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Feb 02

The Strokes – I Don’t Really Want It That Way, Thanks For Trying

FT1 comment • 3,799 views

So in a wonderful example of synergy or timing or conspiracy, the Village Voice has released the results of its ‘Pazz and Jop Poll’ the very same week as Them Strokes Fellers are being analyzed here on FT. Placing number two and all is actually a bit disappointing to me, if only because the prospect of Dylan is so damn tedious.

But I really hate Dylan, the more so with the years, which is something that the Strokes will never get from me. Tom means well when he says that being ‘bored of the whole thing’ is a option when it comes to opinion about them, but there’s a difference between being bored of the process of starmaking – about which more later – and shrugging at the candidates being offered up for it. Speaking personally, Casablancas and his merry men provoke little to no reaction from me, the music congealing slowly like globs of drying paint on a hot but humid day, unremarkably trundling along, beats and things backing vague lip-flapping with lyrics that can be ignored like all lyrics can, overseen by producers content to do nothing much, really. You can’t really hate it entertainingly, you can’t really love the attempts to try for something more than what it is, you just sort of stare at it, at least if you’re me, and think, “Huh. Well, okay.”

I have heard the Strokes, enough to note that “Last Night” tries for “This Charming Man” status and almost works, so there’s a flash of interest, much like you can look at a Weyland painting and note that he uses some deep blues here and there. I also vented a bit of bile for the Focus Group on “The Modern Age,” I think, but likely I was being overly cranky, because the music’s not interesting enough to hate beyond a reverse flash of dissatisfaction here and there. Ultimately the Strokes seem to want to be Kraftwerk, which is a noble goal, but they’re not very good robots musically, really. No sheen, no drive, merely chug, and most bar bands do that well enough – I acknowledge that, but don’t celebrate it. So dullards in the end, no real point about delivering more of an opinion than that from where I sit.

The real problem with the Strokes is that of all the recent boy bands, they’re the most singularly uninteresting. More to the point, looked at through that frame they’re absolutely downright terrible. Tom’s point is that ‘the way the band look is the least interesting thing about them’ yet this is in fact critical, indeed crucial. His particular suggestion is that they have ‘nervy good-looks,’ a highly debatable claim, and this is much more interesting – and worthy – a fight than over something as secondary as the music. Like the extremely unattractive boy band the Black Crowes, they’re too lankily ugly to be seen as anything more than meat that needs to be propped up appropriately so the instruments work. Their hairstyles are particularly foul, apparent attempts at Rod Stewart’s uber-mullet turned into poorly cut glop. It’s a frustrating sense of almost-but-not-quite, though you almost want to pat them on the head for trying, assuming emotion entered into this situation.

That said, though, the larger problem is that the Strokes lack that real vibe to succeed as a boy band, that compulsion to find out more behind the faces. They’re trying, but the formula has been terribly misapplied, and whoever is responsible in the band for that deserves particular censure. Reviewing past models is useful in identifying where the Strokes have gone so very wrong.

There’s a sense of the Beatles 1964 about them, which is good enough to an extent – certainly better that than the spectacularly awful Byrds challenge offered the following year. When David Crosby proclaimed himself the group’s ‘troublemaker,’ he was trying well enough for the time, but the liner notes on Mr. Tambourine Man went on to say ‘when he does this cute little smiling bit and crinkles his nose, the little girls flip.’ Astonishingly ham-handed even for the time, this essentially broke the band before it had begun, Crosby’s shock over this awful prose resulting in his well-documented drug abuse and songs about sex with people covered in mud.

Wisely, the Strokes seem to have steered clear of this approach, and apparently are trying to work with a mid-seventies boy band model, based on the hair most of all, though perhaps some of the clothes seem to be trying for it as well. Revival of this kind of approach is generally unwise, though, in that inevitably the Bay City Rollers must be confronted. This is where the Strokes really run into a wall, because that powerhouse of a group remains the most anonymous of all the greats, and that appears to be the exact type of path the Strokes are headed down. Only Casablancas has transcended relative anonymity, and that’s actually hurting the investment in the long run, in that it’s already likely that the band will be seen as him and his backing musicians. This lack of gang mentality is currently being worked against as best as possible – ‘The Strokes’ works much more effectively than ‘Julian Casablancas and the Strokes,’ and fits on T-shirts more easily, besides rolling off the tongue very well and taking up less space in the video credit section. In this they are like most great boy bands, but the danger still remains.

This is compounded by the fact that the Strokes are no way near what would be much better, much more effective role models from the Eighties. Duran Duran showed a surprisingly sharp way to reach back and take inspiration from the Beatles’ early omnipresence via a judicious use of newer media outlets, particularly video, to their advantage. The Strokes’ attempts to use the Internet to their own advantage in a similar fashion has been compromised by far more talented and involved presentations online – to name two examples, competitors Blue demonstrate much more immediate fluidity with the medium, while even aging boy band Kiss has a particularly well-developed Internet establishment. Duran Duran also believed in the value of clearly defined personalities, which as noted is the Strokes’ weakest point among a barrage of weak ones – there is no John Taylor or Nick Rhodes or even a Roger Taylor in the Strokes, merely an extremely tentative and uninvolving Simon Le Bon wannabe with no gift for appropriate smirks.

The most obvious and finest of indirect mentors, however, so clearly wipes the floor with the Strokes even long after their dissolution that it’s almost heartbreaking to see how badly Casablancas and company fail in comparison. Brilliantly marketed as a seemingly opposing force to the incipient rise of the New Kids on the Block, the only act that could compete on the same level of media attention and overall ubiquity, Guns’n’Roses remain the ultimate boy band to this day, breaking down barriers between audiences long seen as fragmented into irreconcilable demographic sections. Capturing everything from the highly resistant middle-aged classic rock market, which previously had only been charmed by the somewhat dubious boy band Journey, to the eternally fickle junior high segment of the market, what they achieved with their debut album still ranks as a masterpiece of contrarian success. Even the exact line-up of the band remains a role model for all boy bands that have followed – with a fresh-faced, apple-cheeked heartland boy up front, a moody rebel to one side, a non-WASP sort to the other, and two anonymous but necessary blondes filling out the stage presentations, the dynamic could not and still has not been bettered.

Given that the Strokes have the same relative advantages as Guns’n’Roses in terms of overall access – a debut album on a major label and a look into MTV – the failure of the group to capitalize the same way the earlier band did is a clear damning of the current strategy. It is possible that the final push over the top which sent Guns’n’Roses into the stratosphere, namely a killer ballad in the shape of “Sweet Child o’ Mine,” could be replicated here, but sonic evidence suggests otherwise based on the first album. Waiting until the second album is dangerous, given that the freshness is gone from the band at that point, so conceivably the battle for dominance in the wider popular spectrum has already been lost.

Still, all is not doom and gloom. To again refer to the Pazz and Jop poll, there is clear evidence that potential counterprogramming might yet avail the Strokes in later years, even though the apparent current audience does not actually buy records so much as download them. The real problem is that the rhetoric currently focused on the band either treads water too obviously or overreaches in apparent hipness. Consider if you will the image of the band presented on the main page of the poll — created by a freelance publicity agent working for the group, it nakedly seeks to replicate the wave of N’Sync dolls released in a flurry of publicity over the Christmas season. Aping this approach, especially considering the recent questions over that band’s viability following the seemed-sure-to-succeed Star Wars tie-up, reflects on the poor planning at play. Meanwhile, the ham-handed reference to hip-hop slang via ‘player haters’ – apparently the ‘correct’ spelling was done in an effort to recreate the popular but ill-fated Pat Boone stance of the fifties, wherein rewriting lyrics was seen as necessary for success – attempts to borrow some of the reflected success of Guns’n’Roses’ less-capable disciples Limp Bizkit, who barring a miracle are due for demolition within the next two years thanks to Fred Durst’s increasingly delusionary attempts at pumping up the band’s importance at the expense of working on further product.

Comments on the band from poll participants reflect on the general unease regarding the band’s future. The claim that ‘underground rock is as viable a form of traditionalism’ as others is a damning one for the band, reducing it to niche status and showing a distinct lack of commitment on the part of the firm engaged to promote band interests on an appropriate commercial level. Another comment reveals deeper doubts more directly: ‘Are people really so hungry for a Real Rock Band that they actually feel the Excitement! they claim? Or is it just an Oasis autohype thing?’ Given how Oasis itself seems to have wasted an opportunity to transform itself from the UK equivalent of Guns’n’Roses to a worldwide one – though rumors of the upcoming tour with surprisingly persistent boy band U2, who scored a major coup via the reams of free publicity at the Super Bowl, may yet work in the English band’s favor – the fears must increase appropriately.

Even an opening supportive comment like ‘The Strokes are New York and New York is America with all its problems, immoralities, and easy, undeniable riches. And I feel so old trying to fathom why people wanted to hate this band before they were even out of the studio’ reveals deeper matters at play. Besides failing to take into account the inevitable fact that boy bands are automatically hated as much as they are loved – a key reason for so many such bands’ success, generating as does more attention onto the groups – the usual attempt to frame a boy band in the context of good-natured rebellion, while potentially still effective, is astonishingly uninspired. Neither too devilish to be a threat nor sweet enough to win instant approval, the Strokes can only produce clichÈs as praise, which may sound nice but fail to pay off necessary advance money. Guns’n’Roses produced acres of coverage that positioned them as rock and roll beasts, where the Strokes would seem to have trouble convincing an influential segment of their employees that they could kill a fly.

Whether or not the Strokes succeed in breaking out of this current debacle-waiting-to-happen situation of theirs cannot be predicted with ease. To be sure, so many boy bands have yet to get even slightly near the level of attention the Strokes have currently won, the more surprising given their singular lack of ability regarding public image. Still, it must be clear that a few more missteps and Casablancas will find himself working as an advance rep for the generation to follow him – who will remember his failures, and not be reticent in reminding him of them daily.

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    […] original piece being referred to can be read here. Posted in Music. Tags: freaky trigger, […]

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