Who isn't sick of Slate's contrarian schtick by now?
It's a cliché in intelligent company – although mentioning it makes you sound smart in some rooms; try it sometime – so I feel a bit silly writing this. And ordinarily I wouldn't, but I'm bored and rummed-up and not quite ready for sleep. So here's a few thousand words objecting to Taylor Clark's contention that the Strokes' Is This It is the best album of the past decade.*
Clark kicks off his essay with reference to the "deserved" reverence that has marked the 20-year anniversary of Nevermind, which truly has gotten completely out of control. This was as inevitable as it is regrettable, and I write those words with no ill feeling towards Nirvana. That band meant a lot to me in my youth, and did a lot for my musical education. They were my first favorite band, and through them I was led to several future favorite bands. Still, no matter how much love one has for Aberdeen's finest, it's hard to deny that the always-breathless rock press has outdone itself hyperventilating over what it seems to consider the final generation-defining rock album.
But Clark goes well beyond simple complaint, asserting that the genuflection before Nevermind, as overwrought as it is, "threatens to overshadow the 10th anniversary of another towering rock classic" – Is This It – which is "every bit as dazzling, significant, and stylistically accomplished" as the sophomore Nirvana record. Come on now. Towering? Classic? Dazzling? Significant? Really? (I’ll charitably give him "stylistically accomplished".) Nobody over the age of twenty-five would fall for that. Nevermind knocked Michael Jackson out of the top spot on the Billboard charts. Is This It peaked at #33, and each of the Strokes' subsequent albums -- all inferior, in Clark's view -- did better. Is This It has gone platinum twice; Nevermind has done it thirty times. Is This It has no analogue for "Come As You Are", much less "Smells Like Teen Spirit". If the Strokes' debut is towering then Nevermind makes Everest look like a boulder.
Let me exhale. Before I get too far into this I should probably mention that I wrote a mostly-terrible bit about Is This It for Fine Print when the record first came out.** My view of it in 2001 is more or less my view of it now: it's a pretty decent mainstream guitar-bass-drum pop record that happened to come out when guitar-bass-drum pop records were not commonly found in mainstream culture. Pleasant enough, but not game-changing. It did stand out a bit -- as Clark reminds us, this was the age of Limp Bizkit, Creed, Staind, and baggy jeans -- but the White Stripes already had three albums out by then (Clark incorrectly has them as the Strokes' followers rather than forebears), and indie rock was established (establishmentarian?) enough to have been mostly boring for years. "New Slang", the Shins' "song that will change your life" came out the same year. Is This It was notable mostly because rock-writers thought it was IT, and they thought that because they were sick of writing about Limp Bizkit, Creed, and Staind. Oh, and the Strokes dressed like you'd expect rich urban children of fashionistas to dress.
The last part is emblematic of a key difference between Nirvana and the Strokes. Transcendent rock and roll has always been a link between art, fashion, literature, and the broader culture. Nirvana embraced that role, linking together in their music, interviews, and liner notes not only their eclectic musical reference points, but also literary (the "three B's": Beckett, Burroughs, Bukowski; Cobain collaborated with Burroughs by soundtracking "The Priest They Called Him"), cinematic, and artistic. Designer Marc Jacobs was inspired by Nirvana to create for Perry Ellis one of the most-discussed fashion lines in recent history. Models including Kate Moss strutted down the runway in flannel, Doc Martens, knit caps, Chuck Taylors, and loose-fitting everything. Tarantino asked Cobain to play the role of "Lance" in Pulp Fiction; Cobain declined, which led to Eric Stoltz being given the part, but was flattered enough to thank Tarantino in the liner notes of In Utero. Cobain appreciated rap early on, calling it "the only vital form of music to be introduced since punk rock" in 1991. Rappers also felt the connection. Jay-Z used video of Cobain onstage. Drake name-checked "teen spirit". Chuck D bragged that he was the "parallel of the brains of Cobain".
Can you imagine any of this from Julian Casablancas? The Strokes got buzz for consuming fashion; Nirvana produced it. No one has ever quoted a Casablancas lyric as a reference point; Cobain, the "voice of his generation", penned numerous oft-recited lines. As I discuss in greater detail below, the Strokes have always been conspicuous for their influences; Nirvana is notable for who they influenced. The Strokes' rise to fame is notable for happening a year after the group formed and before their first album had been recorded; Nirvana toured incessantly for four years before acquiring a major label contract. If the Strokes made anything possible that wasn't possible before it was products of the hype machine such as Vampire Weekend,***. Nirvana made a movie star of Courtney Love, put Kate Moss in flannel, got Matt Dillon cast in a Cameron Crowe movie, generated a huge spike in sales of particular type of ladies' underarm deodorant, and spear-headed a grassroots cultural shift. The movement that Clark believes the Strokes heralded is ephemeral, is fashion. The movement that Nirvana heralded is aesthetic, is artistic. There is a difference.
Clark nearly hones in on this before missing the drift. He repeats the common charge that his boys ripped off the Velvet Underground, which they maybe tried to do but could never achieve, and then gets specific in weird ways: contra Clark, "The Modern Age" is nothing like "I'm Waiting for the Man" in form or content, and I have no idea why anyone would link the two. And any band that can be accused of referencing the Velvets and Tom Petty in consecutive sentences, as Clark does, should probably not be favorably compared to either.
Other than wearing leather and being from NYC the Strokes and Velvets have little in common. As I wrote back in 2001:
Vocalist Julian Casablancas tries to replicate Reed's dissonant snarl, but his voice is too good for it (Reed couldn't sing for shit; Casablancas can). Guitarists Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond try to deliver back-and-forth guitar trade-offs like Reed and Sterling Morrison used to, but again, they are too precise. The Strokes even try to follow the beat, street-smart lyrical aesthetic of the Velvets, but they've never been poor enough; never done the right drugs (namely, heroin); never been surrounded by Warhol's surreal, 24-hour freak show; have probably never engaged prostitutes; and, despite the possible double entendre of the Strokes' moniker, simply aren't desperate or debase enough.
All right, my prose at 20 years old isn't the best (among many other things, I should've added an alliterative "debauched" in the last sentence), but you get the idea. It used to be said of the Velvet Underground, originally by Brian Eno, that only 10,000 people bought The Velvet Underground & Nico but everyone who did formed a band. One of that crowd was surely Julian Casablancas, but note that Eno never said that all of those 10,000 bands were worthy of VU's legacy.****
Anyway, there is the NYC connection between the two. But how meaningful is that? When Is This It came out writers used to say the Strokes caused people to "re-discover" New York as if it were some backwater hellhole where no one ever went. It's not like it's Athens, GA or Manchester, UK. It's not like it's Seattle, even. New York City doesn't need "discovering", and if it did the NME wouldn't be the ones to do it. Would we really have never heard TV on the Radio or the Yeah Yeah Yeahs if the Strokes had been too busy laying models to lay down tracks? Somehow, I doubt it.
After folks got bored with comparing the Strokes to the '60s NYC "Warhol pop" avant-garde they started comparing them to the '70s NYC "Blank Generation" avant-garde. The most common analogue was Television. As it happens I had the opportunity to ask Richard Hell, one of Television's founding members, what he thought about that. His response, recalled from a memory not so exact, was "I think that's a bizarre comparison. If the Strokes sounded like any of those mid-70s NYC bands it was Blondie". That's the one they looked like the most, too.
The comparisons won't stop. At another point Clark references '60s garage: "From their skinny jeans and vintage shirts to their punky rhythms and distressed guitar tones, everything about the Strokes seemed like it was lifted from '60s and '70s garage rock." In my original review I compared them to the early, mop-top Beatles.***** With the Strokes it's like a game of antecedent ad-lib: "With their ______ they remind us of ______ from ______." Any band that generates so many insta-comparisons must be immediately recognized as derivative, the ultimate insult to the artist. You couldn't play that game with Nirvana. The best categorization of them is still Cobain's: "We sound like the Knack and the Bay City Rollers being molested by Black Flag". Which is to say that they sound like no one else.
Enough throat-clearing. There's still the positive claim to be dealt with here: Is This It is the best record of the past ten years, presumably judged on artistic grounds. I think the claim is absurd on its face, and only a contrary-for-its-own-sake publication like Slate would run it. I won't run down a list of better contenders as I'm sure readers would be happy to supply their own. I will note that even Clark doesn't do much to make the case besides make the assertion. All of his appeals reduce to one: the band made a solid stylistic decision to utilize a tight, lo-fi sound to present minimalist songs. Well, all right, but a bunch of bands had been doing similar stuff throughout the 1990s and have continued to do so in the ten years since. Perhaps more important for the present discursion, the White Stripes had already mastered a more authentic and interesting production aesthetic years before the Strokes.
To say nothing of the fact that there were other genres of music being made during the past decade. Clark says that Is This It is "the single best album released in the past 10 years" in the sentence immediately following "decade-defining record that set the agenda for how rock sounded and even looked throughout the aughts". Even if the latter statement was true, and it's certainly dubious, the former neglects the styles of music that truly dominated the decade, popularly and artistically: dance punk (DFA by way of Daft Punk), glam rap (Kanye + Hov), mash-up meta culture (exemplified by Girl Talk), serious young man folk-pop (Bon Iver), dirty blues (White Stripes), genre-bending nouveau avant-garde (TVotR, MGMT), new no wave pop (Yeah Yeah Yeahs), and deep electro. The way rock "sounded and looked throughout the aughts" had more to do with James Murphy than Julian Casablancas.
The rest of Clark's evidence concerns Is This It's impact -- "seismic", "immediate", "lightening-in-a-bottle brilliance", etc. -- which, as mentioned before, pales in comparison to that of Nirvana or nearly any other musical touchstone. Back in 2001 I hung out a lot in record shops (remember those), was in a touring band, was writing for culture magazines, and did something music-related every night of the week. I can't recall anyone during that period using the types of adjectives Clark employs today. The consensus was that the record was alright, but much more "cool" than actually cool.
Perhaps more distressingly, Clark discounts everything the Strokes have done since 2001. While their output has always been inconsistent, their greatest artistic and commercial accomplishments have occurred more recently. Take "12:51", from Room on Fire and "You Only Live Once", from First Impressions of Earth. "12:51" is musically more interesting than anything on Is This It. The band doesn't sound lazy and affected; it sounds effortless. Big difference. "12:51" elicited comparisons -- another one, I know -- to the Cars, and especially Ric Ocasek's melodic guitar/synth lines. (The Strokes have covered "Just What I Needed" live; see this version from earlier this year, with Jarvis Cocker.) It sounds like the songs on Is This It post-pubescence. (Perhaps acknowledging this, the first line Casablancas sings is "Talk to me now, I'm older".) It's subtle growth from the likes of "Last Nite", but it's maturation nonetheless.
Even better is "You Only Live Once", my favorite Strokes song. Unlike most of the Strokes output, "YOLO" has some real energy and drive. Moretti's drums have never been bigger or more forceful. The guitars of Valensi and Hammond propel the song forward, particularly during the refrain, carving out some room for Casablancas to present his best snarl. If Is This It shrinks from a lack of commitment, "YOLO" is the sound of the band trying to occupy space.
Either of these would easily be the best song on Is This It. And if the accompanying albums aren't paragons of consistent brilliance, well, neither is the debut.
I fear I've belabored the point. Writing that Is This It is the best record of the past ten years, comparable to Nevermind on the same scale, is self-evidently wrong. So why have I spent time on it? Arthur Balfour, the old British Foreign Secretary, once complimented Prime Minister Lloyd George by saying: "When he is wrong, he is usually wrong in a more interesting way than other people." In writing this absurd column Taylor Clark has revealed a capacity to be wrong in a less interesting way than other people. That seemed worth comment.
*On Clark’s website is a quote -- presumably intended to make the subject look good -- from PJ O'Rourke: "Clark is an enthusiastic young writer who has the seat of his intellectual pants hooked on the horns of an interesting conflict." I'm not quite sure what that's in reference to... surely one of Clark's books, which I haven't read but look interesting. In any case it's a strange compliment. Seriously, read that sentence again. What's flattering about it? A literal reading would suggest that Clark is ardently getting his ass gored by a bull.
**Sant re-ran it when he kicked FPM back up a few months back. He didn't ask my permission first, which I might not have granted. It's full of embarrassing mistakes, such as the assertion that Julian Casablancas' father was the filmmaker "John Casaventes", by which I meant John Cassavetes, which is still wrong: the correct surname is of course Casablancas, and père is fashion mogul John. I got Julian's surname right later in the article, which makes the incorrect familial association even odder. No idea what I was thinking. No idea why the editors let it slip. We were probably all drunk, and Wikipedia didn't exist at the time. There's some other stupidness in that article too, so I won't link to the original here even though I reference the better parts of it a few times above. You can find it if you really want. I chalk the horribleness up to youth.
***Vampire Weekend pissed me off right away by asking "Who gives a fuck about an 'oxford comma'?" I give a fuck about the oxford comma. It's essential. You can get away with dumb or you can get away with obscure, but you can't get away with both at the same goddamn time. That band has done nothing since to redeem themselves in my mind, so I don't see how the Strokes paving the way for them to soundtrack Tommy Hilfiger commercials counts in their favor.
****To the best of my
knowledge Googling ability the Strokes have never covered covered the Velvets, although they have stumbled through "Take A Walk on the Wild Side" in concert with the white boys in the role of the colored girls. Nirvana dug a bit deeper, recording several versions of White Light/White Heat's "Here She Comes Now". Click on those two links and tell me which of them got more of the Velvet Underground's heart, soul, and squall.
*****I still think that's the best comparison: little substance, lotta heartthrob; same mid-tempo singalongs, similar foppish style. Vapid but cute. Etc. The question I posed in that review was whether the Strokes would grow up like the Beatles did. They didn't, as Clark admits.
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