Ten Years Of The Strokes And The White Stripes, And The Question Of What’s Next

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The Strokes premiered the video for “Taken For a Fool,” the second single from Angles, earlier today, and unlike the conceptual first video “Under Cover of Darkness,” which symbolically narrates the band’s reunion after their extended hiatus, the video is a relatively simple band-performance clip, with a rhythmically animated background setting.

Nearly a decade ago, another simple-looking (though extraordinary labor-intensive) animated rock video made lots of waves on its way to winning Breakthrough Video of the Year at the 2002 VMAs: The White Stripes‘ LEGO-block “Fell in Love with a Girl.” Sunday marked the tenth anniversary of that single’s album, White Blood Cells, and while we’ve been exploring the story of Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt for its (fifteenth) anniversary (Part I/Part II), Eric Been marks the White Blood Cells decade for The Atlantic by re-examining the “Return of Rock” narrative that accompanied the rise of bands like the Stripes and the Strokes.

What’s most interesting about Been’s look back at the rock trendpieces that proliferated at the turn of the last decade is his identification of their origin in the English press. British writers often have a very different perspective on American pop music than their American counterparts, since the American and British scenes are quantifiably different. (The contrasts are, to an extent, explored in Empire of Dirt, Wendy Fonarow‘s anthropology of UK “indie”—scarequotes required.) This has been true at least since the British invasion, and perhaps reached its peak of contrast in the era of punk, the history of which was largely rewritten in British terms, leading to Kim Gordon‘s famous T-shirt slogan “GIRLS INVENTED PUNK ROCK NOT ENGLAND” and Jeffrey Lewis‘s “History of Punk on the Lower East Side,” which ends “then the whole thing moved over to England and England stole all the credit.” (Sound of the City, coincidentally, examined what punk “means” in 2011 earlier today.)

The other idea Been teases out a little, but doesn’t chart specifically, is the way in which the popularity of rock and its particular sub-genres ebbs and flows over time. He looks at claims in 1999 and 2011 that rock is dead: “These types of proclamations about the death of rock have been going on almost since the genre’s infancy.” Even without dismantling the faulty notion that rock itself is anything but a sub-genre of pop music, he’s right to call the bluff of the eulogizers. However, there is a sort of absent feeling that is prevailing in the culture of pop music lately. Compare with 1997, the year of downer #1 singles (except, it bears noting, Hanson‘s “MMM Bop” and the Spice Girls‘ “Wannabe”). In hindsight, American pop music in 1997 indicated a nation primed—almost actively waiting—for the teen-pop explosion that would follow (and of which the two exceptions listed were heralds).


The Spice Girls: the pop music America didn’t yet know it wanted

2011 feels like another such moment. We’re not sure it’s possible to predict (or even really guess) what is on the horizon, but we suspect that, looking back at this year in pop (as Eric Been does with 2001), we will regard the year as transitional. None of this is intended to claim that the music is any less good this year, or that there aren’t real pop innovations, but merely that nothing and no one (except Adele) has had any success capturing the zeitgeist. Even “Edge of Glory,” seemingly the most crowd-pleasing song from Lady Gaga‘s much-promoted and much-touted Born This Way, has stalled. Gaga’s Little Monsters are, it seems, merely the largest of the collection of subcultures that are currently substituting for anything monocultural, and regardless of one’s opinions on the value of a monoculture, pop as a cultural force is at its weakest in these times.

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