In honor of the 20th anniversary of this blip of a genre, I will be posting a long, personal, rambling series of essays. Some will have stats, most will be very scatterbrained, all will be disputable about one of my favorite genres that may not have been a genre at all…
While it had existed prior to this era, something about the 2KGRR brought the idea of the sophomore slump sensation to new heights. Some dips were minor, others seemed monumental, but aside from one major exception, almost every single band in the genre experienced it. I’m going to diagnose just how or why this happened.
To do that, we must accept the distinct possibility that these bands were either not that great to begin with OR that their popularity was inflated. Or both. At this point, any thing seems possible. When your whole thing is playing simple rock n’ roll that “anyone could do,” after a while, it might seem easier to devalue it. Hell, that’s kinda what the artists were doing to begin with. Real double-edged sword thing happening here. It’s difficult to pinpoint. Of all the major 2KGRR groups, on the White Stripes seemed to avoid this trap (possibly by recording the same-ish album over and over… not that this is a bad thing)
Take the Strokes as a classic example. To a space alien, the differences between Is This It and Room on Fire are infinitesimal. The spirit seems to still be there, the instruments seem to sound similar, the tone, the style, it’s all there. It garnered mostly good reviews, even when compared to its predecessor. Most reviewers went 5-stars for the first album and 4-ish-stars for the second… but that one-or-less-star difference made all the difference to fans.
I mean, apparently it did. It did for me, back then. I remember being very excited for Room on Fire, and finding much to like upon hearing it. But for whatever reason, I didn’t loooooooove it. And I wasn’t alone. Without going through the work of researching anything, I would bet that if I could count the number of times you played one over the other in the last 15 years, Is This It would lap Room on Fire by 1,000.
As I said, the Strokes didn’t own this phenomenon. The same thing happened with the Hives and Libertines. Strictly speaking, the Hives don’t fit this mold entirely; Their breakthrough album Veni Vidi Vicious wasn’t even THE breakthrough release, at least not in the UK. That belonged to the comp-EP Your New Favourite Band. However you slice it, the post-bubble release of Tyrannosaurus Hives — while delivering another breakneck collection of punky rock — just didn’t deliver enough it seemed. The Libertines managed a truly amazing feat by falling apart prior to the release of the album that would slump them — how do you diagnose that? Both have since carried on to various degrees, and as much as I’ve enjoyed them, the shine is definitely gone. They are now working bands, chugging along without a distinct era.
Then there’s the Vines. I still cannot put my finger on the band, let alone what happened to their sophomore album Winning Days. I’m also often a terrible critic of music, in that I don’t put much stake in lyrical content (that’s fancy words for “I don’t care about the lyrics in rock songs.”). But somebody did. Critics did. Their sophomore disc is almost seen as the “Be Here Now” of the 2KGRR genre — the one that popped the bubble. Which, again, is odd since — heard with 2021 ears — it sounds virtually identical to the “good” album.
As you can probably tell, I’m big into Chuck Klosterman (I know, I know). One time, years ago, in a podcast interview I cannot recall exactly, he was talking about how modern musical criticism is fundamentally flawed, stating that it requires people to hear an album 1.5 times — often before release — and form a lasting, perfect opinion of that music right away before never thinking about the album again. He pointed out how this is not how we experience music, that the rock journalism world is not in step with how actual people enjoy bands. He cited how the culture loved the first Boston album, but hated the second one, and that he had recently re-examined the second Boston album and found it to be great.
I get the same feeling with the Vines follow-up. Truth be told, I wasn’t that into the band during the 2000’s; I knew of them, had heard “Get Free,” but that was about as far as I took it (music cost money back then). Listening the their first two albums now, in 2021, I feel it’s safe to say that their both good. Maybe not LANDMARKS OF EARTHLY CULTURE, but I’m not picking up on the tremendous differences that would make the world turn its back on them.
This leads me back to my suspicion that the genre and these bands weren’t quite as big as we thought they were; or, more accurately perhaps, they weren’t as big as we hoped they were. That’s a big topic. I’ll get more to that soon.
I think the reason these albums slumped is because we culturally decided they did, or that they should. It had less to do with these bands personally and more to do with the fact that we were different. Perhaps we’d grown bored with this style, or we’d grown older and listened to other things. Maybe the bands had waited too long to release something so captivating that it extended the genre’s reach beyond our possibly-smaller-than-we-thought world. It could also be that pop culture is, by nature, fickle and always changing tastes without conscious decision; it just kinda happened.
This half-baked explanation even partly explains why this music got so big in the first place: just right place, right time. We all decided “This is Big,” so it was. Then, just as collectively and unconsciously, we decided a few years later, “Something else is Big,” and so that was. Part of the reason why we hold Is This It in such high regard has to do with the fact that it came out in 2001 and the fans of that music were just fans of that music in 2001. It doesn’t make complete sense. It doesn’t have to. It’s not fair, and it doesn’t have to be.
In the meantime, you should give those sophomore albums a spin. No joke: they hold up. There’s a good chance you haven’t heard them in 18 years if at all, and that lack of familiarity — that removal from the weird cultural group think happening around 2004 — might help you enjoy it.