After 9/11, the world suddenly appeared far more complex. Americans wondered if the best days had passed. Sporting events now had heavy police presences. Airport security was intense. There was a vague sense that more danger was coming and the anthrax attacks did nothing to temper that concern. A new realization that Americans were not sheltered from this sort of danger created a fundamental shift in perception. As Americans sought comfort, some reached for rock dinosaurs like Paul McCartney and Neil Young, who both had hits that focused on the heroism on 9/11. Others turned to country singer Toby Keith, who built a career by feeding the jingoism of the day. For those in the cultural vanguard, the Strokes offered rock escapism, three minutes at a time.
As of the morning of September 11, the Strokes had recently returned home from their first headlining tour. They’d stormed through England in support of their new debut album, Is This It, which had not yet been released in the United States. At the time, the Strokes seemed deeply out of step with the music world when they formed in 2000. A year before the Strokes’ debut, Radiohead released Kid A to number one on the Billboard charts. It was that band’s most experimental release to date and possibly the most intellectual album to take the top album spot. While boy bands and awful rap-rock comprised a large percentage of the music marketplace in the late ’90s, there was a strong undercurrent of experimental music at the same time. Electronic acts like Prodigy and the Chemical Brothers had legitimate hits. Aphex Twin was on MTV. Air was soundtracking movies. However, this golden age of rock intellectualism was fleeting. In rock, it seems for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. So when Kid A was catapulting up the charts, the Strokes released “The Modern Age” EP.
The buzz surrounding the Strokes had started to build on the strength of the three-song EP and the English press. In the weeks leading up to the scheduled U.S. release, there was as much murmuring about their privileged backgrounds — see Swiss boarding schools and fathers in the industry — than about their raucous live shows. The U.S. release had been delayed several weeks based on concerns over the nudity on the original cover art. The Strokes planned to kick off a promotional tour with an appearance at the CMJ Music Marathon on September 13, then release the album on the 25th.
But after the events of 9/11, what should have been the Strokes’ triumphant return concert at CMJ was postponed for a month. They went back to their East Village bunker to record a replacement for the suddenly inappropriate “New York City Cops” and the release of the album was again delayed to October 9. In turn, there was a subtle shift in the buzz surrounding the Strokes. The “Rock and Roll Messiah” angle pushed by the British press had largely dissipated. Instead, the Strokes became the symbol for a reborn New York. To outsiders, the specter of New York has often been viewed pejoratively, its connotations changing from anti-banker sentiment, to anti-Catholicism, to anti-Semitism, to anti-immigrant rhetoric, to homophobia, before settling into some combination of all the above. But for a brief window in the fall of 2001, to love New York was the ultimate patriotic act for Middle America. The New York Yankees became the sentimental favorites to win the World Series, while Americans of all stripes covered themselves with I (Heart) NY shirts and FDNY baseball caps. And many bought the new album from a scrappy band from New York.
Is This It is 36 minutes long and includes 11 songs. It broke no new ground, nor did it take any real risks. Lyrically, it was an urban pastiche filled with willing women and a steady flow of booze. Offered the best recording and engineering RCA’s checkbook could cover, they instead opted for recording a basement in the Lower East Side. After all, the Strokes were not just a rock band, they were a New York rock band. In retrospect, the New York angle was far closer to reality to any kind of broad stroke Messiah-dom. Rock and roll has always been about a working class ethos, real or perceived. Rock and roll means Bruce Springsteen, Aerosmith, or Guns ‘N Roses. New York rock has a different connotation and history. New York rock means Lou Reed, Television and Talking Heads. New York rock combined a street edge with a whiff of privilege and intellectualism. Rock and roll is about drinking beer and having a good time; New York rock is about advancing art and maybe doing some coke. The Swiss boarding school insults lost potency with the Strokes: Tom Verlaine and Richard Hell met in boarding school, too.
Despite its shaggy, free-wheeling spirit, Is This It is a conservative album. The band employed a lineup of guitar, rhythm guitar, bass, drums, and vocalist. They followed a classic rock hierarchy, with the lead singer serving as the media and branding focus. Each of the songs was built from the bottom up. The bass and metronomic drumming kept a steady groove on which they built jerky, punk melodies. The vocal delivery rarely elevated above a detached deadpan. The punk groove of Television is a clear influence, but there’s none of that group’s sprawl; only one of the eleven tracks extends beyond the four-minute mark. There are no extended solos, guitar or otherwise. There are no samplers, synths nor drum machines. The songs have catchy choruses and short verses. The lead single “Last Nite” is the type of beery sing-a-long that could have been a hit released any time in the last forty years. The Strokes filled a market need for simple good time music for bad times. Everyone from LES hipsters to Nebraska farmers wanted some escapism in month after 9/11. Is This It offered that distraction from disaster through catchy melodies and sing-along choruses.
The Strokes’ sound, though, was largely a dead-end. The “the” bands that often grouped with the Strokes did not share much musically with them, except for a propensity for short, simple songs. Along with the Strokes, bands such as the Hives, the Libertines, and the Vines were marketed as part of a new garage rock revolution. With the new attention on stripped down rock, the White Stripes’ third album White Blood Cells, which had been released a few months before the Strokes’ LP, broke through to mainstream success. In the years after Is This It, there was a focus on New York’s scene unlike anything since the peak of the CBGB. The Strokes’ success encouraged record companies to sign bands like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, TV on the Radio, and LCD Soundsystem. Ironically, the band that made ’90s intellectual rock seem passé created a route for experimental bands to reach mainstream audiences.
But as for the Strokes themselves, their main contribution to this millennial music scene was and continues to be their style. Their hardened urbanite pose served as a template for bands in their wake. Gone were the days of loose pants — Julian Casablancas and crew were never seen with one inch of wasted fabric. They kept a uniform style with different, but equally fashionable, haircuts. Jeans were skin tight. Leather jackets were tiny. This uniform has stayed largely intact as dozens of micro-genres and musical trends have come and gone. Ten years later, hipster bars from coast to coast are filled with guys who look like a lost Stroke, and their sound is about as dated as it was when they adopted it.
Sustained cultural relevance was at best a long shot for a band whose appeal was based on youthful recklessness and ennui. But the Strokes are still around ten years after their debut, though they are something of an enigma. They have only released two albums over the last eight years; neither was particularly well received critically, but both sold relatively well. The band members are still seen as rock stars, despite living very private lives. And it seems that they’ll be with us for years to come, even if their shining moment will always be representing New York in the months after 9/11.