Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Nevermind Nirvana: The 10th Anniversary of The Strokes' Is This It?

To rock and roll scribes, the 20th anniversary of Nirvana’s Nevermind has prompted a whirlwind of musings about the record over the past few months, present company included.

And while many writers reveled in the sheer nostalgia of the event, many of them seem too young to fully grasp the impact that Nevermind had on music upon its original release. It’s not that their thoughts aren’t warranted or worthy of your eyes, it’s just that most generations tend to look for their own cornerstones, and I began thinking about which albums released during their time of influence would be counted as vital documents of a younger cultural shift.

So get off my lawn, you kids, and let me return the favor with my own thoughts on which album you should replace Nevermind with.

One of the first albums that came to mind was Neutral Milk Hotel’s In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, Jeff Mangum’s frequently acknowledged classic concerning something about Anne Frank. I must confess, however, that I don’t really understand how or why this record has found its way into so many hearts.

While I would be more than willing to grant this album a five-star review based on its original arrangements and provocative attention bestowed on it, I wouldn’t go as far as to admit that it was immediately recognized as a record who’s influence was so great that it managed to change the course of rock music, even a smudge.

Its subject matter was too historic, its words too academic, and its music too obscure to really grab hold for a country of young musicians to follow the path that it laid out. Hell, even the name of the band screams equal parts inside-joke and pretentious word-play.

OK Computer by Radiohead is sited frequently, but at its core the record is another off-shoot of previous records from other artists in rock’s storied history. As much as I love OK Computer, I feel like spinning Wish You Were Here afterwards, simply because its lineage mirrors the very same classic rock albums that I grew up with.

Plus, it was released not very long after Nevermind, so maybe today’s young adults think of Radiohead in the same terms as I thought of Pink Floyd.
If it were up to me, I would choose a record that is also celebrating a notably anniversary this year: The Strokes Is This It?

The caveat I begin with is that in no way am I comparing The Strokes one-and as of this writing, only-masterstroke with Nirvana’s clarion call. As many scribes have correctly pointed out, Nevermind may be the last record that was album to change the course of rock music because it was the last record that was able to utilize the old-school paradigm.

And since radio has become an irrelevant delivery system, dead from the moment it was purchased by Clear Channel and homogenized from a home office thousands of miles away from its city of license.

And since MTV 86’d music content for Snooki, making all of those Teen Spirit cheerleaders that appeared in the video a relic to their generation only.

And since record labels viewed their customers as the enemies and chose to fight for the same level of profit that they’d always gotten from huge mark-ups.

And since all of these events happened, that old school paradigm is no longer gospel, making it impossible for any act to achieve the same kind of success that Nirvana experience, thereby eliminating any possibility for an event like Nevermind to take place again.

But for a moment in 2001, it looked as though The Strokes may be on to something.
A decade later, we’re still waiting for that confirming follow up, and based on the lackluster albums they released since that time, it doesn’t appear that the band is capable of living up to its original promise.

I would contend that, because of this, even the appeal of Is This It? Has suffered somewhat. We no longer view the record with the same enthusiasm as before, but does that make its impact less worthy?

Hardly. Whether your opinion of The Strokes or Is This It? Is enthusiastic or unfavorable, there’s little in denying that-for a brief moment-the band prompted an influx of like-minded bands or blatant rip-offs, all using the Velvet’s “What Goes On” rhythms underneath a bratty vocalist who wants little more than to get to your apartment.

Bratty is how we like our New Yorkers. Plus, we’d heard little from NYC rock unit for the better part of two decades before The Strokes turned their tiny rehearsal space into the archetypal Butch Vig sound of the new millennium.

And yeah, that sound was sorta important because by 2001, you could buy enough software for your laptop to make your own demos sound like they were done at Smart Studios. Is This It? Reminded us that even upper Middle Class brats needed to rehearse, and you can’t feign rock and roll legitimacy on looks alone.

Naysayers, I know you’re gonna tell me “That’s the problem!” that this band was created on hype alone. For me though-as someone who noticed The Strokes because of said hype-I’d suggest that it was authentic-at least in the beginning, because nowadays, I’m not sure if The Strokes have delivered enough to warrant that Spin cover shot, or even the lead review in your favorite mag.

But a decade ago, I can’t tell you how pleased I was with that first single, with the Capital mid-60’s swirl label and-more importantly-the 3 songs featured within short player. It sounded like the torch that the Velvets passed on to Television were finally getting passed on to the new millennium.

Finally! A new guitar rock band from N.Y.C. that I could feel good about while feeling all warm and fuzzy from those familiar guitar tones and Big Apple attitude.

The fact that they couldn’t keep it up with each subsequent release doesn’t make the debut shine less brightly, and the fact that-since we’re feeling all teary-eyed and retrospective this month, let’s not forget The Strokes’ anniversary for an album that briefly hinted that another cultural shift was getting ready to take place.


G. $immon$ said...

What about 'Psycho Circus'? May I be the first to say that it had as much of a cultural impact as Nevermind...which we all know was really just a sloppy garage rock version of Revenge.

Paul said...

Wooooah! I second that emoowowoshuuuuun! People...I don't think we played this one before!!!

Kiko Jones said...

OK, let's see...

- I firmly believe that NMH was boosted by contrarian, over-educated indie rockers who wanted to champion an off-key singing hermit who would be guaranteed to not return their devotion. Because, as we all know, aside from the unobtainable, there is nothing more desirable in the indie rock world than rejection by the object of one's devotion.

- The reason for your dismissal of OK Computer within the parameters of your premise is both flawed and unfair, not to mention contradictory.

- Whatever the merits of Is This It? it also spawned a legion of crappy NY-based bands that put NYC back on the map for all the wrong reasons. (Mooney Suzuki, anyone? Williamsburg hipsters? I've come to understand what it must have felt like in Seattle during the immediate wake of the Grunge Olympics.)

- And speaking of my hometown's immediate pre-Strokes musical progeny, there was plenty of "Big Apple attitude" emanating from the likes of D-Generation, Helmet, Living Colour, Prong, Quicksand, White Zombie and a host of others, so...

Todd Totale said...

Kiko: Good points. You're pretty awesome. I still love Electric Sweat and they were awesome when I saw them live.

Cousin J said...

Pretentious jags. Aren't they just s less successful version of the Hooters? All You Zombies > Is This It. Fact.

Kiko Jones said...

Oh, c'mon, Mr.T. You know I 've got nuthin but love for ya: you're one of the few music bloggers worth reading.

Todd Totale said...

Ditto to you Kiko. Your thoughts on the mixtape have got me in the mindset that I need to finish up a similar article.
And J, you really dislike the Strokes?! I like the Hooters too, but I think they were from Philly, so I don't get the connection. For me, the pretention was part of it. But I will agree when your third and fourth records stiff, you ain't got a right to be pretentious any longer. Just rock, and I'll admit they haven't done that legitimately in quite some time. Now you've got me digging out my copy of Nervous Night

Cousin J said...

No I really like 'Is This It'. I just remember a lot of hype surrounding the Philly boys pre-record release and then the failure to follow up on their initial success. You hit the nail on the head. Just get out their and rock and i would be much more forgiving. But to make people wait for lackluster releases and tours like they do and then continuously fail to live up to the hype seems like just more pampered kids wasting their talent.