This summer, the Strokes and White Stripes coheadlined a series of appearances in their respective hometowns of NYC and Detroit. “There was chaos outside following the show,” wrote prominent British music magazine NME of one of the concerts at Radio City Music Hall. “Several hundred fans gathered on 51st Street and the bands greeted them from their second-floor dressing-room windows. Meg White struck up conversations with a number of mostly male fans, while Jack caused a scrum when he threw one of his red T-shirts into the crowd. One fan told NME it was ‘like Sinatra hanging out of his dressing-room windows at the Paramount Theater in the 1940s.’ “
So how did this happen? How did five scruffy prep-school grads who nicked Tom Petty riffs end up coheadlining a sold-out two-night stand with a pair of surly, chromatically challenged ex-spouses from the Motor City? The formula is simple: Take a nation of twenty- and thirtysomethings still getting their groove on in an okay economy; throw planes at their cities, then watch them come running for comfort and predictability — something made in the USA, old but in new gear.
Rock ‘n’ roll, plain and simple.
The emergence of these two bands wasn’t the first time that groups came barreling out of the underground into the popular consciousness. But unlike Nirvana, the Strokes and the White Stripes didn’t need to wait for the mainstream’s dissatisfaction with sleek pop. It was September 11’s twin spawn — patriotism and insecurity — that grabbed them right off the shelves with sweaty-palmed glee. We wanted something relatively brainless to party to; something common, sexy, and generally apolitical … and we got it.
The CMJ Radio 200 chart gave a hint as to which way the tides were gonna turn after that day: Amid the usual alt-stew of emo, electronica, country & Westerberg, and indie-pop, the freshman full-length by a very Noo Yawk band called the Strokes had just debuted at number seventy. Two weeks later, it hit its peak position of number two, hanging in the Top Ten till January. On that very same chart, White Blood Cells, the third album by idiosyncratic Detroit duo the White Stripes, made a big leap up. And when it was reissued six months later, it kicked all the other overthinky bullshit out of its way, sailing to the top spot in just a few weeks.
Now, it would be foolish to suggest that 9/11 spawned some kind of “garage-rock revolution.” For one thing, the Strokes and White Stripes are only tenuously garage rock, and they don’t even come from the same strain. The Stripes are bluesy, cave-spawned, and guttural, while the Strokes are catchy and slick, but just a little bit sloppy and quite a bit sleazy; it’s teen-pop that puts out. If there really was a garage-rock revolution going on, the Mooney Suzuki would be playing stadiums in place of Papa Roach, and Holly Golightly would be shilling for Pepsi. But this ain’t no revolution. It’s simply a case of a country coping with trauma by putting its brain away and shakin’ its thang.
Major-label signings and the British press helped to grease both bands’ pop culture penetration. But what their sudden success may ultimately come down to is their twisted lack of artifice. Sure, these bands have images, but images of their own devising. The Strokes never pretended they weren’t children of privilege, and that kind of shit only bothers the underground, anyway. The Strokes’ mugs are precious, their parents are rich, and they probably have the best weed and the biggest “garage” in all of NYC. And so their grimy attitude gets eaten up, as does Julian Casablancas’ straining, Iggy Pop-ish sing-speak, and the band’s essential Big Appleness. Support the firefighters! Give blood! And throw some cash toward the New York scene!
But the White Stripes? Drums and guitar rehashing Son House? Whose idea was this? Well, the White Stripes may be strange, but they also have a self-made gimmick. (And, judging by the three MTV Video Music Awards they won a few weeks back, those are gimmicks that the mainstream can hang with.) The whole brother-sister rumor was really just a little red-and-white lie. It reminds us of childhood: The faux-sibling shtick harks back to Donny and Marie, who really were siblings, but always had that creepy chemistry; and the red-and-white getups are straight-up Saturday morning Hanna-Barbera.
And what about the music? Yeah, it matters. And yeah, it’s pretty good, if a bit boring — and that’s the trick. The Strokes seem like they’ve taken all the American pop and underground they’ve heard — the Stooges, Television, Blondie, the Velvet Underground — and distilled it, repackaging it in the shallowest of 21st-century downtown duds. The White Stripes are simply playing the blues, with some folk mixed in for restin’ — two purely American art forms.
After September 11, many eyes were opened to some hard, geopolitical facts. The whole world doesn’t love America? Nope, nor do they love Americans. Disillusionment abounded, and still does. Most attempts at soliloquizing 9/11 — by Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young — have some level of schmaltz to them, of cashing in or copping out. They’re overwrought, trying to put into words and music the complicated, conflicting things that the artists are feeling, that we’ve all been feeling. They shoulda just kept it simple. A much better solution, judging by the Strokes and the Stripes, is to party like it’s the end of the world — because it very well may be.