Can any other modern band equal the level of irrational emotion that greets the Strokes at every turn? Ten years ago, they were perhaps the country's most relentlessly hyped band; that condition quickly dissipated and now this week, with the announcement of both a new album in March and a headlining spot at Coachella, blogs are abuzz with questions about whether we "still care." Expressions of passionate love and, more interestingly, hatred have followed. The Strokes are "derivative corporate rockers," "one of the most boring musical groups ever assembled," "a big talentless joke." Search for "The Strokes" and "overrated" and Google spits out 224,000 results. And this is vintage, but a commenter on Mark Prindle's website offers the all-time champion of Strokes-related hate sentences: "[W]hat really has me peeling the skin off my face is the total air of smugness in every second of this wank."
In fairness, a lengthy search turns up just as many ridiculous platitudes leveled at them -- the second-best band of all time behind the Beatles, the band that single-handedly saved rock 'n' roll, etc. The Strokes are a good band with two good albums and one decent one, but their narrative has managed to strike some sort of miraculous nerve -- more than a dispute about musical taste, an argument about the Strokes is, well, war. Once upon a time, back in the days of commercially disappointing sophomore album Room on Fire, the mainstream music press was falling over itself to cater to the Strokes' audience as conduits for the 900th or so "second coming" of rock. Spin offered a special Strokes issue with five collectible covers, one for each band member; never one for such overbearing indignities, Rolling Stone simply slapped them on the cover and declared them "the new kings of rock." By the end of the year, no one was talking about Room on Fire -- least of all Rolling Stone and Spin.
The band can't really be blamed for the overexposure; by virtually disappearing from 2006 to late last year, they've done their best to counter it, but they can't mend the old Strokes gap. More than one review of Is This It noted the band's abundance of "enemies," an amusing concept that became less so with the advent of Internet opinion-marking ease. It became a constantly recurring debate: Were you with the Strokes, or against them? And why? They're just regurgitating 1977, they're no-talents skating by on looks, they're (I'll never forget this one) "the Backstreet Boys of indie" (indie having by 2001 stretched enough to involve fashionable kids with privileged backgrounds signed to RCA); what happened to originality? These discussions always grew heated, and always attached insurmountable ideology to something as simple as whether or not one liked a band -- one of many starting points for the last decade's preponderance of absurdly petty culture wars.
We all know that's silly now, right? Though they've not exacerbated the problem, the Strokes' career doesn't offer any object lessons in avoidance of backlash. How could it? Would more people see the Strokes as a fine rock 'n' roll band if buzz and a major label hadn't doggedly pushed them as saviors in 2001? Would Room on Fire be remembered as a fine record if not for the loud din of sophomore slump and diminishing returns declarations? Possibly, on both counts. But could any other circumstances produce something as undeniable and singularly of its time -- the end of NYC '90s hedonism -- as Is This It? Maybe the permanent fallout, the eternal decline, is the price one pays for a moment like that. But we've found room for aging decadence in our rock 'n' roll hearts in plenty of other contexts, so bring on that new record, punks.
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