Yes, the rock of the early 80s was conservative as well, and why should we be surprised? The early 80s gave us rock-star Yuppies because the early 80s marked the first generation of rock’s fans becoming Yuppies, digging into careers and moving to suburbs and noticing the early signs of male pattern baldness but still feeling a spirit of rock vitality inside themselves and looking for ways to reconcile that spirit with their new lives. This is the only possible explanation not only for Dire Straits but for the devotion of the Jimmy Buffett fans who perceived – and still perceive – Jimmy’s Yuppie island-bum fantasias to be, somehow, vital and exciting.

I’m of the opinion that there’s an element of this phenomenon to the Strokes, just as certainly as there’s an element of it to Rufus Wainwright. Both have found their core audiences among nominally With-IT, big-city, upwardly-mobile (late) twenty-somethings, many of whom you can just tell listened to indie up until sometime during the past two years, when they suddenly tired of its recent knob-twiddling auteurism and just wanted to hear direct, soaring, gut-touching pop songs about stuff they could be doing, or dreaming of doing – either the swooning romanticism of Rufus’s falling-in-love-in-Paris tales of the Manhattanite ‘let’s head back to your apartment’ coyness of the Strokes. It’s no surprise that Rufus and the Strokes are – or are anyways imagined to be – heartthrob types: slick, cool, good-looking, well-dressed. It’s no surprise that both acts have fancy little high-life stories trailing behind them: Rufus the designer-jacketed sexually-conflicted son of a ‘one man guy’ folk singer, sounding like some sort of ridiculously sexy cowboy as he heads into that particular song; Julian Casablancas the designer-jacketed sexually-conflicted son of a modeling mogul, fronting a band conceived at a Swiss prep school. Any single one of them could attempt Springfield’s soap-to-rock equivalency in reverse — appearing as a Hip Younger Guy for one of the Sex and the City women to sleep with for an episode and then fret about feeling too old for. They’re all New York and they’re all high life and their connections are a good reason to find them fascinating, not a reason to slag them off as pre-fab; do you think they’d be allowed to do anything this interesting if they were just suburban kids from Wisconsin?

But – but – the last thing I would claim is that the Strokes are the direct equivalent of Springfield-style 80s rock ‘Adult’ conservatism. Not by a long shot. The less-staid twin of that adulthood came in the form of a skinny-tie brigade, and a fluffed-hair and synth brigade – legions of dapper young men and women looking good, playing confidently, apparently enjoying themselves rather than straining to let you know how difficult being human can be, a feat even hip-hop and boy bands are often too humorless or too homogenous to accomplish very effectively anymore. Today’s ‘pop’ is busy being pop, and while it delivers the same thrills it always has, much of it lacks the ‘where the hell did that come from?’ factor the Strokes apparently just delivered. ‘Indie,’ similarly or maybe even worse, is busy trying to make Important Canonical Advances that everyone recognizes as such, leaving alone the fact that as its original fan base ages and keeps devouring records, they find themselves pretty familiar with just about every trick available. A couple of vocal tracks on the Life Without Buildings record aside, you’d be hard pressed to find a current-day indie band that has burst forth with the combination of accessibility and sheer oddness felt when, say, the Sugarcubes burst forth.

But this new-wave legion I speak of – now they did something there’s certainly room to be doing right now, something that dance acts like Basement Jaxx and Daft Punk are already doing with their current genres – splitting the difference between the ‘indie’ and the core of pop, and somehow managing to wind up with the best parts of both rather than a watered-down amalgam of both their failings. We’re talking about the legion that coolly and confidently kept spitting out surprising, amazing pop moments like ‘Fascination’ or ‘Turning Japanese’ or ‘She Blinded Me with Science’ – or, to be rockist and hop back to those Crucial Early Years, ‘Pop Muzik’ or ‘Ca Plane Pour Moi’ – a legion that made it seem like Anything Could Happen in three blissful minutes, so long as they were all concentrating on amazing you rather than acting like they had something deathly important to say. It’s not a sound so much as a spirit, an approach, a dedication to wowee-zowee singles and hook-stocked LPs.

It’s the same spirit that slipped off of the charts but lived on in what is truly the spiritual home of the Strokes: late-80s college radio, where you’d head three-minute stunners from an insane variety of interesting but actually-quite-pop bands, all back to back – Ministry next to the Cocteau Twins, Dinosaur Jr. next to Erasure, and the Dead Milkmen’s ‘You’ll Dance to Anything’ right up next to the Communards singles it dissed. It’s a spirit that did a bit to reinvigorate the ‘urban’ end of pop over the year 2001, and it’s the spirit that the Strokes could well remind today’s guitar-holders of – provided those legions see through the production and the Velvet Underground chatter to the Strokes’ shiny core. It may not happen right away in America, where the We Mean It, Man mentality has such a deathly stranglehold on everyone who can hack out a power chord – but in the UK, one of few remaining places on Earth where people still dance to guitar music, there is hope.

What’s happened appears to be this: just about everyone apart from the Strokes seem to have forgotten how great it can sound to momentarily set aside your canonical ambitions, pick a sound that sounds good or fun or foot-moving, and just tear right into it – wouldn’t you rather wind up an eternally-memorable one-record left-field near-novelty flash (Plastic Bertrand) than just a series of middling, anonymous chancers in the cut-out bin (say, the Mercury Program)? Strokes – for risking the hype and the backlash and the fuss and the accusations and the potential for being laughed straight back to the Casablancas trust fund, I wholeheartedly salute you. At least you had the guts to make a record that a whole lot of people — no matter how ‘bored’ they say they are with the whole phenomenon – clearly didn’t expect to hear.

So what the hell – useless as they usually turn out to be, let’s set up parallels and dialectics. Let’s imagine the Strokes as a skinny-tie outfit, belched up from the broad influences of 90s indie, a new ‘adult’ guitar-pop, and the sheer will to dance and have fun – just as the 80s-radio new wave was belched up from the broad influences of punk, the ‘adult,’ and the dance imperatives of disco. Let’s look at the flash, the hooks, and the looks that mark either; let’s look at the fact that in the Strokes we again have a cheeky, spiffy, image-laden pop band that appeals first to With-It nightclubbing twenty-something city folk, just like new-wave took the Manhattan fashionistas by storm. Forget what they sound like – all they really sound like is hooks, and even their most ardent supporters don’t seem to care about that so much as about how they feel. If we’re going to sit around talking about how the Strokes could save something, we should be talking about what they actually could serve as the warning shot of a return for: the glorious looseness, weirdness, flashiness, and un-self-conscious freshness that characterized the most interesting bits of the early 80s charts.

Maybe. Probably not. But it’s a hell of a lot closer than thinking they’re going to make anyone’s encyclopedic knowledge of Velvet Underground bootlegs eternally relevant. From here on out, don’t trust anyone who tells you the Strokes are a rock band – they’re a very particular, long-absent sort of pop band, and until Chicago’s OKGO release a record next month, they’re practically the only one around. It’s okay to love them for that.

Nitsuh Abebe, February 2002

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