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Essay: New York Cares, A Micro-Genre Analysis

Updated: Jan 10

Imagine this: You’re sitting on a sticky bar stool drinking lukewarm beer. The club is packed from wall to wall, and you’re watching a band clad in jeans and blazers perform what would be the sound that would take New York by storm. The years 2000-2003 were a greatly formative time for music because of three legendary bands and their debut albums, plus it was also a fun time to be alive in the city if you enjoyed the sleaziness of an underground rock revolution. Many bands contributed to the garage rock revival, but the biggest participants were The Strokes, Interpol, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. These bands, all New York natives, something they had in common, each produced a completely unheard and unique sound that could immediately take anyone back to that specific time. These bands redefined an underground version of "cool" in an age where Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake were topping the pop charts, and appealed to groups from the Brooklyn art kids to fangirls to the most average music enjoyer. Although each band brought something new to the table, the same principles were applied throughout all aspects of their fame. The most important part was that the movement invited everyone to participate, giving people momentary freedom to be themselves and get lost in the recently discovered sound of New York.

Most music genres have a distinguishable style. Mainstream 2001 had leopard print, low rise jeans, bedazzled everything, and even genres like 70s rock had significant pieces that made it obvious what style of music the wearers were listening to. The post-grunge garage rock revival had converse, greasy hair, ties paired with t-shirts and jeans, or even better, an added blazer, beer stains, the "I don't care" look that you know took hard work to achieve, worn leather jackets, and denim on denim. This was distinguishable against the backdrop of bright pink and spiky hair that the mainstream had created in this time. The Strokes were the first to ignite this fire within New York, showing up to bars such as The Mercury Lounge in outfits that made them look like they hadn’t showered in two weeks. This was the most common style of New York rock 'n roller in the year 2001 among bands and fans alike. “Julian (The Strokes) had this idea that they should all dress up every day as if they had a gig that evening, even if they didn’t”, says Johnny Davis of The Face (Merret).

Left to right: Fabrizio Moretti, Albert Hammond Jr., Nick Valensi, Julian Casablancas, Nikolai Fraiture

Interpol had a different approach to the same concept. The band, especially during the era of their first album, was constantly seen in a color palette that consisted of black and white and sometimes red, often in the form of a suit, button down, & tie. “I was dressed like the devil that night (Halloween), although it’s probably more appropriate to say I was dressed like a member of the Hives/Faint/Refused/Interpol with horns because my outfit was basically a black suit, black shirt, and red tie. It was always suits and ties at that point,” says writer Gideon Yago (Goodman 1). This was not in the same way that The Strokes wore blazers and a casual tie, this was a fully formal outfit that they managed to turn into a beautiful, sleazy, work of art.

Left to right: Carlos Dengler, Sam Fogarino, Paul Banks, Daniel Kessler

Courtesy of Christian Joy, Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs was always wearing something absolutely insane yet unimaginably cool. Although her bandmates followed the template described above, she was never one to be put in a stylistic box, wearing dresses that looked more like a beautifully unappealing art project than real clothing. “We were both just kind of starting out and the ugliness just kind of happened. It definitely added to her performance because people would talk about Karen’s art project costumes, and that’s essentially what they were. I mean, the first stuff was just hideously ugly. She rocked it and really made it something, though,” Joy commented on how she styled Karen (Goodman 2). The purposeful style of these bands was how they became distinguishable, whether that be on the street or on the stage.

Karen O (bandmates not pictured: Nick Zinner and Brian Chase)

The biggest move being made, most importantly, was the style of music that was created. While the clothes, aesthetic, and lifestyle were important, without the sound, those things would've been insignificant. The Strokes were the first to drop a full length album that truly defined New York in 2001. The bands still all existed in the scene before any of their albums even dropped, performing in overcrowded bars for people who saw the potential in their music. A common theme in The Strokes' sound was the use of a happier sounding track, fun guitar solos or bass lines, kind of playful, but with extremely depressing or cryptic lyrics, alongside rigorous planning for each portion of a song. On working with the band on Is This It, producer Gordon Raphael says “It was actually really specific and meticulous in the composition, that's different from most bands that I record” (Faulkner). This became a standard for Interpol as well. They had a bit of a different approach to all this but was just as, if not more, involved in the New York scene. Their music consisted of seemingly easy going tracks with lyrics that were even more cryptic than The Strokes'. Paul Banks, lead vocalist and songwriter, was excellent with enigmatic lyrics and tunes that could send anyone into an existential crisis. He also has a much more haunting voice than Casablancas does, and that was part of the appeal. Their songs created space to feel certain emotions that are difficult to be stirred by music, but not impossible, such as emptiness or melancholy. “I had seven faces/Thought I knew which one to wear/I'm sick of spending these lonely nights/Training myself not to care.” An example from their track ‘Nyc’ (Banks). While I do think this was naturally a part of The Strokes and Interpol's art, I do also believe this was a deliberate move that drew people towards their music. New York is a city filled with so much life and culture, so I can see why many incredible songs were written about it. Each band brought a different perspective to how they saw the city, and that was reflected in their songwriting. I briefly mentioned the track above, but ‘Nyc’ by Interpol is one of the most beautiful love songs written as an ode to the city in a post 9/11 setting. “Pavements, they are a mess/I know you’ve supported me for a long time/Somehow, I’m not impressed/But New York cares”. 9/11 greatly impacted all of these artists and their music, especially since most were residing in Manhattan, and the music scene had to migrate to Brooklyn. The tragedy inspired a lot of music and united the city. That being said, before 9/11 happened, The Strokes wrote a song called ‘New York City Cops’ that had to be withheld from their initial album release in respect of the police forces and what they had done for the city. It begins, “Here in the streets so mechanized/Rise to the bottom of the meaning of life/Studied all the rules and didn't want no part” and goes on to say, “New York City Cops/They ain’t too smart”. It didn’t seem appropriate for them to release this considering what the city had just been put through, so they only released it in Europe. Even just from those lyrics you can see the difference in attitudes between the bands, although I do think The Strokes’ song was meant to be more for laughs and to subtly build their image of being opposed to power. In contradiction to those songs, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs dropped a song titled ‘Yeah! New York’ that focused less on the lyrics, and more on the spirit and excitement of the city. Not sure of the deep philosophical meaning of “Yeah, New York/Yeah, Manhattan/Yeah, New York/Yeah, Big Apple/Come on, come on/Red hair, pink eyes, aw/Goodbye”, but the vibes are great! All three tracks reflect a connection to the city, whether positive or negative. The impact of all of these bands was great, but you may not realize how much it really has changed the music we listen to now. The ‘big three’ as I call them, The Strokes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and Interpol, were the groups that established a sound that future artists took and made their own, eventually landing in what we recognize today as ‘indie rock’. Bands such as the Killers, MGMT, Vampire Weekend, and dozens of others created a new version of the style of rock that the original bands had formulated. It’s a backwards process, because even though they were not the ones to open the floodgates to a new subgenre, The Killers topped charts with “Mr. Brightside” for five years on the UK charts (I repeat, five years)(Copsey), and The Strokes did not. So although these bands don’t didn’t get any #1 chart toppers and are often overlooked for what they began, they have proven to be the backbone of a micro-genre turned into a subgenre turned into one of the most common styles of music being created to this day. To quote Adam Brody’s character in Jennifer’s Body, “Do you know how hard it is to make it as an indie band these days? There are so many of us, and we're all so cute and it's like if you don't get on Letterman or some soundtrack, you're screwed, okay?” (Brody). He’s got a point!

That being said, these artists unknowingly created a tidal wave of fresh noise coming from a city that was already known for its diversity in people, art, and music. As with many formative moments, you often don’t realize you’re living through something until it’s been lived through. They weren’t interested in making music that would please the masses, they made songs that were authentic to themselves and their experiences in life and in the city. Each band brought their own unique perspective and style into a scene that died as quickly as it began, but still continued to influence generations of artists going forward.


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