Did the Era of The Strokes Set Rock and Roll Back?
Maybe the 2000s give us a rock renaissance or maybe they just gave us a bunch of leather jackets.
Photo: Brian Rasic / Getty Images
Last month, writer and friend Lizzy Goodman released a book called Meet Me in the Bathroom, an exhaustive oral history of the New York City rock scene at the turn of the century. At over 600 pages, it is the only document of this period with enough heft to double as a murder weapon, which is fitting because at times I feared the six-year process of compiling it might actually kill her. But her tireless work paid off as it has received overwhelming critical and commercial success, brought her to Late Night with Seth Meyers, and, in just a few weeks, all but cemented its place in the canon of rock history books. And with good reason. It is, in my opinion, one of the smartest, most comprehensive rock 'n' roll texts of the last 20 years. It's also a great reminder of what rock writing could be today, rather than the listicle/thinkpiece cesspool it often is, and it should be essential reading for any young writer foolish enough to aspire to a career in music journalism. And I can tell it's an outstanding work because I found myself thoroughly enjoying it despite disagreeing with its premise entirely.
Meet Me in the Bathroom is meant to chronicle and, in many instances, glorify the scene in which Goodman played a part, having cut her teeth interning at SPIN and meeting many of the key players in the process. In her research, she interviewed over 150 experts—musicians, writers, publicists, managers, Har Mar Superstar—and deftly uses their fond reminiscing to drive the narrative that this time between 2001 and 2011 was, as journalist Conor McNicholas described it in the book's carefully selected opening line, a "golden age." I am very humbly in the book gushing about Bright Eyes, for example, a subject on which Goodman knew I would happily geek out until her recorder filled up. But in doing so, the book skews towards a fan's recollection of this scene and the rising bands that populated it, including Interpol, Fischerspooner, and its headliner, The Strokes.
The book captures an eventful time in American rock music, no doubt, and one that deserves documenting. And Goodman, a textbook overachiever, is unquestionably the person most capable of doing so. It's the last major rock scene to exist in the dark, smoky corners of a pre-smartphone era, just before every second could be meticulously broadcast in real time. Secrets could beget lore, fuck-ups could be kept private, and drama could be swept under dingy rugs. But now that the hangovers have subsided and the clouds of smoke from cigarettes (which have since been banned from bars) have evaporated, it seems like a good time to look back and ask: Did the era of The Strokes ultimately help or hurt rock and roll?
It's difficult and maybe impossible to objectively measure something as intangible as a music scene's contribution to the world. Some might even say that such a task would be "dumb" and "a colossal waste of time." But in an attempt to do it anyway, I'm going to break the analysis down with three questions:
- How much did the scene add to or improve upon the genre in which it existed?
- How culturally significant was the scene during its time?
- Did the scene ultimately pave a path towards a better future?
Starting with Question 1: Did The Strokes and the bands of this era add anything to the rock canon? Goodman thinks so, but with a caveat: "Yes, and it doesn't matter," she tells me. "I don't believe that a measure of value for art is whether it advances the genre. I don't think of art as a linear progression in that sense. I think originality is valuable but not required."
Fair enough. Time is a flat circle and all. But basing progress off the Gregorian calendar, consider that rock gets its shot at mainstream success about once every decade. The 70s birthed punk, which stripped rock down to its bare essentials. The 80s were dominated by hair metal, which, as goofy and spandexy as it was, was an original take on rock's look and sound. The 90s were marked largely by angsty, distortion-heavy grunge. But what was the rock identity the aughts produced? It often gets labeled with the catch-all title "indie rock," which is a misnomer since most of its bands, from The Walkmen to The Killers, had the backings of multi-million-dollar record labels and were "independent" in the same way that Bee Movie is a nature documentary. The scene lacked a cohesive identity and, from a historical perspective, it largely retreaded a lot of what had already been done in the 1970s post-punk scene, particularly the one that took place on the very same streets of downtown New York.
The scene's most celebrated act, The Strokes, was essentially a musical reincarnation of bands like Television, fronted by a slightly more camera-friendly Joey Ramone. Everything about the band bled retro, from their sound to their haircuts to their attire. Even their logo was a signifier to the classic rock fonts of the 70s, like the result of a drunken orgy among the logos of Thin Lizzy, Boston, and Aerosmith.
Goodman sees the validity of the comparison but notes that, amazingly, The Strokes seemed oblivious to the CBGB scene that paved their way. "Those dudes did not know who Television were, they really did not," she swears. "Those guys, all they wanted to talk about when I knew them was Pearl Jam."
It wasn't exclusively The Strokes that often got criticized for being carbon copies of originals. Each artist in Meet Me in the Bathroom fits the mold of a bygone trope. Ryan Adams was the self-professed "wannabe beat poet guy," fitting the chain-smoking mold of folk predecessors like Bob Dylan; LCD Soundsystem saw James Murphy fusing rock sounds with electronic elements as had been covered ad nauseum through the 80s; and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Karen O rocked the costume-heavy art-punk done 20 years prior by Wendy O and the Plasmatics. Ironically, the one band of this time that was self-aware enough to recognize that they were paying homage to their forebearers and embrace the shit out of it, The Darkness, was absent from the book.
Historical originality withstanding, though, the artists Goodman covers were certainly celebrated in their time, satisfying Question 2. They collectively sold millions and millions of records and graced the covers of stacks of magazines. These accomplishments seem impressive until you zoom out of their "indie" rock bubble to look at their competition for the national rock spotlight at the time, which, unless you wanted to spike your hair and throw on the board shorts to get down with the Sum 41s and Good Charlottes of the world, included Staind, Creed, and of course, Limp Bizkit. Limp Bizkit and The Strokes were the perfect foils for each other, really—a group of blockheads who thought they were making intelligent art versus a bunch of well educated upper-class kids playing dumb.
"These bands that were being played—Limp Bizkit, Hoobastank—they were so comically terrible that it created an incredibly toxic environment in any mainstream sense for any rock band to try to populate," Goodman says. "So in that way, it was a detriment. But it was also a huge benefit to The Strokes because they did not suck, and sounded—and I think you will agree—better than Hoobastank. So there was a high barrier of entry because nobody wanted to hear anything from a rock band then, but there was also an incredibly low bar because there were so few good rock bands in a mainstream space."
But while Hoobastank fans and The Strokes fans would proudly fight to the death over the notion that their band is worse than the other, on a macro level, the two respective scenes were simply different shades of the same color—just swap out the JNCOs for Levi's 511s. Both were major label-funded guitar bands, neither much revolutionizing the rock DNA, and performing on the same level of celebrity that made use of the dwindling airtime that MTV devoted to programming that didn't feature claymation wrestling or True Life documentaries about people who compulsively ate entire rolls of toilet paper. They were both male-dominated scenes efficiently marketed to middle-class white kids.
As celebrated as The Strokes were in their time by writers who fancied themselves as having more culturally refined palates than Hoobastank fans, it's easy to forget that the band was also met with critical backlash, the harshest of which gets glossed over or omitted from Meet Me in the Bathroom. While Goodman spotlights blogs like Ultragrrl and The Modern Age, whose online fandoms of these burgeoning bands helped buzz their way up to SPIN and NME, she largely neglects the opposition voices like Buddyhead, who famously spraypainted "$UCKING DICK$" on the side of The Strokes' tour bus in 2001.
And lastly in this inane, arbitrary measurement of a scene's worth, let's examine Question 3: Did this era lead to a better future? Because sometimes the best way to learn about the past is to take a good hard look at the present. The line between the end of the Meet Me in the Bathroom era and the current state of rock music is a bleak one. After the interchangeable skinny rock boy bands (The Vines/The Hives/The Strokes) dried up the well of public interest, the pendulum swung hard the other way and rock went on to be crushed in the mainstream by pop, hip-hop, and EDM, and the only new rock bands that currently see breakout success are ones that shamelessly embrace elements of those genres, like The 1975, a toothless pop band whose members limply hang guitars around their necks like fashion accessories. As of writing this, the top ten albums on the Billboard rock chart include Imagine Dragons, 311, 21 Pilots, Nickelback, and, for some reason, the Guardians of the Galaxy 2 soundtrack. If the rock scene of the early aughts could be accused of lacking a cohesive identity, the scene of this decade could be accused of lacking a pulse.
But worse than the musical lineage this era left behind is the cultural wake that followed in New York. The scene is often credited with reviving the cultural climate of Manhattan that had been pronounced dead 20 years prior (when in fact there had been plenty of venues and bands operating long before transplants "discovered" New York the way Columbus discovered America). But the culture of cool that this scene propagated spawned a hubris that took over Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and eventually kicked off its downfall as people flocked to the borough faster than it could handle. The result was a neighborhood so jam-packed with high-rise condos that even someone designing it in Sim City would find unsustainable, brick walls adorned with brand advertising murals that imitate the original street art that the city cracked down on, and massive modern office spaces like the one in which I am currently typing this.
Goodman believes this is putting too much emphasis on the impact of the era she documents. "It's not like if The Strokes had never played Saturday Night Live, we could all afford to live in Brooklyn. I don't think is quite that simple," she says.
At its heart, Meet Me in the Bathroom is a history of New York City trapped in the body of a rock 'n' roll book. It tells the story of a post-9/11 city through the lens of a cluster of bands who got famous making music there, and all the sex, drugs, and rivalries that came with it. Ultimately, my disagreement with Goodman's capturing of it boils down to two people looking back on the same time and place and seeing and hearing two different things. Goodman, who came to New York with a wide-eyed, romantic view of the city, and I, a jaded native annoyed by the burden of rising rents, butt heads over how a future generation should view it. And much like Ryan Adams and LCD Soundsystem and Yeah Yeah Yeahs fell into their own classic tropes, so do she and I. "You're the skeptic, I'm the believer, and we're playing our roles and there's something reductionist and Mad Libsy about our arguments," Goodman tells me.
When asked if she would mind me publishing these ongoing critiques that we previously had only discussed in private, Goodman, who can shit-talk with the best of them, didn't hesitate in the slightest, and actually welcomed it.
"At the end of the day, the point of literature and art is to inspire debate, conversation, and emotion," she said. "So how about it?"
Dan Ozzi is on Twitter.