Remember the late 1990s and early 2000s? Nu-metal, the dregs of post-grunge, the dregs of gangsta rap, the tail end of Britpop. Britney Spears. Artful Dodger. The New Radicals. Cher’s ubiquitous “Believe.” Craig fucking David. It was a dark time for everyone. The history of that era has already been written and rewritten, and the accepted narrative goes something like this: everything largely sucked, and then The Strokes released Is This It and saved rock ‘n’ roll. The New Rock Revolution™ was dead almost as soon as it started, but it left in its wake a renewed interest in guitars and rock music generally, and for that we get to pay eternal thanks to Julian Casablancas and his band of drainpipe-jeaned saviors.
Is that really how we should look back on the era, though? There certainly isn’t much iconoclastic revisionism to be done as far as Is This It‘s virtues go — it was and is a pretty great record, full of pop hooks and genuinely memorable. You can easily trace its musical influence through bands like The Libertines and Franz Ferdinand, and whatever you might think of those bands, it’s hard to argue that that the influence of Is This It has been understated. But it’s also perhaps important to realize that this isn’t The Strokes’ most persistent legacy.
The 1990s are often thought of as the decade that embodied irony, characterized by a tendency toward smug self-regard that was only put to an end by the newfound preference for sincerity that pervaded American culture after 9/11. (Roger Rosenblatt’s famous op-ed for Time and Graydon Carter’s post-9/11 declaration that “I think it’s the end of the age of irony” are often cited to support this claim.)
But this trend played out a bit differently in the world of music. The reaction against the ’90s preoccupation with irony had actually begun several years before 2001: by 1997, for instance, the biggest rock band of the decade were speaking scathingly of the self-regarding, too-cool-for-school nature of much of that decade: “What I really hated about Britpop was all that tiresome irony,” said Colin Greenwood circa OK Computer, “As if bands shouldn’t be serious things.”
Similarly, the bands that angry teens were embracing in droves the late 1990s — Korn, Limp Bizkit, Linkin Park, and their ilk — were as earnest as earnest gets, even if that earnestness was channeled largely into rage at the revocation of their listeners’ PlayStation privileges. The indie records of the time were similarly full of ardent conviction — this was the era of Neutral Milk Hotel, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Modest Mouse, Elbow, and Travis, just to name a few.
It was into this environment that The Strokes released their debut in July 2001, and while they may or may not have been genuinely serious about what they did, they did their very best to appear that they weren’t. They brought with them a certain post-millennial ennui, a quintessentially New York sense of detachment, an impression that they were way too cool to care about anything very much. After several years of music being very serious indeed, The Strokes made it look both acceptable and desirable to not give a shit. And for a while, at least, they were fun, a band that reminded the world that music could be approached with a leisurely drawl and an arched eyebrow and a baggie of something naughty.
As has often been the case in the history of music (and culture in general), though, the irony-and-detachment aesthetic they embodied rather took on a life of its own, eventually creating a monster. Bands aren’t responsible for the way their art evolves in the public consciousness, of course — as Mojo once memorably wrote about Led Zeppelin, “They were responsible for heavy metal, but they’re not to blame.” Nevertheless, Is This It‘s detached, ironic veneer came to function as a perfect parallel to a general cultural shift that had started happening a couple of years before the record’s release and was just starting to permeate mainstream consciousness when it dropped.
The key moments in this shift largely happened in a four-year period that spanned either side of the turn of the millennium. There was the emergence of a hitherto-unheralded Canadian magazine called Vice, which had just moved its headquarters from Montreal to New York City and was consolidating both its ironic-about-everything aesthetic and its readership in its new home. At about the same time, another Canadian by the name of Dov Charney was moving a small clothing business called American Apparel to a new factory in downtown LA. Both these moves coincided with a demographic shift of artistically-inclined 20-somethings from enclaves like Manhattan’s East Village and Lower East Side into new pastures like Williamsburg, along with similar shifts in other cities (into the area around Old Street and Hackney in London, for instance).
All these corresponding events contributed in their own small ways to the evolution of what was, for a fleeting moment, a coherent subculture. That subculture didn’t have a name when Is This It was released, but a label would be applied to it soon enough, a mid-20th-century word that started to appear in print again in early 2002: “hipsters.” In the years when the word “hipster” still meant something, the people to which it applied embodied the aesthetic of Is This It: a rejection of earnestness for irony, an unashamed devotion to hedonism, a general air of iconoclasm, a desire to define one’s own place in the world, even if that place wasn’t the greatest one to be.
A decade later, hipster culture, such as it is, has been analyzed to death — think-pieces on hipsterdom have been done to death, reaching their nadir with the New York Times‘ dire decade-too-late “How to Live Without Irony” piece last year. For several years, at least, the term has been so overused and abused that it’s essentially meaningless — really, these days it’s just an insult to throw at anyone whose tastes you find pretentious or generally don’t coincide with your own. (As ever, The Onion nailed it, and did so seven years ago.)
The era’s decline has rather mirrored that of The Strokes. Relatively few bands transcend their eras; many more prove beholden to them. And in the 12 years since Is This It, the world has changed. The city that the band once embodied has changed — the East Village and Lower East Side are basically consumerist theme parks, and Williamsburg has largely followed suit. The venues and parties the band played in their early days have long gone. Their new album Comedown Machine‘s vaunted “new direction” feels like a band struggling to find a new place for itself in an age that no longer befits it.
The culture that The Strokes once defined has gone, disappeared into a haze of stereotype and irrelevance. And so, more tellingly, has the swagger and conviction with which the band members once carried themselves. The fun has gone. Their air of not caring a great deal seemed to evolve into genuinely not caring at all, and in 2013, even The Strokes don’t appear to like The Strokes anymore: the stories about Julian Casablancas literally phoning in the lyrics to their last record Angles are legion and hilarious — which, really, why bother?
Comedown Machine at least manages to summon up some measure of giving some semblance of a shit (and hey, at least Casablancas deigned to visit the studio this time around), but it still carries the air of a band whose glory days have long since passed. Whereas once the Strokes felt like an adrenaline rush, nowadays they feel like doing obligatory coke downstairs at a bar that used to be cool with people old enough to know better. Perhaps it’s time we all called a cab.