By Gabrielle Marceau
In the video for Juicebox, the first single off their 2006 record First Impressions of Earth, the Strokes cast themselves as a group of artists unappreciated and ignored by a perverted, porn hungry world. The band is playing in a radio studio while outside a woman suggestively scrubs the floor with champagne in front of her dog, a boy in cowboy boots goes down in the bathroom, a stranger tumbles from a cab to vomit while being watched by an actress shooting girl on girl on the rooftop. “Why won’t she come over here, we’ve got a city to love?” Julian Cassablancas yells into the microphone. But Julian, I thought, why don't you go out? He’s too busy singing to get up, get out, and get some.
Come here/ please leave is the lyrical mode of the Strokes, their low key drums and fuzzy riffs spoke to guys who were pissed off and lonely but couldn’t really care anyway. Or perhaps more accurately, it spoke to the girls who wanted to be boys like that. They were a millennial band who seemed deeply ambivalent about the millennium, and so burrowed into a retrofied drunk boredom. There was still something aggressive about The Strokes; they weren't wounded emo boys, they were privileged city kids who wanted to party but would probably be mean to you and then go home and write about how shallow and cold the scene is.
Of course The Strokes haven't really been able to recapture the excitement and success of their first record, Is This It?. They haven't quite been able to move onto something different, and their latest single Threat of Joy, off the EP, Future Present Past, sounds a lot like the sunny and vague malaise of early songs like When it Started: "Won't decide, but he won't debate/ Said, "thanks my friend, thought that we was dead"/ Oh why, oh why/ I don't know". Julian always seemed to me like a the narrator from a post-modern novel; he's looking around at a chaotic cityscape which is vulgar, commercial, fractured, and undecipherable, and isn't sure how or even if he feels about it.
The video for Threat of Joy is funny, sleek and laid back despite its convoluted thriller plot line. It opens with the first riff of the song Oblivious - a much denser and more aggressive track from the EP - over a scene where a group of secret service types are stealing the magazine off of a 35mm camera and kidnapping the director (Warren Fu). This opening is a nod to the real video for Oblivious which was never released because, according to Cassablancas: "... we had all this kind of super heavy political content and then it kind of through different indirect corridors got shut down". The video for Threat of Joy is played out as the cheerful, crowd appeasing coverup for the nefarious censorship.
The video is a nod to 1970s thrillers and exploitation films which are both paranoid and cool: Network, Three days of the Condor, and Shaft. There are armed men stationed around the studio lot, and in lieu of a neon EXIT sign is the phrase "There's no escape". But what there is is a roller rink, a ballroom, a tropical vista, beautiful people, and your favourite band is playing. The entire political intrigue - from the situation room where men in suits and pig masks plan schemes, to the newspaper office where the band members are investigating (I'm think, it's not exactly clear), to a mysterious brunette vigilante who tries to seduce the footage away from the bad guys - is staged in a television studio. The nefarious scheme and the resistance intrigue is just another pantomime: everyone is play acting, every room is a set, the film canister is empty, the secret file contains blank paper. It seems there's no escaping from artifice. Thankfully, the video's tepid political commentary doesn't stop it from being fun.
The band looks mostly stoic about their oppressive situation, and the lyrics reflect this passivity: "I'm gonna take what comes my way/ I'll take what they give me". Lyrically, the Strokes were always at odds with happiness, because it might mean settling for a boring life, buying into the bullshit and growing up. In Threat of Joy, Cassablancas seems to be adjusting to maturity, reassuring his wife that although he's waiting for someone with his money, rolling dice, and getting into trouble, he's decided on her: "be right there, honey!". And although the band looks like they haven't left the studio or aged at all in the past ten years, they still seem bored, unwashed, but he edges have softened and the aggression is gone. There are even a few smiles.
I spotted Julian in the video for Blood Orange's song Augustine, and I had to do a double take. The grain was familiar, celluloid and candid; the colours were familiar too, washed out, probably unwashed t-shirts, novelty jackets, jeans. But the heart couldn't be more different. Dev Hynes is a new millennial; chill but engaged, gentle, genuine, an hopeful. Dev's like a lot of young artists I know, if they get successful they aren't jaded but grateful and would probably still be down to make a video for your t-shirt line or collaborate on an outdoor mural. I don’t mean to sound condescending, I have heard those kinds conversations and I think they are wonderful. But I can’t help smirk at the sincerity of Hynes and his friend's awkward contemporary dancing, and the unabashedly cheesy rooftop sunset shots, and faded celluloid aesthetic. There’s also the chorus from But You, another recent Blood Orange track which coos, “You are special in your own way.” and made me involuntarily roll my eyes. Maybe listening to The Strokes as a teen (and Radiohead, and Tarantino, and Plath, and Sartre) has made me stubbornly suspicious of sentiment.
But Hyne's latest record, Freetown Sound is such a spectacularly generous, textured, and hopeful project it hardly matters if it’s just not that cool. To The Strokes in 2001 coolness mattered immensely, it was the thing of them, the thing they embraced, grated against, wrote about and played around. Their records are about irony, distance, dissatisfaction, and elitism. The music sounded like it was performed through a telephone, far away. And it’s funny how warm it used to make me feel, at 14, stoned in a friend's basement. Hyne's music is about community, self acceptance, struggle, race, difference and togetherness. More importantly, Hynes is capitol G-genuine. He takes a gentle and nuanced approach to race, sexuality, gender, magic hour, fashion, dance, sex, etc.. whatever he takes on, he takes seriously. Even his most blistering and critical tracks (Do You See my Skin Through the Flames?, Sandra's Smile) stretch to find beauty, focus, and lightness. Augustine laments the ungraspable pain of the loss of black lives, but finds comfort in connection "Late I have loved and chose to see/ skin on his skin/ a warmth that I can feel with him." Joy may be a threat to some band's fun, but in Augustine, Joy is sought out, hard won, and precious.