Magazine article The New Yorker

Rock Solid

Magazine article The New Yorker

Rock Solid

Article excerpt

Will pop--Britney, J. Lo, 'N Sync, and the rest--kill rock? Whenever rock music has been threatened in the past (by disco, by New Kids on the Block), it has rebounded (with punk, with grunge). Sometimes it has wobbled, sometimes it has teetered, but it has never completely fallen down. As Neil Young put it, "Hey, hey, my, my, rock and roll will never die."

But upon closer inspection Young's Theorem breaks down. True, the best-selling act of 2001 was the alternative-metal outfit Linkin Park, and similar groups like Creed, P.O.D., and Puddle of Mudd have also sold in the millions. But these bands aren't exactly playing rock and roll. Though the dictionary might not make the distinction, rock and roll is a subset of rock distinguished by an extra ingredient: an upjut of energy, a defiant attitude, a backbeat. Jerry Lee Lewis was rock and roll. Gene Pitney wasn't. The Pretenders were rock and roll. The Bee Gees weren't. Elvis Costello was rock and roll for a while, and then he wasn't. By this standard, the moody crooning of Creed and friends doesn't qualify; nor does the self-effacing arena rock of the Dave Matthews Band. But there does seem to be a new crop of bands that favor short, spiky songs galvanized by angst and anger. If these bands--the White Stripes and the Strokes are the best known, and among the best--aren't exactly new, they're a return to something older and more distinctive: to the spirit of punk and, before that, of the British Invasion.

The White Stripes, the pride of Detroit, consist of Jack White and Meg White. He's the principal songwriter, she drums; it's an arrangement that brings to mind the Carpenters, but this is a different kind of timbre altogether. On their first two albums, the White Stripes placed Jack's originals alongside covers of compositions by Son House ("Death Letter"), Robert Johnson ("Stop Breakin' Down"), and Bob Dylan ("One More Cup of Coffee"). The song selection suggests a band with its roots in country blues, and, to some degree, that's the case, although the White Stripes play the blues the way bands like the Kinks and the Who played rhythm and blues: loud and fast and out of control, with yowling dragged-cat vocals and the ever-present possibility of total derailment. After the release of their third, and strongest, album, "White Blood Cells," the pair went about conquering the worldwide press, not just with their music but with a canny media prank in which Jack and Meg, who used to be married to each other, pretended to be brother and sister. Though the White Stripes are an aggressively eclectic band, both musically and lyrically ("The Union Forever," one of the highlights of "White Blood Cells," is cobbled together entirely from dialogue drawn from "Citizen Kane"), the strongest case for their importance rests on their simplest songs. "Fell in Love with a Girl," the first single from "White Blood Cells," is a mad rush of a love song with nah-nah-nah backup vocals that sound as though they were piped in directly from the nineteen-sixties. In less than two minutes--it's that short--it distills thirty-five years of garage rock and leaves you wanting more.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are the Strokes, a privileged New York fivesome; the lead singer is Julian Casablancas, the scion of the Casablancas modelling empire, and the seed of the band was planted at Manhattan's Dwight School. If the White Stripes are sixties idealists, right down to their Dylan fixation and their adoration for grizzled old bluesmen, the Strokes are seventies cynics, with a sound that begins in the debauched, jaded fin-de-hippie rock of the Velvet Underground. Despite receiving an immense amount of attention in the British music press, the band has managed to retain its air of downtown cool--to suggest, in short, that it can't be bothered with stardom. The result is a certain smug humorlessness, but the Strokes, to their credit, generally make good on their affectation: "Last Nite," the lead single from their debut album, "Is This It," is a muzzy ode to urban night life filled with such a mixture of longing and bravado that it almost makes you forget that the band has simply retrofit new lyrics onto the central riff of Tom Petty's "American Girl. …

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