In the late 1990s, sitting at my computer in New Delhi, using a sputtering dial-up connection, I discovered rollingstone.com, NME.com, pitchforkmedia.com, and the now-defunct wallofsound.go.com. Much of the music discussed on these sites wasn’t available in Indian music stores, which were in the thrall of quite random British exports (Def Leppard, Travis, Manic Street Preachers), and my dial-up connection was too slow for me to be an effective pirate. Nevertheless, when I arrived in the US for college in 2001, I was fully conversant in a canon I had never listened to. Browsing used record stores and the downloading platform Kazaa, I was soon into the Strokes, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the Walkmen, Interpol, and the Libertines. I had, like a good student, remade myself in the image of what Pitchfork thought was cool at the time: white-boy garage-rock bands immediately identifiable by their “The” names and linked glamorously to New York City. Many of my mainstream college friends thought I was referring to Indian music when I said I was a fan of indie bands.
Twenty years later the 2000s garage-rock boomlet appears to have been a cul-de-sac for rock and roll rather than a springboard for bands that might rival Nirvana or R.E.M. in influence. Interpol faded away, the Strokes became irrelevant, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and the Walkmen have issued only occasional bulletins from their semiretirement. Is there anything special to say about that era except: I was (sort of) there?
Lizzy Goodman’s 2017 oral history Meet Me in the Bathroom, made into a documentary last year, thinks so. It argues that this was the era of the last of the rock stars, the music industry’s final hurrah before the Internet smashed all the rules. It shows us the hype that propelled a two-year-old band—the Strokes—into the stratosphere, minting dozens of overnight copycats. And it demonstrates how some of the music—James Murphy’s self-referential and deliberately dumb and fun electroclash, for example—was a direct response to the democratization of taste under the Internet. The early Aughts were a period when New York became the center of the world both politically and musically, the city itself the subject of songs and romance.
As an oral history told in competing, overlapping voices, Goodman’s book perfectly captures the scene. It deflates rock star egos without robbing them of romance, the way a more academic study might. It values attitude over authority. It venerates the demotic. Attempts at mythmaking are placed, without comment, next to reality checks. Here’s a sample juxtaposition involving two members of the Strokes:
Nick Valensi: No one at any point ever said, “I want my song to be on the radio,” or “I want to sign to a major record label.” …No one was thinking that. We didn’t even fucking talk about those things…. If we could tour clubs and do this for the next ten or twenty years, I’d have been happy as a fucking clam. I’m telling you I’m not an ambitious person, I’m not.
Fabrizio Moretti: Bullshit. We were ambitious…. It’s almost self-preservation to say we didn’t care that much.
This is a form of musical group-biography pioneered by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain in Please Kill Me (1996), the blistering and shocking oral history of punk that will be on the mind of any music obsessive who reads Meet Me in the Bathroom. But while Please Kill Me was a portrait of wanton self-destruction, with the Stooges presented as the central death cult, Meet Me in the Bathroom tells a story of collegiality, sweetness, sudden success, and the confusion that arises when that success doesn’t extend through an oeuvre. (The documentary, though not as incisive or comprehensive as the book, deploys home footage to show us just how chummy and amateurish the scene was, with members of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Interpol, and the Moldy Peaches regularly appearing at open mics at the antifolk club the SideWalk Cafe before they achieved fame, and Paul Banks of Interpol admitting he “desperately wanted to participate in the scene.”)
The central band in both the book and the movie is the Strokes. “A bunch of Holden Caulfields,” in their publicist’s memorable characterization, they furnish the book’s rock star high jinks and its most charmed origin story. Children of privilege with “cool fucking names”—Julian Casablancas, Albert Hammond Jr., and Nikolai Fraiture, along with Valensi and Moretti—and jaunts in Swiss boarding schools, they reunited in high school in New York and were obviously a gang of friends the way the Stooges or the Ramones were, but without the destructive rapey masculinity of the 1970s. (Though the lead singer, Casablancas, does get into a fight with one audience member for “giving me the eye” and shouts “Don’t fucking yawn” at another.)
Their tightly arranged and danceable rock, with its guitars apparently tuned to the frequency of New York power lines, was greeted with astonishment by rock critics and scenesters eager to forget the 1990s, when acts like Limp Bizkit and Kid Rock were ascendant and being into Brit-pop bands like Travis was, one critic admits, a bit like being “the stinky kid in the school playground with the big parka on who you didn’t want to speak to.” Critics praised the Strokes for sounding like a poppier version of the 1970s band Television, but it was Casablancas’s drunken, half-asleep drawl that made them sui generis. It helped that, on their 2001 multiplatinum debut album, Is This It, which kicked off the garage-rock frenzy, Casablancas’s voice was mixed to sound phoned-in from the past over modern-sounding guitars, as if the nostalgia were being implied in the production. Or, as the drummer of the Killers put it, “Why does this sound like it’s coming out of a rat’s asshole? It sounds like headphone bleed, but it sounds great.” Is This It was to be such an epochal record that it led to the signing of a number of similar bands, the Killers included.
Casablancas, the doe-eyed son of the founder of Elite Model Management, was also a gifted songwriter and lyricist—not because his lyrics stand as poetry but because they have the flavor of slightly sleazy, overheard New York bar talk: “Life seems unreal, can we go back to your place?”; “We could go and get forties”; “Why won’t you wear your new trenchcoat?” Those of us who are writers know how difficult it is to recognize your material, to find a vessel that expresses the minutiae of contemporary life. Casablancas seems to have understood that he could make any party he was at the center of the story.
This characteristic ran so deep in Casablancas that he talked to his producer in similar terms. “I need the hi-hat to sound like the rich guy who hangs out at the party and doesn’t talk to girls, waits for them to come and talk to him,” he says at one point. The Strokes were, in other words, exactly who they appeared to be: rich, handsome, louche, talented wastrels who wanted to be rock stars and dressed the part, in skinny jeans and vintage jackets. Or as one indie record company manager put it, astutely placing them in the context of 1990s pop, “In a weird way they were like a boy band.”
The only other group to achieve such aesthetic unity was Interpol. Its members dressed in natty black suits and projected a sense of being nocturnal animals, though the book reveals the usual infighting, centering around the eccentric and abrasive bassist Carlos D, whose getups came to resemble, according to one Jewish taste-making blogger, “Hitler Youth.” (“Which…was my, like, jungle fever,” she added.) Still, Interpol never rose to the hype heights of the Strokes or sold as many records. In fact, it is touching to see, in the book and documentary, how Interpol—especially their older drummer, who had been in a series of failed bands—were slogging away in relative anonymity for four years before the Strokes opened the door for them.
But the band that really went through the door wasn’t a New York band at all. It was the White Stripes, a group that had released several albums and was ready to enjoy its fame when it arrived. In the book the Stripes’ singer and guitarist Jack White is presented as a surprising buddy to Casablancas—with the latter sleeping in White’s childhood bedroom at one point—as well as a New York skeptic (he grew up in Detroit) who knew how to wear the mantle of rock star, punching out the lead singer of the Von Bondies and dating Renée Zellweger.
Some of the book’s most moving moments come from the Strokes’ confusion about why they didn’t go further after the success of their first album. Valensi, the lead guitarist, remembers: “We had conversations that went along the lines of ‘Gosh, I think our songs are better than “Mr. Brightside” by the Killers but how come that’s the one everyone is listening to?’” He concedes, though, that “being the leader of the herd, you’re probably going to die.” Casablancas is shown to be a perfectionist and heavy drinker who hates touring because it keeps him from writing, and who refuses to “play the game to get further” (much like Richard Hell, a self-sabotaging downtown figure of the 1970s). Hammond, the Strokes’ other lead guitarist, gets hooked on heroin, allegedly aided by the alt-country star Ryan Adams, who prances through the book like a demented, self-obsessed bohemian merry prankster.
Do the Strokes think of themselves as failures? In some ways they are. They never wrote an album as good or successful as Is This It; Interpol didn’t better its first album either. Of the initial crop of garage-rock bands, only the Yeah Yeah Yeahs came close to recapturing the jagged vitality of their debut, Fever to Tell (2003), with their third album, It’s Blitz! (2009), a conscious reinvention via punchy walls of synthesizers.
Looking back, it is easy to see the 2000s indie rock boom as a brief efflorescence, a reaction to the emo-slacker Gen X ethos of 1990s indie, a back-to-roots movement of a piece with—in a wildly different but simultaneous domain—Salafism. People started dressing in what would soon become the uniforms of international hipsterdom; there was an emphasis on putting on a show and on making rock dirty and subversive again. Should it come as a surprise that this movement prospered when New York itself was becoming a safe playground for white people under Giuliani? The longing for danger expressed itself through music, but neither the music nor the personas were dangerous; most band members, like those in Interpol and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, had gone to college, and good colleges at that.
There is nothing wrong with a lack of danger; a brief survey of Please Kill Me reveals a disturbing amount of collateral damage in the form of rape, addiction, and physical abuse. The bands from the 2000s were comparatively genteel. When Hammond became addicted to heroin, the Strokes staged an intervention.
Nevertheless, the lack of danger meant that the lie of gritty New York was hard to keep up. After Giuliani gave way to twelve years of Bloomberg, the new face of indie rock became the squeaky-clean, uber-talented, multicultural pop-rock band Vampire Weekend. Meanwhile, indie rock snobbery itself was dealt a death blow by the Internet, which made all music available to everyone all the time (including to a latecoming fan from India). When James Murphy sing-talks, defensively and hilariously, on LCD Soundsystem’s “Losing My Edge,” that “I heard you have a compilation of every good song ever done by anybody” and “I’m losing my edge to the kids from France and from London,” he’s being quite literal about his superannuation as an obsessive record collector. Or as Nic Offer of the band !!! put it, “The sound of New York became: everything. You’re mixing your whole iPod together, and that’s what your band sounds like.” It was this postgenre world that Vampire Weekend came to dominate.
What impact did the garage bands of the early 2000s have on popular music? This is harder to answer. They provided a template for stripped-down, fast songs. But more than that, they became useful conduits to the 1970s and 1980s, introducing fans like me to Television, Richard Hell, the Ramones, the Buzzcocks, and Blondie. The 2000s explosion was simply an advertisement for an earlier decade, when the scene was bigger and the bands were, too—a moment of rock’s centrality to the culture.
Today the members of the Strokes and Interpol are in their forties. The Strokes have aged into long-term relationships; Interpol soldiers on, its members expressing a depressing gratitude in the face of diminishing returns. There is a sense of the culture having left them behind. Yet as these bands become historical artifacts, fossilized two decades ago, the chances of a revival increase. They may yet be raised to the mythical status they always aspired to.