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….
We’ve come to it. The Aftermath.
Somewhere along the way, I read an interview with Hives singer Howlin’ Pelle Alqvist. It took place around 2014 or so — well past the prime of the genre or (debatably) of his band. In discussing past successes, Pelle mentioned that after their big release of Veni Vidi Vicious, the label really pushed their next one hard, hoping Tyrannosaurus Hives would be “the next Nirvana.”
For all my spotty memory about this interview, I remember that part very clearly. Here was a thirty-ish-year-old man looking at his successful career and thinking about the weird pressure he felt to become something that nobody could become: something they were not.
I also remember another interview, this time from around 2002 and it was with Jack Black. They mentioned the Strokes, and Black was throwing many of the same superlatives toward the band and Is This It as everyone else in the world had been. Somehow the topic of their follow-up came around, and Black said something like, “If they can do it” — meaning follow up with an even better album — “then they’re the next Beatles.”
And we all know how that went. The next Strokes album was released, it kinda wasn’t as big as the first, the Beatles’ status remained static, and we all moved on.
What I see in both these exchanges are the symptoms of a some strange cultural need to have Things That Matter. We enjoy the things we enjoy… but that’s somehow not enough. We have to enjoy them for a reason. They have to be important. They have be about something and about us. Therefore, again and again, we put pressure on ourselves, our art, our bands, our music to do more than it ever set out to do.
I might not be smart enough to really get my head around this cultural need. I existed before and after the 2KGRR bubble, but I think it’s been around for a good long while. In watching Peter Jackson’s “Get Back,” it seems like that pressure was put upon none other than the Beatles themselves to be “the next Beatles” in a way, stirring up more tension and self-doubt, ultimately aiding in their break-up. I think this Pressure to Matter is at the root of toxic fans of “Star Wars,” people who have tied so much of their existence into something outside of their control (and something ultimately meaningless) that any threat to its stature becomes a threat to them. It happened with the recent DC movies, too. It will continue to happen as long as we A.) live in a pop culture while B.) assigning an inflated value to the things within that pop culture.
Such was the case with most of the rock music from the early 2000’s.
And let’s be clear: we did this. We did it as a warped collective. I think of the Strokes as The Band of The Genre, and I doubt many would disagree. But when you really think about it… why were THEY ever in that position? Sure, the album is good. Maybe even great. But there were lots of great albums from this time period. Why them?
Perhaps this strange naming of titles and accolades has more to do with weird timing and that cultural need for filling in spots with recognizable templates. The Strokes checked a lot of boxes for what pop culture thinks it wants in its top important rock bands:
- They’re men
- They play guitar-based music
- They’re from New York
- They seem a little boozy
- They write hooks
- They wear jeans and jackets and look disheveled
That was enough. There were other bands that could have likely been kicking around New York with much the same resumés, but these guys were in the right place at the right time and then they became It.
Is They It? Yes.
Could They Remain It? ….eh.
It’s hard to say.
I followed the band for a few albums after Is This It and I liked most of what I heard. I remember thinking that Room on Fire had some fun songs, but mostly felt like a slightly better version of the back half of Is This It, whose back half was the less good half. The sad thing — I think it’s sad anyway — is that the lackluster reception of their later albums had a way of reducing the cultural footprint of Is This It. Sure, you can still play it and enjoy it, but a big part of the excitement in 2001 was, like Jack Black was feeling, this looked like the start of something big. That was their first album! If they could pull it off again…?
My ruminations are, in a way, reapplying that pressure onto the Strokes and their compatriots, and I’m sorry for that. This music mattered to me more because of me, not the music. When this all came out, I was in my mid-20’s, just out of college and living in a big city. I had a group of friends and belonged to the Chicago comedy scene. This music soundtracked most of our lives, to say nothing of our shows (I think these CD’s were standard issue for every sound booth in town). My own sketch group tried to build a high energy show based around a review we read of the Hives. I remember hearing the White Stripes’ “Fell In Love With a Girl” while on hold with my temp agency, and when they interrupted to tell me it would just be a few moments more waiting, I said, “Fine,” secretly hoping they’d just put me back on hold so I could hear more. One time I walked by the band Jet after we had both completed shows near each other (not in the same venue, and I doubt with the same attendance numbers) and I thought it was so awesome I could pick them out.
It all mattered, even though it doesn’t. Not any more.
The cultural footprint of this music is not very large, and that’s what’s hurting them the most now. I can remember all those “major” events, but nobody is asking me to tell them about it. There are no books in the 33 1/3 series dedicated to any of these albums (the closest is one for Andrew WK’s I Get Wet, which should give you some idea how desperately I stretched to make a connection). While Saturday Night Live might not be the greatest cultural barometer to use, the number of times a 2KGRR band played the show between 2001 and 2005 is only 4. None of these artists have played an NPR Tiny Desk concert. In a recent AV Club article, editors were asked “What pop culture screams ‘2001?” and not one of them mentioned the Strokes, the White Stripes or anything from the genre. None of it.
After the bubble burst, the world didn’t shake one bit. It just kinda rolled along, as did the bands in the genre. The Strokes continue to tour and make music, as do the Hives, Franz Ferdinand, and even the Libertines! (It’s also worth noting that — with the exception of the Vines — most of these groups have maintained the same lineups. Seriously: if they’re still playing today, you’ll see 90% the same people as you would in 2001). On the other end of things, the great White Stripes broke up, leading Jack White to form the Raconteurs, and the world generally shrugged; we’d seen this guy work with just one other person to successfully sound like ten… so how impressive is it to just see him with a regular band of dudes? Answer: not very.
If I had to theorize about this “just continuing on” element of the genre (and I think I do have to theorize, thank you), I’d say that it somehow displaced the genre from a specific point in time. Please note that I’m not advocating anything terrible against anyone, but I still want to say: something like Kurt Cobain’s suicide provided the grunge genre a cultural ending point, thereby allowing it to have a bigger meaning (or a bigger feeling of a meaning). Granted, grunge carried on for years after that incident, but not when you look at it from a hundred years removed. In a hundred years, people will say “grunge started in the early 90’s, was a big deal, but then one day one of the major guys in the genre killed himself.” They might not say “that’s when it ended,” but they won’t have to; the suicide provided an implied ending.
I theorized the end was the White Stripes final performance on the final “Late Night with Conan O’Brien,” but that’s retroactively applied. Without a similar definitive “end point,” the 2KGRR bands just kinda blended in with the world. And as the world moved on and on, and guitar rock became less and less important, we all sort of realized that the genre may not have been as big as we thought it was. It turned out the Strokes were not the Beatles, and we were fine with that. Nobody mourned because it wasn’t worth mourning.
There are still little odd glimmers of the genre. In 2020, the Strokes released The New Abnormal, and its lead single gave me a “what’s THIS?!” reaction similar to the one I had on the phone with my temp agency in 2002. Listening to “Bad Decisions” on repeat, I can hear the band reaching for familiar, almost safe sounding noises, leaning heavily on the 80’s and such… but I don’t care. It’s fantastic. And part of the reason why it is fantastic is because it’s Them. THE BAND, the one that was supposed to be important. They kinda did it. 20 years later, but they did it.
In a weird way, it all mattered and still matters. This was important because it was. It was mine or ours or all of ours or something to that affect. This was one of the last genres we bought in physical formats, in physical stores. These were some of the last things that passed around by word of mouth, mix-CD’s and odd moments on a call with our temp agencies. It has to matter for something.
Thus ends this series, friends. I might throw on some other random things, barely related, but nothing quite on this scale. I want to thank contributors Norman Kelsey and Bob Ladewig for their insights and for responding to copious texts from me about whether Interpol belonged in this genre (the verdict was “no”). And thanks to you for reading it! You can find all the previous posts here.