Counterbalance No. 45: The Strokes’ 'Is This It'

Our questions, they come to us in threes. Why are the Strokes so popular? How did they get the 45th most acclaimed album of all time? Is This It In this Counterbalance, Klinger will be the one to say the strangest things and Mendelsohn will act like it's completely normal.

The Strokes

Is This It

Label: RCA
US Release Date: 2001-07-30

Mendelsohn: Two-thousand one was a weird year. Turns out Stanley Kubrick's vision of the future was slightly off. Instead of diabolical computers and monoliths, 2001 delivered the return of garage rock and tight pants. And we owe it all to the Stokes. I'll step aside and let you heap praise on them. But not too much praise. They are all very skinny and probably would not be able to bear the weight.

Klinger: Yes. This is a good record. There is very little wrong with this record.

Mendelsohn: Yes, good—very good. Thank you for not crushing them under your praise. I would hate to think that we were ultimately responsible for bringing about the end of such an influential group, despite their own repeated attempts to do that for themselves (Seriously guys, what's up with playing on Ellen? Are you still pandering to the hipsters and their insatiable need for irony? Does playing an afternoon talk show even count as ironic?).

I'm not necessarily surprised that this album has made the list, but top 50 may be a bit gratuitous. Sure, they are the saviors of New York City rock -- the final embodiment of decades’ worth of work and sweat in the NYC rock scene that started with the Velvet Underground and has finally come full circle with the Strokes. This band sits at the pinnacle, the last in a long line of super-hyped groups and the one and only to reach their full potential. The scene has fulfilled its purpose and can now be laid to rest with dignity. I'm so glad I won't have to listen to anymore über-cool rock bands from one of the boroughs. I was so tired of pretending to like everything that came out of that city just so I wouldn't miss the bus and be left behind in hipster purgatory -- relegated to listening to whatever Portland, Oregon was pandering. Thankfully it’s all over now.

Klinger: Well, I'm glad to hear you're no longer worried about whatever it is you seem to have been so worried about, but I must agree that I'm still a little baffled by the Strokes' high placement here. I'm officially chalking this album's ranking to a mathematical anomaly in the compilation of the Great List. Is This It (as well as Funeral and a handful of others), saw great gains this year in the Acclaimed Music ranking with the publication of countless Best of the Decade lists. And unlike, say, the White Stripes or Wilco, who each released more than one contender, there wasn't a whole lot of vote-splitting going on. The Strokes' output hasn't lived up to the promise of this first album, but their importance to this decade's music is undeniable. So there you go.

Let me stress that I actually enjoy this record a lot. "Last Nite" still sounds like a classic single to me. But no matter how enjoyable Is This It is, I can't shake the feeling that a generation of critics who missed out on the Velvets and the Dolls and Patti Smith just really, really wanted their own super-cool NYC rock star band to call their own. If the Strokes didn't exist, these critics would have had to invent them.

Mendelsohn: I think you are on to something, especially when you allude to the fact that the critics wanted a band like the Strokes. When you get right down to it, I don't think Is This It is musically on par with its peers in the List. On top of that, the band's output over the past decade has been serviceable at best. But the Strokes represented something of a great white hope for the New York rock scene, the critics pinned the blue ribbon on them and foisted them upon the populace as the reincarnation NYC rock and roll. The reality was, the Strokes could write pretty good guitar rock but that's where it stopped, and the promising future everyone saw for this group never really materialized.

Despite all of that, I have no problems with this record's placement on the list. I don't think the ranking has too much to do with the music itself, but a certain, very specific change the music helped to bring about.

Klinger: OK. So to recap midway, a pretty good band releases a pretty good record and because a) the record came along during an era of boy bands and pop silliness and b) the band was unable to recapture the magic, their pretty good record has been exalted far beyond its station. Whether this is in fact one of those peculiarities that occurs when one attempts to apply mathematical precision to critical capriciousness remains to be seen.

Now for the actual record in question. I will say that Is This It certainly has a sound about it, with its spartan, deliberately crappy production. But their willfully low-budget style can be, to my way of thinking, a mixed blessing. When it's applied to a truly great pop song like the title track or "The Modern Age", the rawness and fuzz can add a new layer of excitement (n particular, bassist Nikolai Fraiture deserves credit for that skittish bass line on "Is This It"). When the songs aren't as strong ("Take It or Leave It"), it only reminds you that there a lot of bands out there trafficking in this stuff, sweating it out in bars around the world -- and that gets you to questioning why this thing is supposed to be so freakin' important.

Mendelsohn: The answer is because the Strokes made guitar rock cool again. Now, guitar rock never really went away, but as far as the industry was concerned in 2000, the only real money makers were boy bands and pop divas. The last vestiges of '90s alternative, rap-metal, and hard rock were still hanging around but only frat boys still listened to it and they generally aren't tastemakers.

The success of Is This It provided a breath of fresh air for an industry that had become stagnant, recycling the same formula over and over again. It was consciously under-produced and raw but it still had enough melody (tons of it actually) and sex appeal to make it a hit. This record showed the folks in A&R that guitar-rock could still sell and ushered in a decade in which a slew of rock bands racked up major-label deals and if your band was from New York City, that upped your chances of getting a major-label deal by 50 percent *. Some NYC bands were deserving (TV on the Radio) some were not (Yeah Yeah Yeahs), but without the Strokes, the last decade would not sound the way it did. The success of the Strokes' Is This It was a game-changer. Culturally speaking, it represented 180 degree turn. Think of it this way -- Is This It was last decade's Nevermind. Those two records effectively wiped the musical slate clean. Comparing them head-to-head is stupid so I won't do that, but they both served the same function.

Klinger: Of course, Is This It lacked the commercial impact of Nevermind (at least here in the US), so it didn't quite capture the mainstream imagination in the same way, but I see what you're saying. However, I'm suspicious of the way you keep bringing it back around to the critical-industrial complex's embrace of the Strokes rather than your own assessment of the record. For me, I'm willing to allow this album its status because, by and large, I find it to be a solid blend of grit and melody, with very close to the right amount of rock posturing.

I'm less concerned with its overall cultural implications, which I don't necessarily notice extending beyond the crowd that normally cares about that sort of thing. I'm hearing the opposite in your responses. Am I correct in my impression that you find Is This It more important than it is enjoyable?

Mendelsohn: I feel like I'm digging my own grave and then a couple of hipsters are going to beat me with their messenger bags before burying me and riding off on their fixed-gear bikes -- but, yes, I think Is This It is more important than it is enjoyable. And it's not that I don't like the Strokes. I like the Strokes. But if I had to choose a Strokes album to listen to, it would be their second one, Room on Fire. I always felt that was their best album, combining the raw elements of Is This It with the more studio-polished direction they would go with on their third disc, First Impressions of Earth. I can't comment on Angles, because I think the Strokes are a couple years past their hipster-born-on-date and I'm afraid of drinking some bad hipster milk.

So, yeah, that's the godawful truth. Is This It makes me shrug my shoulders and say, "Meh."

Klinger: Well, there you go. I like the record, but it doesn't strike me as all that important. You acknowledge its importance but don't especially like it. And along the way we've managed to provoke the ire of hipsters, a group of people who are apparently defined primarily by the disdain that they inspire in others -- to the extent that there might not actually be any such thing as hipsters (a hipster is always “that guy over there”). I'm glad we've cleared this all up.

*That number is entirely made up.

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