Now that The Strokes are coming out with a new album in April and have released a catchy new single and video (embedded at the bottom of this post), it made me reflect back on the strange anger that was directed towards this band in the early 2000s.
I was still working in the music industry when I first heard of their album Is This It from two of our upper management guys. Our office was fairly egalitarian, so we would often go out to dimsum lunch as a group, from the interns to the big bosses. During one of these meals in around mid-2001, these two guys started laughing about a band called The Strokes, whose album was going to be distributed by one of our rival labels. “They’re so shit!” they kept saying. “No one wants to listen to this!”
I was intrigued by their vitriol because by then, I knew that they wouldn’t spend time mocking an album unless they saw it as a threat. When Is This It finally came out, I couldn’t even get a free copy from BMG because so many people wanted one, and I had to buy the album myself at HMV. I thought it was pretty good, but I was so overwhelmed with music for work, I didn’t get a chance to listen to it more than a few times.
Throughout the rest of the year, I was constantly surprised at the amount of vitriol I would read or hear about The Strokes. People hated them so much, they were sputtering out nonsensical things like “THEY WEAR WHITE BELTS!” The band’s family backgrounds and good looks were constantly brought up, as if no rockstar had ever had a privileged upbringing or had ever been conventionally good looking before. It was a weird situation, as if everyone was obsessed with them but no one wanted to admit that they had either listened to the album or knew of the band. And at the same time, people expected them to somehow revolutionize music, and rejoiced when it didn’t happen.
Many years later, in 2010 or so, I rediscovered Is This It, and I realized just how enjoyable it is, and it made me start wondering why The Strokes had so many haters. Rock bands get hate all the time, people are jealous or just dislike them for whatever reason, but it seemed to me that all the anger directed at The Strokes was unusually spiteful. It also puzzled me that bands like Arcade Fire, with equally privileged roots and a Rachel Dolezal member to boot, got a pass by the same people who hate The Strokes.
It got me curious so I started digging a little more into the marketing and the album release of Is This It. Before I start, I want to first say that I like The Strokes, and I enjoy Julian Casablancas’ work with The Voidz. And I’ve had first-hand experience with the conflict between artists and the label when it comes to marketing so I’ll try to be objective here. People in marketing can have terrible ideas, and they can also leave the band fending for itself, which I think may be what happened to The Strokes.
The marketing strategy was pretty straightforward: test the band overseas (usually Europe), get them used to performing to a different crowd, and hopefully build up some good buzz that you could leverage into success back in the US. Pre-social media, this was a standard marketing strategy for American bands. You may be interested to find out that this never worked in reverse: it was always difficult for European or Asian artists to break into the US without having success at home first.
The Strokes were hugely successful in the UK, creating the kind of frenzy that every label hopes for. But in this case, there was a huge backlash against them when they returned to the US, with people attributing their success to advertising money. I find this pretty hypocritical because every successful band has had advertising money poured into them but no one seems to say anything about, say, Rage Against the Machine. I honestly believe that The Strokes’ success in the UK was genuine; they had the right look and sound for the market at the time.
Unfortunately, the paid hype accusation managed to stick because of how The Strokes were portrayed in the media: rich Manhattan brats with finishing school backgrounds and suspect European roots. It was often implied that their rich parents bought them their music careers in the first place, that they were actually just models posing as musicians, and so on.
They were seen as the representatives of the distastefully rich side of Manhattan, and yet, the same backlash didn’t occur with another New York band, Interpol, who have equally privileged backgrounds. The key difference was that Interpol members were like people you met at your internship–Paul Banks alone has a similar resume to Doretta–or shared classes with at university. The Strokes, on the other hand, triggered the fear that there was an exclusive club of sneering, louche rich kids who spent their time on yachts constantly surrounded by beautiful women that no sad journalist could ever hope to achieve.
In hindsight, looking at the footage of interviews with them, The Strokes–especially Casablancas–were too shy and awkward to counter this narrative, and that shyness got interpreted as arrogance and diffidence. In one of the articles I read, the writer raved about how The Strokes play as if they don’t want to be onstage and how cool that disinterest was. But when I watched the show in question, the band doesn’t look like they don’t care to me. They look like they care so much that they’re scared to fuck up and that petrifies them.
While it’s not entirely possible for a label to predict a backlash, I do think the label fucked up by implementing a standard marketing strategy without considering the impact the band’s background might have. In 2000 and 2001, people were still cynical about the commercialization of grunge and alternative music, and while you can barely have too much hype nowadays in a post-social media world, back then, it would have been considered extremely suspicious. I do wonder what would have happened if the label had chosen to give the band a year of just touring small venues across the US before heading to Europe and releasing Is This It in 2002 instead. This would have helped build up the “pay your dues” narrative that people love from musicians and allowed hometown hype to grow before hitting Europe.
That would have also circumvented the fact that the band had only been gigging for around three or four years before being signed. While this isn’t very unusual (see Linkin Park and My Chemical Romance), it made them seem like dilettantes who had to be taught to play their instruments. Again, I should stop to point out the hypocrisy here because the Sex Pistols were formed like a boy band and had to be taught to play themselves.
Timing was also a crucial factor in the hate against The Strokes. The US album release was delayed because of the September 11 attacks in New York City, which allowed the backlash to grow, fed by the negative emotions that swarmed through the US. The label could have used that delay as a chance to mitigate the backlash by having the band perform a series of charity shows, especially since they’re New Yorkers. On top of this, the label could have counteracted the “privileged kid” narrative by focusing on the fact that the band members were children of immigrants, which is a really legitimate New Yorker identity. But you’d have to get the band on board, and I imagine that emotions were probably running high at the time.
All in all, with their success and despite their difficulties, I doubt that The Strokes need any pity from anyone. They’ve all individually and as a band done pretty well, seem well-adjusted and happy nowadays, and they’ve worked with great directors like Warren Fu. Hopefully the new album will give people a chance to reassess their career.
If you like this case study, you may also like my first one that dissects the strategies that Jackson Wang used to make his debut album a hit!