ACL Fest preview: Why the Strokes hold up
Hands up – back in fall 2001 who among us could've seen that in less than a decade, the Strokes would find themselves as one of the youngest nostalgia acts in rock history?
That might sound dismissive, but think about the in absentia legacy the New York quintet never managed to carve out after exploding all over the still-new century as the populace yearned for a cure to the pounding hangover from the late '90s rap-rock fiasco.
Think back. Just as we were scanning around they appeared pretty much fully formed, perfectly clothed and toting a musical toolkit whose implements (new wave, punk, art rock) they handled deftly for their age. This was something we could get behind, especially when they had tunes as insultingly catchy as "Last Nite." And better yet, it looked like they were leading a brigade of similarly precocious bands — the White Stripes, Libertines, the Hives, the Vines, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club — who shared some musical DNA but were united more by their intent to stake their claim to a generation's musical heritage.
If it seemed a little too perfect at times, or if the drum-beating U.K. and New York music press got to be too much to take, there were also plenty of moments where it seemed like most of the promises we were hearing might actually be delivered.
For me, the dam broke about 2 a.m. on a Friday night in early September 2001. I'd heard a ton about the Strokes but was allergic to the hype surrounding them, to the point of avoidance.
Returning home from a night of drinking, I tuned the television to MTV2 to see five '70s-fashioned twentysomethings playing on an imitation game show set, and the sound they were making was both new and retro enough that I instantly knew I was hearing the Strokes. The remote control hit the floor and it was time to maybe believe the hype.
In one of those serendipitous one-two punches, the video for "Last Nite" was followed by BRMC's menacing, bracing "Whatever Happened to My Rock 'n'Roll? (Punk Song)," and at that point I was so flabbergasted I couldn't tell which way was up. Suddenly the old Clive Davis, Ahmet Ertegun-era paradigms looked shaky and it seemed as if our new digital world paired with still-working remnants of the music industry's heyday could give us new and exciting music like this every week. The future was here! And it sounded awesome!
At least, that's how I remember it feeling for the five minutes or so before the world had other ideas. Sept. 11 happened and stole our enthusiasm for anything that wasn't red, white or blue. Then emo-punk happened and reminded us that pack-following teens will gladly swallow up horrible music in many forms.
And so while the Strokes never really bombed (debut "Is This It" sold 3 million copies) they never made good on all the "Strokes save rock!" promises others were making on their behalf either. Given that, backlash was inevitable, but it was still ridiculous for an outlet like CNN to run a feature in early 2004 — months after the release of the great but commercially stagnant "Room on Fire" — looking at why The Strokes were "washed up."
It didn't help that their new millennial cohorts fell like flies, with only the White Stripes maintaining commercial and cultural relevancy, or that Simon Cowell lapped Strokes lead singer Julian Casablancas in the race for the title of the decade's pre-eminent pop music figure.
So no one bothered to fret much when the Strokes just sort of went away shortly after 2006's "First Impressions of Earth." Side projects trickled out, breakup rumors were dismissed with a businesslike nonchalance and we all kept on living without paying much mind to the matter of whether we'd ever care about the Strokes again. I mean, who has the time?
But here's the thing; Pull out your iPod, play "Last Nite" and just try to not dance like a fool. You can't. The reason is twofold. One is that it's a purely great pop song, simple and obvious, like all the great ones are.
But the second is where the Strokes get tricky. Because we'd mostly let them drift away in our minds, The Strokes and their music became encased in amber, to the point that no matter what they do down the road they'll always partially embody the promise we once saw not only in them but in ourselves circa 2001-'02.
When they take the stage Friday, October 8 at Zilker Park and Casablancas starts crooning the words to "Last Nite" like he barely cares, we won't all be wearing distressed denim and Chuck Taylors again. But it sure will feel like we are.
The Strokes play at 8 p.m. Friday on the AMD stage.