The emperor's new leather jacket
The Strokes and the garage-rock revolution that never came
What if you had a revolution and nobody showed up?
Rock writers are going to have to start asking themselves that question about the still-nascent garage-rock revolution that's been hyped to the gills but is so far failing to make much of an impact at the sales counter.
The hype began with the Strokes, and it began overseas. The ever-excitable British music weekly NME began branding the New York City five-piece rock 'n' roll saviors before they'd even released their first single. The American press quickly followed suit, heralding the band's admittedly impressive debut, Is This It, as a welcome return of the raw rock forwarded by bands like the Stooges, Television and the Velvet Underground.
Next came the White Stripes. Although the duo's third album, White Blood Cells, initially arrived with slightly more muted fanfare, the Detroit duo's bluesy, primitive-sounding garage rock was soon earning raves to rival the Strokes'. The subsequent emergence of the Hives, a Swedish band that replicates the Stooges' rough-and-tumble rock with frightening exactitude, and the Vines, whose connection to garage-rock is more a marketing one than a musical one, led Rolling Stone, Spin, Blender, the New York Times and countless other publications to begin connecting the dots and trumpeting about a sweeping garage-rock revolution. It's gotten to the point now where Strokes' frontman Julian Casablancas can't blow his nose without reading about it in the front of some rock mag. Ditto for the Hives' Pelle Almqvist, the Vines' Craig Nicholls or either of the White Stripes.
The only real problem with this loudly proclaimed revolution is that it doesn't exist. At least not in the traditional sense of the term. If revolutions are defined by the sudden and rapid spread of fresh ideals, this garage-rock campaign is the biggest non-starter since Walter Mondale's 1984 presidential bid. Ignoring the arguable point of whether or not these bands represent a "fresh" ideal, in strict sales terms the neo-garage gospel has hardly been accepted at a rate that anyone would call rapid.
According to Soundscan, the company that tracks record sales, the Strokes' album is the biggest seller of the bunch. As of October, more than 710,000 folks had plunked down their money for Is This It, which came out a year earlier. The White Stripes' White Blood Cells had sold 440,000 copies since its release in September 2001. Sales of the Hives' and the Vines' current records were at 295,000 and 380,000, respectively — big numbers for garage rock, which is typically the territory of independent labels.
By comparison, Satellite, the recent release from Christian-leaning rap-rockers P.O.D., had sold nearly a million more units than all four of the above outfits combined. Fellow righteous rockers Creed had sold more than twice as many as P.O.D., and the last album from Christian alt- rockers Lifehouse went double platinum. Where, then, is all the hype for the God-rock revolution?
The fact that garage-rock's press adulation hasn't been followed by massive sales is hardly worth noting in and of itself. Music writers have a long, proud history of shouting at the wind — touting the obscure as "the next big thing," then quietly changing the subject three months later when their chosen favorites are met with waves of indifference by the public at large.
All this hype mongering actually seems borne of noble intentions, though. After all, isn't it better to have the music press leading readers toward music they're passionate about, rather than simply glomming onto whatever's popular? Isn't it natural for writers to want to cover music they like, rather than music they hate? And recent half-hearted, apologetic praises notwithstanding, music writers have mostly hated the kind of mook-rock and teen-pop that's ruled the charts for the past few years, if for no other reason than that it's not geared toward them. Sure, after three years of having to write about this stuff, they've come to appreciate that Disturbed may be slightly better than Linkin Park, who are slightly better than Insane Clown Posse. But these lauds have read like mere concessions to the millions of folks who were buying these records.
Still, noble intentions or not, there's something unseemly about "reporting" on a revolution that doesn't exist. There's something dishonest about declaring "Rock Is Back!" (as Rolling Stone did on the cover of its Sept. 19 issue, which featured the Vines) when there's scant evidence to support such a claim. This isn't to say there's an outright conspiracy going on here — rather a series of practical, personal choices by editors and writers that has grown into something larger.
What's surprising is not just that the print media has held their ground and sustained their efforts even as consumers stay away in droves, but also that radio and MTV, who traditionally ignore the shouts of critics, have fallen in line with the garage-rock propaganda. All four of these bands have gotten considerable airplay on modern-rock radio and MTV, outlets that have generally had far more impact on sales than the print media. So maybe it's just a matter of time before the Strokes and the Hives start moving serious units.
Don't hold your breath. Why? Well, for starters, none of these outfits have made real inroads into the country's heartland. Compare, for example, who's buying the Strokes album versus the aforementioned P.O.D. album. The records were released within three weeks of each other last year, and in city stores, P.O.D. has sold only 100,000 more albums that the Strokes'. But while the Strokes have sold only 155,000 records to rural America, P.O.D. has sold nearly 10 times that. Similarly, bands like Puddle of Mudd and Creed sell nearly half their records to rural consumers, while the White Stripes and the Strokes struggle to sell 20 percent outside of metropolitan areas.
Could this be a case of the country mouse not trusting what the city mouse is sending his way? Perhaps. For all the talk of how raw these neo-garage outfits are, there's something undeniably artsy and fashion-conscious about them, a fact that may make them less palatable to rural meat-and-potatoes consumers. Whereas the hipster stance of these garage-rockers plays to fellow media-savvy city-dwellers like a confirmation of their good taste and general coolness, in the sticks that same stance is regarded more as smarmy superiority, pointing up how un-cool those not "in the know" are.
There's also a rabid strain of anti- intellectualism that thrives outside city centers (for proof, you need look no further than the geographic support bases for the leading proponent of anti-intellectualism, George W. Bush), which may on some level affect the way bands championed by "smarty-pants" writers are received. Furthermore, bands like the Strokes and the Hives also tend to court rock stardom with an ironic wink — as if they're letting their audience know they're aware of the whole jag's silliness. Anyone who's ever spent much time in a small town knows that irony simply doesn't play there. It's also worth keeping in mind that regardless of technological advances, this is still a big country. It takes a while for trends to seep out of hipster centers (mostly cities and college campuses) to the rest of the country.
Interestingly, much of the older music that has so clearly influenced the Strokes, the White Stripes and the Hives is distinguished by the fact that it wasn't very popular the first time around, either. Bands like Television, the Stooges, the MC5 and the Velvet Underground were famous for being favorites of critics, artists and other musicians, but were largely ignored beyond that. Which also helps explain why bands like the Strokes have struggled to have much impact in rural areas. Their overt references to the Velvet Underground stir few pangs of nostalgia in your average Creed fan.
But until those Creed fans start shelling out for albums by the Strokes and the White Stripes, the supposed garage-rock revolution will remain a revolution in name only.