Fans on the Run: Flickerstick, The Strokes, and the Art of Instant Stardom
But in the end, I wanted to see more Flickerstick in the Strokes -- an aggressive stage presence rather than a haughty stage attitude; a carefully crafted setlist rather than a rendition of songs in the order they occur on the record; a physical immersion in the music rather than a mere recitation of words and notes.
Flickerstick, for better or for worse, rose to prominence as champions of the reality TV show Bands on the Run -- a VH-1 series that chronicled a contest between four bands on a club tour through the Midwest and Southern United States. Points were awarded for door and merchandise sales, and one band was eliminated on each of four "battle of the bands" episodes.
Flickerstick won Bands on the Run in typical back-of-the-class rock star fashion. Their arch-rival, Soulcracker, pounded the pavement each day to recruit fans for each evening's show, hawked merchandise with the discipline and focus of a pharmaceutical sales representative, and hoarded as many "bonus opportunities" as possible (most of which sent the bands on some sort of hokey scavenger hunt). Flickerstick, by contrast, drank too much, slept too late, and let arguments to turn into fistfights -- the most notable of which occurred hours before the final and deciding battle of the bands episode.
But in the end Flickerstick won the "championship" round, and therefore the entire Bands on the Run series, because they were simply light years ahead of their competition. Even through the crass editing of the VH-1 production team, Flickerstick's sonic chemistry and charismatic swagger on stage moved viewers in a way that made the SoCal cow-funk of Soulcracker, for all its energy, seem terribly pedestrian. To the victors came the spoils of new equipment, a VH-1 video ("Smile"), and a major label record showcase. Epic Records eventually signed Flickerstick and immediately released the aptly titled, Welcoming Home the Astronauts in November. The title was fitting for the occasion, as Flickerstick returned from their orbit through reality television to throes of admiring, even fanatical, fans.
Champions though they were, Flickerstick entered the larger rock world with a bit of an identity crisis. What, exactly, were we to make of this band? They were not (despite Soulcracker's desperate declarations to the contrary), a "corporate" rock band, for major labels failed to pay them notice until a nationwide television audience began following their every move on Sunday nights with soap operatic devotion. And although Flickerstick had conquered the Dallas club scene prior to VH-1, they lacked the cool elusive indie credentials that propelled the likes of Yo La Tengo, Of Montreal, or Neutral Milk Hotel to restricted-circulation cult stardom. What Flickerstick was, truth be told, was a band of accidental television stars whose fame preceded their music, where, thanks to the scandal and gossip of reality TV, we learned more about the members' hygiene habits and girlfriend troubles than we did about the music.
I got a whiff of Flickerstick's uncertain status in the modern rock world when they came through the Washington, DC area during the strange stretch of time between the final Bands on the Run episode and the major label release of Welcoming Home the Astronauts. Rather than playing the traditional rock venues in downtown D.C. -- the 9:30 Club or the Black Cat -- Flickerstick was cast out to the State Theatre in downtown Falls Church, Virginia, a quiet leafy suburb named for an 18th-century Episcopal church that counts George Washington as a former vestry member. It seemed an odd choice for the sonic noise of Flickerstick, especially given the club's heavy bent toward acoustic "mush rock" favored among southern fraternity scene.
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The State Theatre reflects its suburban constituency quite nicely. The shows begin early, the crowd is orderly, and the bar stewards resemble parents serving concessions at a high school soccer game. Soft pastels, high ceilings, and sit-down dining replace the traditional black-walled basement ambience of the underground indie rock club. Directly facing the stage, a crowd of maybe 200 diehards patiently awaited Flickerstick. These, I gathered, were the reality TV fans who had marked this date on their calendar weeks beforehand (and likely arrived annoyingly early to secure their stageside spot). Those of us who retreated to the balcony seemed to have made a conscious decision to view the event from afar, staking out the role of curious bystanders intent on separating ourselves from the hysterical reality TV contingent. It was as if we feared that, by mingling with the crowd downstairs, we might be mistaken for someone who cared too much.
Once Flickerstick strutted on stage to deliver its adrenaline-soaked opener ("Smile"), it was all anthems, all the time, gassed by soaring, Edge-inspired guitar leads and a vocalist (Brandin Lea) who sings his choruses with the spastic passion of a 12-year-old acting out a rock show in the downstairs foyer. It was dramatic, stadium-styled, melodic rock performed with a showman's flair that, ever since the late '80s, has fallen so far out of vogue as to be suppressed, even mocked, by the rash of underground bands today.
Watching Flickerstick explode into every chorus as if it were their last, you could not help but hear the ghosts of Simple Minds, U2, or even Echo and the Bunnymen -- big, bombastic pop music that intended to bowl you over without the glam or the glitter of the heavy metal bands that dominated the charts in those days. Like the sweeping cinematic hues of these British alt-rockers of the 1980s, Flickerstick used similar wide-angle wall of sound, complete with a backdrop of continuous film loops superimposed to add to the band's transcendental efforts (much like R.E.M. used to use in their earlier auditorium tours).
It had been a long time since I had witnessed an alternative rock band so honest about their ambition and so physically moved by their own music. And it made me wonder whether the wave of disaffected noise bands -- what Cher, the heroine of Clueless, dubbed "complaint rock" -- was reaching its tipping point, and, if so, whether we would welcome more Brandin Leas strutting around the stage, doing their very best to turn a quaint suburban theatre into a miniature Wembley stadium. After all, was this not the point of American alternative or "post-punk" music in the first place? To make grand music on a smaller scale, equally transcendental but free from the antiseptic stench of modular star building? It was enough to make my friend and I head downstairs to mingle with the reality TV fans for a while.
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Several weeks after I saw Flickerstick play the suburbs, I went downtown to Washington's fabled 9:30 Club to watch the Strokes. The Strokes deliver gangly melodic rock in a dispassionate tone that generates the same affections as a band like Pavement. Their debut record, Is This It?, is sharply focused, tightly arranged, and literal in a way that draws favorable comparisons to the Stones, the Velvet Underground, and even some early '50s rock.
Like Flickerstick, the Strokes rocketed to fame rather inadvertently. Hailing from Manhattan's East Side club scene, the Strokes became an overnight sensation in publications ranging from Vanity Fair to Entertainment Weekly, conquered the temperamental British music press, and emerged as the darlings of the college-club circuit. But just as Flickerstick tries hard to shake its image as reality-TV rockers, The Strokes have been weighed down by naysayers who caricature the band as a mere media invention. And in many circles, the Strokes' credibility remains suspect for the preposterous reason that their lead singer might have been rich before he got into rock music.
The Strokes took the stage at the appointed time, played their entire debut album almost song-for-song, and then walked off stage. The whole episode lasted about 45 minutes. Although the fans shrieked the same star-struck shrills as the Flickerstick fans, there were no lengthy film and audio clips preceding the show, no elaborate lighting to enhance the drama of the music, and certainly no passion among the players. Instead, the Strokes played the role of the stoic, standoffish rock stars the crowd wanted them to be, cutting through the set with a precision and promptness that suggested they had an even bigger party to attend later. This anticlimactic on-stage persona seemed to embody the very question posed by title of their album: Is This It?
The crowd, mostly in their early twenties and looking very much like a patio party off of M Street, loved every minute of it. After all, the mirage that good music is made with minimal effort or care has been the currency of college radio for over a decade. And, in a larger sense, the artist's manufactured indifference to the music has been instrumental to the romance of rock. The Strokes' act, right down to Julian Casablancas's deadpan delivery, is well tailored to evoke this romance and to fit them alongside the revered indie-rockers that they so desperately crave to be.
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On the way home from the 9:30 Club, I wondered who would win a Bands on the Run episode between Flickerstick and the Strokes. I decided that, most likely, it would go to the Strokes. Despite (or maybe even because of) the biting jabs about being "bratty rich kids," the Strokes exude the allure of rock's forbidden side -- a glimpse inside the cool kids party in the back room of some dark nightclub or somebody's downtown loft. Flickerstick, by contrast, has the wide-open hospitality of an all-campus party, bound and determined to win over every member of the audience with every ounce of music (and effects) that they can muster. Because rock fans usually favor the forbidden over the accessible, I figure they most likely would choose the cool kids club hosted by the Strokes.
And the Strokes' album is better. Velvets comparisons aside, Is This It? boasts ten equally artful pop songs whose chic chord progressions, prolific amalgam of influences and modish sophistication will endure as a minor cultural watermark, somewhere alongside the likes of the Replacements' Let It Be or the Magnetic Fields' The Charm of the Highway Strip. Rather than fashioning a new genre, the Strokes have offered a sleek and inspired ode to the magnetism of vintage rock.
Welcoming Home the Astronauts will not hold up nearly as well over time. Outside the confines of a live club, where the volume and the theatrics of a song actually have a chance to resonate in a defined space, the emotion and anticipation in Flickerstick's recurring crescendos begins to wear off, exposing the shortcomings in the lyrics. Consider the chorus of "Beautiful": "'Cause you're so beautiful, beautiful today / You're so beautiful, beautiful in every little way / Cause when you're coming around / I'm off the ground / I got to say."
But in the end, I wanted to see more Flickerstick in the Strokes -- an aggressive stage presence rather than a haughty stage attitude; a carefully crafted setlist rather than a rendition of songs in the order they occur on the record; a physical immersion in the music rather than a mere recitation of words and notes. As good as the Strokes' music is, their act is rehearsed, canned, and comes across as mildly insincere.
Watching Flickerstick flaunt their music with the zeal of that 12-year-old in the foyer reminds us how badly we need at least a handful of artists to admit how much they care about their own music. Bands on the Run, for all its hokiness, gave us a glimpse of degree in which bands will allow themselves to be entirely consumed and captivated by their music without any sense of shame or discomfiture. Flickerstick, even in its drunken swagger, continues to allow this on stage. It is contagious to watch, and it made me wish the Strokes would allow themselves, and their fans, that same luxury.