In the late-90s, mainstream radio was in as sorry a state as it had been for years. Nü-metal bands like Limp Bizkit dominated, making the airwaves a dangerous place for women, children and anyone of even average intelligence. When things finally hit rock bottom, with countless bands achieving fame by ripping off acts that should never have been heard (let alone copied) in the first place, the Strokes and the White Stripes simultaneously appeared on the scene. And in merely two years, they would have more of an impact on the mainstream than anyone ever could have predicted.
With their perfectly executed “I couldn’t be bothered” haircuts and their greaser-meets-mod fashion sense, the Strokes helped us recall a time when rock ‘n’ roll was just as much about attitude as it was about music, and in doing so endeared themselves to critics and industry folks all over the world. “Serious” music aficionados would immediately follow suit, and before long, hypnotized by their undeniable dreaminess, MTV and the teenage girls would come calling.
The initial success of the White Stripes came for similar reasons. They were obsessed with music history, constantly earning attention for Jack White’s well-documented infatuation with the Delta blues. And though the infatuation manifested itself more in 70s-style Zeppelin riffage than proper blues, the sense of authenticity was still there, and, voila, the critics were on board. And the cutesy, self-imposed black, red and white dress code, cool-as-hell videos, and Jack White’s insistence that he and Meg were a brother and sister duo rather than an ex-husband-and-wife duo were just fun and silly enough for the mainstream to accept, despite the fact the material was more demanding than standard popular music.
With the success, though, comes the inevitable backlash. And for the Strokes, would-be haters had an awful lot of ammunition. Frontman Julian Casablancas (son of Elite Modeling Agency founder John Casablancas) met the rest of the band at prep schools in New York City and Switzerland. They were exposed and ridiculed as privileged socialites who hadn’t paid their dues — perhaps the worst accusation that can be made in indie-rock circles — and who were too concerned with being seen in the right places with the right people.
Curiously, that backlash never really happened for the White Stripes. They’d put out a few relatively poor selling records on indie labels, and had been tearing up the club circuit in their native Detroit for some time. They also made a point of using exclusively vintage gear — another thing that intensified critics’ feelings that Jack White would be the man to save rock ‘n’ roll by going back to its golden age and rebuilding it from the inside. As a result, they boasted the kind of life-saving credibility the Strokes so sorely lacked, solidifying their status as a band that could do no wrong.
Fast-forward a few years, though, and look at what’s become of Mr. White. He was romantically linked to that Bridget Jones woman and showed no signs of shying away from the media attention that came along with it. He decided to try his hand at acting, appearing in Cold Mountain and Coffee and Cigarettes. He grew that terrible, terrible mustache, too, which may be his biggest fuck-up to date. Unless you think that’s an honor best reserved for his reported talks to compose a new jingle for soft-drink giant Coca-Cola. He’s become a joke, a celebrity no more special than any of the other beautiful dolts who line the pages of Us Weekly. The band’s lost something musically as well. Last year’s Get Behind Me Satan was a total disappointment, with Meg White’s shortcomings as a drummer finally taking center stage.
The last few years have gone considerably different for the Strokes. After Is This It, they essentially disappeared from the public eye and went into hiding to record their follow-up, Room on Fire, which the doubting public seemed eager to pounce on. The record received lukewarm reviews, even though (or perhaps because) it wasn’t much of a departure from their debut. Aside from drummer Fabrizio Moretti’s long-term relationship with Drew Barrymore, during which the high-profile couple managed to fly mostly under the radar, the band kept pretty quiet.
All of this leads up to their new record, First Impressions of Earth, which is a more fitting title than it would first seem. It’s a portrait of a band that’s thought to itself, “Maybe those people had a point a few years ago. Maybe things did happen too quickly,” a band pressing the reset button, going back to square one in hopes of figuring out exactly who they want to be. It’s also the first Strokes record that doesn’t sound exactly how you assumed it would. The band members are clearly more comfortable with their respective instruments and are more comfortable in the studio. Casablancas, though, doesn’t seem comfortable at all, which is what makes the record so good. There’s a sense he’s been genuinely troubled by everything that’s happened to him and his friends in the past five years, and it makes him worlds more likable.
First Impressions is far from a perfect record, though. It goes on too long, some of the more complex songs are a tad too ambitious, and Casablancas’ lyrics take the occasional turn for the juvenile. But even so, when he sings the lines “Everybody at the party shouldn’t worry what they wear/ ‘Cause today they’ll talk about us and tomorrow they won’t care,” you realize he’s learning things that will enable him and his band to continue improving for years to come.
If you’re not impressed by his revelations, I understand. But think for a second about those clowns in the red-and-white peppermint costumes and just how well they’d be served by the same basic knowledge.