The Strokes – Is This It?

In 2001 you had to have an opinion on The Strokes, which is a good thing from the off because a little bit of opinion makes being a pop fan more enjoyable. Your opinion could be deranged enthusiasm or distanced disgust or you could even pronounce yourself bored of the whole thing just as long as you made your position known. Of course every year something like this happens – in 2000 it was Eminem you had to have ideas about, and before that Britney Spears. Both those acts sold a huge amount of records though, and the first curious thing about The Strokes is that they didn’t.

So really you weren’t having to hold an opinion on The Strokes’ success, because it hadn’t happened yet. You were having to hold opinions on what the idea of The Strokes’ success might mean, or what it might mean that so many people – critics like you – wanted them to be successful. To some of the people who were deranged with enthusiasm the idea of The Strokes’ success was the old idea of “raw rock” and a return to rock’n’roll values. To some of the people who were disgusted the idea was the old idea of rock commerce pillaging the underground twenty years too late. To the people who were bored the idea was mostly the really old idea of rock critics liking familiar picks instead of stranger kicks. None of these ideas had much to do with the noises The Strokes band made, which almost everyone agreed were OK or better.

And the second curious thing about The Strokes is that they obviously knew this. For instance they called their album Is This It?. The reviewers who mentioned that at all took it as a punky rock’n’roll sneer at, I don’t know, everything rock and rollers are meant to sneer at – authority probably. (The Strokes are OK with authority though – they used to sing about New York City cops not being smart but then decided to say “girls” not “cops” and it meant the same nothing.) Though when you hear Julian Casablancas sing “Is this it?” he sounds pained and vulnerable and a bit of a whiner, but certainly not sneering.

So why not take the album title at face value, then? As a worried shrug, a bit of defensive deprecation – is this it? – a pre-emptive embarassment at doing ‘this’ in the first place? ‘This’ being rock and roll, presumably. On the British release of the album there’s a leather glove on a woman’s naked bum. It’s a horrible cover, absurd and naff and nothing to do with what the album sounds like. But it’s a lot to do with how people think the album might sound like, and it’s a bit to do with how The Strokes are meant to be and behave (groupie-hungry rock boys in black). And by putting the picture and the title together what are The Strokes saying? That rock and roll, this particular version of rock and roll, amounts to nothing more than a hand groping an arse? And that shouldn’t we be disappointed with that?

Disappointment and self-doubt and worry are all over this album, mostly thanks to Casablancas’ permanent vocal dissatisfaction. It’s not a raging hungry Jaggerish dissatisfaction at all, though, like a rock and roller might have had, it’s more the mournful sound of a man with an unscratchable itch. He kind of wanders round the songs, lost at his own party. On “Last Nite” he feels so down and he don’t know why and nobody understands him, not even his own band who kick up somewhat of a storm while their poor abject singer keeps complaining. On “Hard To Explain” he writes his group a gorgeous new wave disco tune and sulks and shrugs his way out of it. (We’ll go back to disco in a moment.) And he doesn’t sound entitled, like a rock and roller might – he sounds like someone’s going to turn up any second and take his fun away. The first words he sings on the album are “Can’t you see I’m trying?”. On “Take It Or Leave It” he howls about how some guy’s “gonna let you down” like he knows just how easy and imminent letting people down can be. On “Someday” he frets about how his “ex says I’m lacking in depth” and the first few times I heard it I thought he was saying his insights were lacking in depth and it didn’t at all seem an odd thing for this rock star to be fretting over.