass. It’s mercenary work by guys whose charm was that they’d seemed like a schoolyard gang.

One question, I guess, is whether or not the Strokes could possibly matter now. Their work, in a sense, is done — a feeling that isn’t really swayed by Angles. Another way of asking the question of whether or not the Strokes matter now is whether or not I think the Strokes can bring the Strokes back. Or, was Is This It really it?

I was born in 1982. I could tell you about how I liked Nirvana but felt too young to claim them as my band. I could tell you about how I liked Radiohead but felt comforted by how comparatively joyful the Strokes sounded, and how important that joy was to me as I transitioned out of being an angsty high-schooler to a college student who went swimming in swimming holes and drank beer in the moonlight too many times to deny that life was a gift. I could tell you about my first love jumping up and down on her bed listening to The Modern Age — probably a burned CD of the 64kbps MP3s from my old computer. I could tell you the Strokes changed me a little, but how one of the things I loved most about them was that they didn’t seem like a band that wanted to change you or themselves or anything around them.

It’s a little sad, maybe, that I’m okay with that. Okay with a backwards-looking band that didn’t seem to have big things to say about the world. Okay with a band whose most pressing question was whether to hang out here or hang out somewhere else. “My ex says I’m lacking in depth,” Julian Casablancas sang on “Someday.” “I will do my best.” It’s a funny line, I think — he’ll make every effort to keep things light. But the song, like a lot of Is This It, is a kind of depth charge: superficial, but wiser and more comforting as time goes on. What does a 22-year-old know about “the good old days”? Angles almost seems like the work of a different band, or at least a version of the band incompatible with who they once were. The Strokes that made Is This It are, appropriately, stuck in a past that feels more important the farther away I get from it.

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