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Feb 02

The Strokes – You Have Three Minutes To Amaze Me

FT1 comment • 7,400 views

1.
This is an article about the Strokes. Yes, yes: I realize it’s gauche to go on about the Strokes. Let’s get that out of the way as soon as possible: you may well feel that a lot more words have been written about this particular band than they deserve, and that even having to point that out got tedious months ago. You may well argue that there’s simply nothing about the Strokes that even bears commentary. You may well do what people kept doing to me back in August, when I tried using the Strokes as a conversational ploy – rolling your eyes and making reasonable-type hand gestures that say ‘whatever, they’re fine.’ You may well even back this by dredging up the names of a dozen other musicians whose records you feel contain more content, more analysis-worthy substance, than the work of the Strokes. Well and good: I salute you.

But if you genuinely feel that way, it’s my suggestion that you go and read a book. Because whatever your local curbside alternative weekly might try to tell you about the Strokes and What They Mean for Rock and Roll, the Strokes are a pop band – almost defiantly so – and surely the first thing we learn about pop music is that ‘substance’ is not just ‘substance.’ Pop music is an art that eschews coherent statements in favor of just plain statements; it is an art that arranges meaningless signifiers into patterns that suddenly seem to have more to do with our everyday existence than the weightiest, most profound philosophical decrees could ever hope to. Pop music is an art in which an offhand ‘oh-whoah’ or a good haircut can seem blindingly right and true, whereas a stray ‘oh-yeah’ or a bad pair of jeans can stand for everything that is wrong with the universe at present. The self-perpetuating torrent of words swallowing the subject of the Strokes should tell us that one or the other of these things is happening, constantly, to just about everyone who’s out there talking about Is This It? right now, and isn’t that basically the point?

So let’s keep talking about the Strokes, and let’s start by writing all of those weekly editors and letting them know that the Strokes can never ‘save rock and roll’ because they are working on something more important: they are waltzing onto the great barren field of guitar-type pop and they are sowing what may in fact be some crucial seeds.

2.
Proper music criticism – as opposed to proper cultural criticism – should probably spend at least as much time talking about what music sounds like, now, as it does talking about what music might eventually mean. What I am attempting is not proper music criticism, which is hopefully good because most properly critical takes on the Strokes wind up being largely useless. This band is not just an excuse for rock critics to talk about the Velvet Underground and Television again: that’s unspeakably tedious and anyway the Strokes, in the end, have next-to-nothing to do with either of them. Every Strokesism that can be traced back to those sources was surely picked up second- or third-hand, either from better reference points – the Blondied Manhattan of the ratty blazer and skinny tie, the Manhattan of Madonna playing drums in new wave guitar bands, sublime dress-you-up dance hits waiting to burst forth – or from any one of the many mid-eighties indie bands I’d already say had next-to-nothing to do with the Velvet Underground in the first place.

And even that sort of antecedent-tracing fails: if Is This It? sounds as much like the Velvet Underground as it sounds like Parallel Lines, then it sounds as much like ‘Atomic’ as it sounds like the Wedding Present or the Jesus and Mary Chain’s Automatic or even the Primitives, really, and it sounds as much like ‘Kennedy’ or ‘Crash’ or ‘Head On’ as it sounds like ‘This Charming Man,’ which may be as close as we’ll ever get to really nailing them down. Plenty of critics have gone so far as to evoke the Stooges – but can you honestly imagine the Strokes playing ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’ or ‘Marquee Moon’ or ‘European Son’ without having some sort of attention-span hissy fit, declaring them listless and plodding and hookless, and launching into some boxy plaintive three-minute second-wave popfest of a song? On the other hand, do my Brit-indie references really get you any closer? Does it mean something that amid all the talk of their nicking moves shamelessly, the only concrete resemblance anyone very points to is the fact that the intro to ‘Last Nite’ sort of coincidentally sounds like the intro to a song by Tom Petty?

Seriously: have you ever imagined these Strokes characters listening to or enjoying any other band at all? As with a lot of great pop bands, the antecedents are meaningless: they sound like everything, and consequently they don’t really sound like much in particular other than themselves. And, more importantly, how they sound means nothing compared to the great collective delusion of how we think they sound.

3. And how do we think they sound? Last year’s press seemed to think they sounded like they were going to Save Rock and Roll, which is maybe true if you take ‘rock and roll’ to mean pretty much the opposite of what those critics meant by it. They were said to be brash, they were said to have ‘attitude’ – the British press cleared the path they’d last traveled with Oasis. And rightfully so, because the Strokes momentarily were Oasis. They came out of nowhere with an already-massive Next Big Thing buzz circling and turned out, when the record delivered, to actually be pretty thrilling: seriously backward-looking, it seemed, but with just the right confidence about it to make it almost guilt-free. They stole blatantly from the Cool Collective Past – not deviously, or specifically, but by tapping into an ethos everyone liked but hardly anyone was shameless enough to try and recreate. And all the talk of ‘attitude’ really meant, it seemed, was that they band seemed not to give a damn about any of this baggage, barely seemed to acknowledge its existence – and, actual ‘content’ aside, this was the very thing that seemed so brash and exciting about them in the first place.

Both debut albums – Is This It? and Definitely Maybe – are great, no matter how loath we may sometimes be to admit it. What both of them do looks somewhat silly and somewhat easy, but there’s no question that he songs sound fantastic – and there really is something stylish and charming and very rock and roll about a band kicking through a set of fantastic songs that no one In The Know would accept that they should be playing in the first place. The trick, on their part, is clearly to ignore that last fact for the sake of just plowing through the conventions with conviction; this is glam that doesn’t sound it, right down to the seeming obviousness of both bands snorting lines and shagging groupies backstage. It’s the beautiful kick of old-model ‘rock’ swaggering around pretending that it’s invincible, which is exactly what people liked about rock even back when it did seem invincible.

And so we have these bands, Oasis and the Strokes, who, whether or not they actually were or are brash, still struck us that way. Because amid torrents of equally useless words about whether or not Rock Is Dead, here are these bands walking around as if rock were never even close to dead or even wounded or even threatened or worried, and what the hell are you even talking about and how could it possibly matter? Of course this is a beautiful thing to watch – who wants to listen to a genre scramble self-consciously around trying to outwit the common perception of its own ailments, like watching a middle-aged man fret about his own mortality? Who wants art that devotes half of its energy to defending its own existence, when we could have art that just assumes its own worthiness from the get-go and then gets down to doing something about it?

What these bands are doing is profoundly conservative, but the fun in them is precisely what I imagine the fun is in supporting a young conservative ideologue: they are well-dressed and charismatic and gleefully ignoring everything the world is commonly felt to have become. And when it comes to pop songs – where there aren’t lives or truth or geopolitics at stake – good god can this be fun. That’s what conservative ideology is all about: it’s brash and catchy because it’s simplistic and pre-established. Put another way: as little love as I have for real life’s Ralph Reed, I think he’d make a fantastic fictional character.

4.
But: context aside, are the Strokes really so brash? They are not. This is, in fact, the key to everything that is good about the Strokes, and the thing that all of these Iggy’s Velvet Television etymologies fail so miserably to capture – they make no distinction between the Strokes sounding anything like these bands and, say, the Go sounding anything like these bands, and they lend no insight into why bands like the Go are one thousand times more ‘rock’ than the Strokes will ever be but also one thousand times less fun.

No, the Strokes are not brash, and Tom’s review explains it well enough. It’s right there, really, at the start of the record: these guitars that feel like they’re in waltz time even though they’re not, this plaintive, sweet-faced, pouty / friendly ‘is this it?’ drifting out of a verse melody that’s practically a lullaby. The most swaggering they get is the into to ‘NYC Cops,’ which itself sounds half-assed and half-serious and has Julian clowning and chuckling over the whole thing. No, these guys are sweethearts, and that’s why the Velvet Underground name-checking is so damn far off the mark. The Velvets countered the pristine head-in-clouds-ness of the sixties rock mainstream with weight, grit, snot, bondage, and heroin, whereas the Strokes counter the mookery of turn-of-century rock (and the knotty, considered, intellectualism of turn-of-century indie) with a teen-idol schoolboy insouciance that is quite clearly the best thing they have going for them.

If I have to declare the Strokes to actually be like anyone, I’d probably be best off saying they’re the Romantics: cool, hooky, danceable, guitar-based new-wavery dressed up in spiffy outfits, concentrating on style and pleasure rather than holding up giant signposts to some sort of profound content they’re claiming to deliver – not to mention ‘Alone, Together’ feeling, if not exactly sounding, a whole lot like an updated ‘Talking in your Sleep.’ (And not to mention their live video being shot on, well, video, with a tour de force of lighting designed to make it feel exactly like a late-night network-television studio performance beamed mysteriously in from 1982 – and not to mention a couple of girls in the front row of that performance studio turning up with feathered hair.) As above: the Strokes just may be the sound of guitar-wielders recalling that sometimes the flash, style, and fun actually are the profound content.

I make all of these eighties parallels for a few reasons, one of which has to do with one of the first pop songs I ever loved. In 1981, I fell hard for ‘Don’t You Want Me,’ ‘We Got the Beat,’ and some song or other by Eddie Rabbitt – plus a song by Australian-born soap star Rick Springfield. You likely know this song: ‘Jessie’s Girl.’ It’s notable that Rick was 31 when this song was released. For a few years there, popular rock stars were very much allowed to be (a) oldish, (b) spiffily dressed, and (c) thoroughly bourgeois, a state of affairs that is quite nicely summarized not only by Dire Straits but by the video for ‘Jessie’s Girl.’

‘Jessie’s Girl’ is about a guy who is jealous for another guy’s girlfriend. That’s it – there’s no turbulent drama, no fight, no back-stabbing, nothing Writ Large and Profound, and no navel-gazing or self-deprecating comedy, either: he’s just infatuated with this other guy’s girlfriend. Note also that the song is sung by a guy who is meant to be not only blazingly sexy but deep and artistic as well, and yet he does not have the girl, nor does he drown his sorrows in the thousands of other women potentially available to him. The video is a rock video to the core: Rick gets this intense look in his eyes and performs facing the camera, feet apart, barely moving except to jerk his guitar back and forth in a manner reminiscent of Joe Strummer – and at the song’s climax, Rick’s clenched-fist frustration grows so uncontrollable that he jams the headstock of that guitar through the bathroom mirror he’s been depicted looking into intensely for portions of the previous two minutes.

Yeah, rock. But here’s the thing: Rick is also a dapper man. He’s wearing pleated slacks, if I remember correctly, and a collarless button-down shirt, tucked neatly in. More notably, video-wise, he’s shows meeting Jessie and Jessie’s girl at what looks like some sort of Learning Annex art class, involving either oil painting or possibly pottery. What ‘Jessie’s Girl’ is offering us – and what a whole lot of the popular rock hits of the early 80s are offering us – is not some image of the rock star as tough guy or smart-aleck or misunderstood outcast, but an image of the rock star as proxy for an idealized image of everyday adult life. It’s an image not of youthful vitality and rebellion but of a mature, understandable-but-intriguing grown man who leads a glamorous, understandable-but-intriguing life that consists of dressing well, playing music, attending arts courses, living in a lovely big apartment, drinking wine, driving a sporty little car, and having passionate and dramatic but very adult interactions with women and men who are doing the exact same thing.

Comments

  1. 1
    Aldemar on 16 Feb 2010 #

    worst thing I’ve ever read, you obviously don’t know much about the strokes and you certainly don’t understand music and what is pure

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