Strength in Independence: The Strokes and The National

Sandra Canosa


New York City at the turn of the 21st Century: a time largely before fixed-gear bikes and ironic facial hair, pre-September 11, pre-Brooklyn-as-tourist-destination, mid-Giuliani crackdown and facelift – a place whose population was a million people less than it is now, a place where (believe it or not) you could still see and hear live performances from the city’s best up-and-coming musical acts, free of charge.

When Luna Lounge opened in 1995 on Ludlow St., it was a pioneer of modern rock venues, simply for the sheer audacity of its location south of Houston in the gritty Lower East Side of Manhattan. By 2005, it was a dinosaur – the only club left in the neighborhood that never donned a cover charge for its shows and consequently shut its doors and moved to Williamsburg rather than keep up with skyrocketing real estate prices. So went the Indie Boom of the modern fin de siècle at a time when a rapid spread of gentrification ushered in a new era for New York; a time when the Big Apple of Manhattan was rapidly being supplanted by the organic, local farmstands of Brooklyn.

Midway through its tenancy, in October 2001, two of Luna Lounge’s regular acts released their debut full-length albums and would, sooner or later, go on to become beloved darlings of indie rock. After a year of buzz, record company bidding wars, and international success surrounding their three-song EP, The Strokes released their seminal Is This It on October 9 to a hungry U.S. audience. Seemingly overnight, The Strokes were New York City: their effortless look, their neo-retro sound, the very air they breathed so much cooler than anything that preceded it. Inarguably one of the most important and influential albums of the century so far, Is This It launched the revival of guitar-based garage rock, paving the way for the success of fellow New Yorkers The Yeah Yeah Yeahs as well as The White Stripes, The Hives, The Vines, and The Libertines. It’s no small understatement to say that rock music has never been the same since.

Meanwhile, back at the Luna Lounge, a group of Ohioan transplants quietly released a self-produced eponymous album, The National. They’d hang on to their day jobs through two more albums and three more years, while The Strokes cinched the cover of Rolling Stone, played sold-out stadiums and headlined festivals, and inspired a contagion of Converse sneaker-wearers.

A dozen years later, the roles aren’t exactly reversed, but the tunes have changed. In the spring of 2013, both bands released new and much-anticipated albums – the Strokes’ fifth, Comedown Machine, and the National’s sixth, Trouble Will Find Me. In terms of sheer numbers alone, the National outsold their former clubmates nearly 2-to-1 in their first week. Trouble Will Find Me popped up on Best of the Year lists from Pitchfork, Stereogum, and Rolling Stone and is nominated for a Grammy for Best Alternative Music Album. Comedown Machine hasn’t even roused a whisper from most major music media since its release (with the notable exception of the UK’s NME, which has always acted as the Strokes’ surrogate head cheerleader).

A simple side-by-side comparison of the albums doesn’t really suffice to explain how two successful bands of such close origins could have fallen into such disparate ways. Year after year since the initial implosion of Is This It, the Strokes have only waned in public popularity and critical significance, while the National have since skyrocketed to the forefront of indie music’s heart and soul. But it’s not that Comedown Machine is bad, or even mediocre – it’s a well-balanced album showcasing loyalty to that famous old grit and forward-moving experiments in sound. But somehow, Comedown Machine just misses that critical, intangible mark of being significant to and in 2013, the way Is This It was in 2001. Twelve years is a long eon in pop music, but to simply dismiss the Strokes as old, washed-up, and irrelevant seems unfair when the group’s oldest member is still younger than the youngest member of the National.

With the aging of both groups has come the maturation of the indie movement itself. While both New York City bands through and through, the Strokes have always been associated with the Manhattan-esque ideal of New York nightlife – effortless urban cool – while the National are almost exclusively linked to the nouveau Brooklyn mentality of DIY and collaborative artistic communities. Over the past decade, the indie mindset has made that very same transition: from urban to pastoral, from individual to communal, from Manhattan to Brooklyn, from the Strokes to the National.

To be fair, the Strokes have never truly been “indie” in the purest sense of the word, and the cover of Comedown Machine is a blatant, if perhaps tongue-in-cheek, reminder of that fact: the logo for RCA, a record company subsidiary of Sony, is bigger than the name of the band or the album title combined. With more than one extended hiatus and a multitude of side projects from virtually every member of the band over the years, this shameless act of self-branding lends weight to the theory that Comedown Machine was only created to fulfill the band’s five-album contract to RCA and let everyone get on with their separate lives. You might even call the cover, at least in the hipster sense of the word, “ironic.”

But maybe the National, all those years ago at Luna Lounge, were ahead of their time – or at least slow on the uptake. When the world, and thus the record companies, revved interest in the noughties New York music scene, scouting out bands like Interpol, stellastarr*, and Fountains of Wayne, the National missed the boat. But with every passing album, first on their own label and then on the British independent Beggars Banquet Records, critical notice and popular attention grew and grew. It wouldn’t be too far a stretch to call the story of the National a triumph of the American Dream: five Midwestern men (with two sets of brothers, no less) continue to work hard without reward, never letting the odds break them down – and they do it on their own. They truly are the self-made band; a noble success story for independent business and a model for other DIY-minded musicians.

On the other hand, the National’s roots in Brooklyn “before it was cool” positioned them in the right place at the (eventually) right time. The indie boom of the ‘00s quickly spilled from lower Manhattan into the outer borough, and the exponential growth of artistic culture in Brooklyn mirrors that of the band’s following. At their homecoming show in the massive, pristine, and newly-erected Barclays Center arena in June, singer Matt Berninger eyed the 15,000 attendees and joked that this was where it all started for them. It couldn’t have been a further cry from it –12 years ago, the idea of packing a stadium in downtown Brooklyn for an indie rock show would have been beyond ludicrous.

Unfortunately for the Strokes, they broke their own genre. Just like Appetite for Destruction signaled both the epitome and the end of the glam metal era – when Guns ’n’ Roses were just getting started – Is This It marked the beginning of the end of the reign of the major-label gritty rock band. Indie in style but not in practice, the Strokes may be, as far as we can tell, the last and final Biggest Rock Band in the World. Their explosion on the market fueled the confused shift of “indie” from an ethical guideline to a genre; independent music suddenly appeared mainstream, while mainstream music businesses sought to capitalize on the indie aesthetic. On top of that, the shift in music distribution from the radio and the record store to the Internet allowed for anyone to self-publish their work and anyone searching on the other side to discover it. While labels no longer define artists like they once did, the overnight success story of the Strokes is probably now a relic of the past, at least for rock bands. In this modern age, commercial achievement is a snowballing endeavor.

When the Strokes breathed new life into the tired field of guitar rock at the dawn of the 21st century, the world took it and ran. Is This It will always remain an anthem of the live-fast-die-young rock variety, but its themes of ennui and overindulgence don’t age well on anyone. We can’t blame the Strokes for trying to move past what they once were – and for most of the members today, that means moving beyond the band itself and into the heart of their solo projects. But, as groups like the National prove, being young and reckless is no longer a prerequisite for making great rock music. Work hard, play hard, and the world will eventually listen.

Author Bio:

Sandra Canosa is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.

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