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Against Small Odds

I don’t wanna diss the Strokes for their unfair advantage: It’s not their fault they were lucky, and it’s not their fault they’re pretty good, and it’s also not their fault they’re really not that good at all. They’re a real rock band, struggling to get better, trying to spread the word about the majesty/mystery of rock, and rock styling. Like Jack White once said when asked about their music, at least it’s rock. The Strokes have done their part for the cause, and there’s no denying it.

But these are queasy-weird times for rock fans — at least the sort of fans who are familiar with the Velvet Underground, the Cars, Tom Petty and every other band who’ve made the Strokes possible. It’s a confusing time especially if you’re like me — a scarred survivor of KROQ’s late-’90s mook-rock phase. Part of me has been psyched over the past couple of years to see the Strokes riding high. I feel that despite the war in Iraq and the lies and crimes, everything can’t be so wrong with the world if a genuinely stylish, smart band that represents some of the best values of rock & roll is selling out the Shrine (which they did last Thursday, after a Wednesday-night Palladium show). We’ll look back on these days and say, wow, that sucked, but the Strokes were pretty cool.

That’s probably their greatest gift. You go to a Strokes show, and the next day you walk around with a Strokes hangover, which consists primarily of feeling sort of cool. You wake up, drink some cool coffee. Take a cool shower. Check your cool messages. Eat a cool sandwich. Poop cool. Talk cool. It’s the same when you hear their music; you’re cool for 15 minutes at least.

It may in fact be their not-very-good-ness that enables this cooling process. The Strokes have a certain Everyman quality that’s like an all-access cool pass for fans. I mean, Jack White may be cool, but it doesn’t rub off on his fans, because he’s clearly a freak that nobody can really relate to in a personal way. The Strokes are accessible — musically, emotionally, visually. No danger, no insanity, very little sexuality. They’re brilliant at not being brilliant, and people can relate.

And people — kids and starved rock fans especially — are so eager to relate, to be pleased, to feel goodwill and excitement toward bands. Watching the KROQ kids at the Palladium show the other night, I kept marveling at how much love was being thrown at the stage; you could feel it. Even when the band played a super-boring song and nobody danced, the crowd kind of nodded their heads like encouraging friends who wanted to see their idol-buddies do well. In fact, the audience was by far the best part of the show. Talk about energy!

And talk about creativity: I mean, it takes a certain amount of wishful hearing to listen to the Strokes and actually get transported to the Timeless Realm of Rock Triumph. To my mind, the Strokes are more of a rock pill — you take them in order to feel a remarkable approximation of how it might feel to hear a great New York band. It’s totally better than nothing, but I just wanna say, Is this it?

The Strokes did spark the re-emergence of decent rock on corporate radio, or what was known as the “rock is back” phenomenon. That’s all good — except that I don’t just want rock to be “back.” I want it to be forward. I want it to be piercing the future with inventiveness or, failing that, at least searing individuality. I mean, yeah, I’m grateful to the Strokes for their impact on mall fashion, but I’d rather they weren’t borrowing someone else’s style in the first place. And anyway, style is not enough. Style has never been enough. The New York Dolls knew it. Iggy knew it. The Velvets knew it. Even Kiss knew it. They were living in a time where they had to cut it artistically if their stylistic vision was going to have any impact at all. It was a time where style was held in its place, as a crucial but subjugated element to music itself.

These are much weirder times. Bands are made to feel they have to choose between substance and style every day, as their art is used to sell cars and cell phones and water and, most of all, a worldview in which anything and everyone has a price. Fortunately, the Strokes are in a position where they don’t have to choose, but it doesn’t really matter for listeners: The Strokes exist in a context where rock has been almost wholly commodified by The Man, and a radio listener has to muddle through an endless briar patch of commercial forces in order to discover the incorruptible, irreducible beauty of music.

And so despite the fact that the Strokes haven’t used their music to sell razors, a rock lover still must contend with a surreal mess of hype and corporate power behind their juggernaut. How do you even listen to a Strokes song without hearing 10 major-label executives, marketing people, radio suits, magazine editors and MTV power-lunchers babbling into cell phones and teeing off?

I’ll tell you how: You listen to the music. This is something pop fans have had to do since the Monkees, if not before. Screw it — fans have had to deal with this at least since the Brill Building and Motown turned rock into a sleek and compromised machine. It’s not all bad; I’m happy to give it up for the Crystals and the Archies and Hanson and the Backstreet Boys, because they all contain an essence of truth: Beneath the production you can still hear one tortured troubadour with an acoustic guitar or piano, fighting for his soul to convey one fucking ounce of the mystery he feels within. That shit is like energy — it cannot be reduced or destroyed, no matter what its trappings, and time has no real effect on its essential beauty. In time, it even comes to shine more brightly.

 

So that’s my trouble with the Strokes, I guess. I recognize in them kindred souls, and I continually expect them to perform the ultimate postmodern act: to crack open their hearts and bleed for me, fresh and salty and red. And they never do. What I get from them is eternal evasion, from everything — from the trauma of youth, and from the damage of life within the machine. I mean, at least the Monkees figured out a way to turn their plight into art. (Have you seen Head lately?) Tellingly, the one song that got the Palladium crowd singing along the other night — so loud that singer Julian Casablancas actually stopped to let the crowd take over — was their most revealing song, “Someday.” It’s my favorite Strokes song, for one reason: The lyrics perfectly describe how it feels to be in love with the wrong person, and to try to get over it. (“Alone we stand/together we fall apart/I think I’ll be all right.”) In this context, Casablancas’ eternally over-it vocals seem justified. There’s a reason he’s so dang jaded. And aren’t we all? And don’t we all need to make something pretty from it?

I don’t claim to be a true fan, and I won’t insult the true fans by faking it. True fans, those boys who puked on the ballroom floor and got all sweaty and gross, will tell me I don’t get it. And they’re right. The reason I don’t get it is that this baby emperor we call the Strokes is wearing no clothes. I didn’t want it that way. I wanted to marvel at their fine raiment, shield my eyes in painful rapture at their glinting finery, and grapple with the conflict that ensues when a great indie band hits the big time. I was ready to go the distance for the Strokes, and I still will if they give me a real reason. I didn’t want the coolest band of a dreary era to leave me cold. I didn’t want them to be naked.


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