The Strokes – Is This It (2001)

IsThisItIn the pub with Paul before seeing My Bloody Valentine the other week, we talked about how XTRMNTR felt like the moment when the 90s ended, and Paul, who’s younger than me by a few years, suggested that sometimes he thinks of Is This It, some 18 months later, as the moment when the 00s began. With hindsight and a semblance of objectivity, I can see what he means; their stylishly dishevelled take on late 70s NYC postpunk, all metronomic rhythms and choppy guitar riffs and insouciant vocals, certainly opened a door for a huge amount of stuff that followed, established trends and set precedents, setting a flavour for almost all ‘alternative’ ‘rock’ over the next ten years at least.

Is This It also, alongside Rudy Giuliani’s zero-tolerance clean-up of New York, and, ironically and painfully, Osama Bin Laden’s plane-hijacking acolytes, helped trigger a rebranding of the entire city of New York (and thus almost all Western alternative culture, or so it seems on some days), tidied the city up, gentrified previously dodgy areas, pushed the freaks and weirdos out and invited the vegan artisan soap makers and trust-fund hipsters in, everybody stylish, everybody well-funded, everybody beautiful, everybody with a brilliant, marketable idea. Possibly: I’ve only been to NYC once, for a few days, and we barely got out of Manhattan. I thought it was amazing. But the record shops weren’t quite what I’d hoped for.

I bought The Strokes’ debut single, The Modern Age EP, when it came out, because for a few years I was incredibly good at being there when important bands started; I’d made money buying debut 7”s by the likes of Doves and Coldplay in the 90s and selling them on for huge profits when debut albums raised their stock. The Strokes was probably the last time I did that with a new band. I liked The Modern Age, more than Coldplay’s debut but nowhere near as much as The Cedar EP, but it never, ever struck me as the future of anything; I had Television and Talking Heads and Velvet Underground albums, and this was just that all over again, but neutered, wasn’t it? A shamelessly self-absorbed pretty boy singer moaning about getting drunk and screwing up with women, cursing being a dick but not motivated enough to ever stop being a dick, because, you know, handsome rich dicks get away with being dicks because they’re handsome and rich. There was no sign of the actual future at any point, of anything new.

So when the album came out, tight and taut and incredibly short (11 songs done inside 36 and a half minutes), with its suggestive cover and its taunting, knowing title and platonic essence of cool logo, a ‘consultant’ credited in the liner notes, the band in tight trousers and scruffy little denim jackets, I shrugged a little, confessed that the slinky bassline of the opening track was delicious, that “Hard To Explain” and “Someday” and “Last Night” were brilliant, snotty, attitude-laden pop singles, and decided that, maybe, this was the time when I got off the bus a bit. By 2002 I’d taken myself online to find new music almost exclusively, given up on the British inky music press, and started writing myself because no one else was writing what I wanted, or so it seemed.

I have a crazy notion that the human race is on, or rather should be on, an upward-swinging bell-curve of evolution; that we’re journeying together through space to some peak moment of discovery and bliss. When I think about it logically and weigh up the evidence of child-abusing priests and money-obsessed politicians and sexism and racism and homophobia and everything else, I’m pretty certain that this is, in fact, not happening at all, and that we’ve barely evolved psychologically and emotionally and spiritually in tens of thousands of years. But it’s a nice fantasy to have, perhaps. As a result, the greatest music, in my mind, has to have some element of that discovery, of progress, of evolution, of progress and of beauty intrinsically embedded within it. All of those things are absent from The Strokes.

Impeccably tasteful, impeccably bored, impeccably attired, Is This It shirks meaning and responsibility (“Oh dear can’t you see? It’s them it’s not me”), wants nothing more than to get into your apartment and drink your booze and take off your clothes and fuck you, half-heartedly, and leave before morning. It’s the moment when I started to feel old, started to feel that the generation coming up weren’t going to take advantage of what had gone before and use it as a springboard to achieve greater things, but were just going to repeat the easiest, most shot-term, short-sighted bits of instant gratification that everyone else had been guilty of. Say what you like about the babyboomers of the 60s going on to become the establishment they’d once stood in opposition to; at least they’d had some sense that things needed to improve, to change, at some point, even if they went on to betray it, take everything and let the markets take over. This lot, The Strokes and their ilk, had nothing to betray because they didn’t care about anything except themselves. Maybe it’s the best way to be; maybe it’s the best way to succeed. But I suspect not. It depends how you define success.

Sometimes I listen to this record and I enjoy the fact that it’s just 11 great scuzzy pop songs. And sometimes I listen to this record and think it’s an ideological black hole, a vacuum, a vortex, an evil, dark, empty, hollow, selfish, greedy, solipsistic thing, the death of culture, and that it shouldn’t be allowed.

5 responses to “The Strokes – Is This It (2001)

  1. Hey, Paul as mentioned in the first paragraph here. This is something I wrote about The Strokes about five years ago, it’s a little all over the shop but the key line is: “in the end they were just a band with some good songs and a good image. If you happen to be 17 when these things combine, it’s still a pretty fearsome combination.”

    http://www.stylusmagazine.com/articles/staff_top_10/top-ten-reasons-why-britains-music-critics-needed-the-strokes.htm

  2. I was thinking about this record the other day when Last Night came on in the pub, about how it was the first high-profile American rock record in *years* where you can’t hear the echoes of Nevermind in there. And I think that led to the UK music press madly overestimating its importance at the time. Even now, with the Strokes plugging away to mounting indifference, it feels so much less epochal than all the pop and R&B and hip-hop of the time, let alone ‘Discovery’ which came out the same year and genuinely did completely change the musical landscape.

    I still don’t like this record very much but I’ve got used to it over the years. It probably marks the point at which the British music press finally gave up on the idea of the new being anything for young rock bands to aspire to, one that had more or less survived Britpop. But 12 years on it doesn’t feel as significant as it once did, calling it the death of anything is overegging it – if it is it’s the symptom rather than the cause.

  3. The idea of progress is pretty ridiculous, and I’m sorry that your disappointed that people don’t “evolve” in a way that pleases you, but I feel like your use of the strokes as a symbol for western culture, or whatever, is pretty shallow. I mean, didn’t you notice how the 2k’s was a golden age for rap and RnB? Or Ariel Pink? Or electronic music?

    Also “the generation coming up weren’t going to take advantage of what had gone before and use it as a springboard to achieve greater things, but were just going to repeat the easiest, most shot-term, short-sighted bits of instant gratification that everyone else had been guilty”, except have you seen what the fifteen year old’s of today are doing? Your argument is practically “get off my lawn” or “music was better when people could play there instruments”. It’s always easy to lionize the past because you can forget about all the terrible stuff- all the Radishs that surrounded the Nirvanas. I think that if you really examine any period- including the truly horrible late 90’s (want to talk about a nadir of popular culture? How about when Limp Bizkit was genuinely the biggest band in America?)- you’ll find a lot of interesting things were happening. Now is no different. It’ just that the most interesting stuff is probably not in the guitar-band format anymore.

  4. Aside from your statement that “the idea of progress is pretty ridiculous”, I think you’re agreeing with me.

  5. Very enjoyable read.

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