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The Strokes are in the house
By GINA VIVINETTO, Times Pop Music Critic
But watch your tail on that backlash. Wooh, brother, it's a doozy.
The New York rock act has been driving critics in the United States and Europe crazy for a year now, forcing us to re-evaluate what is original music, who is allowed to create it and, interestingly, just how nutty our class tendencies are when it comes to defining "real" rock 'n' roll.
It's Monday night, and I'm in the perfect environment to mull it over. I'm at the House of Blues, where the Strokes are about to play a sold-out show. I look around and see some familiar faces, others who have made the two-hour drive from the Tampa Bay area to catch the super-hyped Strokes. The band's debut album, Is This It, made many critics' Best of 2001 lists -- including mine -- even though it was released just a few months ago. Last weekend the band performed on Saturday Night Live. Monday's sold-out show is filled with kids emulating the Strokes' look. They look like extras on the set of That '70s Show, all shaggy hair, leather jackets, sloppy-yet-stylish thrift store chic.
The place is packed, but this ain't diddly compared with Strokes gigs in England, where a gaga British press heralds the act as "the future of rock 'n' roll." Over there, before Is This It even hit stores, the band graced the cover of big-time music mag New Musical Express. The Brits devoured the band's three-song EP, The Modern Age, so much that an eager record label owner heard 15 seconds of it played over the phone by an American buddy and signed the Strokes on the spot.
When the band played recent shows in New York and Los Angeles, members were greeted by everyone from filmmaker Spike Jonze to musician Beck, the Hanson boys and the Clash's Joe Strummer. Actor and Hole singer/guitarist Courtney Love has already penned a song about Strokes lead singer Julian Casablancas titled But, Julian, I'm a Little Older Than You. Fellow New York art rockers Sonic Youth, too, have written a tribute to the Strokes, whose members are all between 20 and 23 years old, and who have played together for just three years.
The first line of Rolling Stone's review of Is This It -- the lead review in that issue: "This is the stuff of which legends are made."
Which leads one to look around the enthusiastic House of Blues crowd and wonder:
What the heck is going on with this band?
Are the Strokes really the saviors of rock 'n' roll? The antithesis to all that rap-rock crud and the icky teen pop? Are the Strokes America's most important band? The heirs to the CBGB punk legacy?
That's the buzz you hear one minute.
But wait. Because those other, crankier voices, the ones that sound awfully miffed, or jealous, say the Strokes are copycats, posers, spoiled Manhattan rich kids with enough dough to buy their own recording contract. They met in prep school!
As the band, headed by skinny, charismatic Casablancas, takes the stage and begins churning out its peppy, choppy guitars behind Casablancas' gruff, dispassionate voice, fans bob their heads to the music, which sounds a heck of a lot like the band's heroes the Velvet Underground with Lou Reed handling vocals. The Strokes' music also recalls Iggy and the Stooges and the great 1970s CBGB punk bands such as New York Dolls, Television and the Modern Lovers.
It's jittery music, frenetic, with an emphasis on brevity. But the tunes are tight and well-crafted, with snags and hooks that keep you on the line.
The Strokes' sound is derivative. It's also delicious. If you're gonna derive, derive from the best, right?
Since when has rock 'n' roll been about originality? From Elvis to Eminem -- with the Rolling Stones, the Clash and Madonna tossed in the middle -- rock 'n' roll has always been about ripping off everyone that came before you. Even Chuck Berry, the inventor of the stuff, was ripping off old blues guitarists.
While we're at it, someone please put into categories what is (a) ripping off, (b) paying homage to your idols and (c) assimilating influences into your own art.
Let's consider the other complaints: Four out of the five Strokes attended either a Swiss boarding school or a swanky Upper East Side prep school. (All of them dropped out.)
Another sin: Casablancas is the son of John Casablancas, founder of the Elite modeling agency. (But rumor has it that father and son aren't very close.)
The guys are good-looking. They dress stylishly retro, with snazzy suits and skinny ties. In publicity photos, they look sleepy and sexy, lips all puckered. This also peeves purists who say punks can't be pretty.
But these snobby theories about "real" rock aren't just silly: History proves them to be dead wrong. Check it out:
THEORY 1: If you've got money and privilege, you can't play rock 'n' roll.
Tell that to Mick Jagger and Joe Strummer, who grew up in England's upper middle class and went on to make some of the most compelling, incendiary rock.
THEORY 2: If you ain't ugly, you ain't real. At least not real in the CBGB way.
Hello? Two words: Debbie Harry. The queen of the CBGB punk scene, for heaven's sake, and a former Playboy bunny.
So, I'm watching skinny little Julian gripping the mike. My head is going up and down, and I'm loving the sound. The kids up front are pogoing near the stage. The Strokes mates look cool, a nice change of pace from the baggy shorts and backward baseball caps of the rap-rock stars. (I'm also relieved to see no swirly sideburns and goatees so favored by the teen poppers.)
The Strokes have a look, and I'm not alone in digging it. Sure, it's retro. Sure, it's derivative. So is rockabilly, swing, heavy metal, country, every genre out there. Is a "new traditional" country singer, someone who croons like Loretta Lynn or George Jones, a rip-off artist? Who's allowed to play the blues these days, and is there a memo so I can keep track?
I don't care who Casablancas' daddy is or if they get along. I don't give a hoot how much allowance these guys got every week, or if they properly hassled their prep school teachers, or if they lose street cred by being popular.
The guys in the Strokes are offering me delicious tunes and a good time. Who am I to judge if they are cool enough to do that?
I think I am cool enough, and punk enough, to not give a hang about a person's socio-economic background. Or whether or not he or she is pretty.
Who cares, I think, as the band cranks out one snarly gem after another. Just listen to the music. It sounds fresh and invigorating. This time around, too.
- To contact Gina Vivinetto, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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