The Strokes' Julian Casablancas and Nikolai Fraiture at the KROQ Weenie Roast, 2002.
Jeff Kravitz / Getty Images

After 9/11, We Wanted the Old NYC. Instead We Got The Strokes.

How a group of greasy-haired rich kids ushered in a renaissance for the New York rock scene by LARPing its iconic past.
September 10, 2021, 4:34pm

In their first piece of major music press, the Strokes got into a fistfight. The June 2001 NME cover story, titled “Why New York's Finest Will Change Your Life - Forever!,” opened with the band members tangling with “three kids in hoods, obviously wired up on something.” Turning to an awed reporter, frontman Julian Casablancas smiled and said, “Welcome to New York.” 

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The writer, visiting from the UK, was only too happy to take the bait. “The Strokes are so New York it hurts,” they wrote. “They look New York (skinny ties, black leather, subway tans, that classic late-70s punk look in full), they sound New York (The Velvet Underground, Talking Heads, Television), and they sure as hell act New York.”`

At the time, looking, sounding, and acting New York were not necessarily considered key attributes for future mainstream rock stars. If anything, it ought to have been marginalizing: Though New York was home to vibrant hip-hop, house, and experimental music scenes in the 90s, its rock scene was largely incoherent and nationally insignificant. The Strokes, with their commitment to idealizing a gritty past the city was working overtime to shed, seemed poised to become, at best, another local cult act, like Cibo Matto, Blonde Redhead, and King Missile before them. 

But 9/11 changed everything about New York City, including the fortunes of The Strokes. Suddenly, being “so New York it hurts” no longer only had niche appeal. Supporting the city became a national patriotic pastime at the precise moment when the collective trauma of 9/11 sent many in search of the soothing power of nostalgia. In an era otherwise dominated by California nu-metal and pop-punk, suddenly four greasy-haired New Yorkers (plus one Angeleno) in tight jeans and leather jackets were one of the biggest rock bands in the world, ushering a new renaissance for the city’s scene by LARPing its iconic past. 

Back in the 90s, the chances of New York City producing a new compelling rock scene—or any new major arts scene—seemed pretty bleak. The city’s image was being given a Mommy Dearest-like scrubbing by then-mayor Rudy Giuliani, who took credit for running the peep shows out of Times Square and enacted a “broken windows'' policy of crime-fighting that placed an emphasis on misdemeanor arrests (a theory which led to the advent of racist “stop and frisk” searches, and has since been completely debunked). 

Smaller clubs and parties, especially those catering to audiences who weren’t predominantly straight and white, were increasingly being targeted and shuttered, thanks to revitalized enforcement of ridiculous prohibition-era cabaret laws. Bottle service was introduced in the city in 1993, placing an increased emphasis on wealth and decadence within the city’s nightclubs, at the expense of diversity and dancefloor catharsis. Even Hollywood got in on the act: TV shows like Seinfeld, Friends, and Sex and the City engaged in a psychological gentrification of their own, rebranding the (still very crime-ridden) city as a risk-free paradise for upwardly-mobile lotus eaters.

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As LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy famously recalled, “Nobody was thinking New York was going to be the next Seattle.” This is a patently rockist perspective, of course: Several genres were flourishing in the city despite the odds. New York hip-hop was in the midst of a golden era, with commercial successes from Jay-Z, Nas, and Wu-Tang Clan alongside underground masterpieces by Digable Planets and Black Star. Artists like Matthew Shipp and DJ Spooky were exploring the outer reaches of experimental music at clubs like the Knitting Factory and the Cooler, while house DJs like Junior Vasquez and Timmy Regisford were drawing large crowds to Sound Factory and Club Shelter. And a growing community of singer-songwriters, led by the mononymous Lach, were deconstructing folk music tropes at Sidewalk Cafe. If you were an adventurous listener in search of adventurous music, there was no shortage—but when it came to rock, the scene could feel like one big, limp comedown from the glory days of the 70s and 80s.

By the time The Strokes started playing around the city in 1999, a small handful of rock bands had already started to mine nostalgia for the CBGB era—including Jonathan Fire*eater, D Generation, Toilet Boys, and Luna, to name four drastically different takes. But The Strokes’ overt hero worship was far more pronounced. From their Ramones-lite wardrobe to Casablancas’ studied mimicry of Lou Reed’s vocal tics (he was later brought in to dub vocals for an actor playing Reed on HBO’s Vinyl), The Strokes embodied an iconic type of sleazy Lower East Side street tough—though, in retrospect, the most quintessentially “New Yawk'' thing about them was arguably that their rich parents were at least partially footing the bill

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Nonetheless, when The Strokes released their debut EP, Modern Age, in early 2001, local hype turned into salivating press coverage, where they garnered favorable comparisons to pretty much every cool NYC band of yore, from The Velvet Underground to Richard Hell to Talking Heads to Blondie. Still, most of the early praise was coming from England—back in the States, where the band’s innate New York-ness was considerably less exotic, their future seemed shakier. In the words of guitarist Nick Valensi, “I would've been happy with that Guided by Voices indie level of success.”

The songs of their debut album, Is This It, mostly stuck to the decadent, angsty template The Strokes had established on Modern Age, with odes to casual sex (“Barely Legal,” “Last Nite”) and prodigious substance abuse (“Soma”). The only track that seemed to remotely break from that theme—and channel the politically charged ethos of the groups The Strokes were imitating—was “New York City Cops.” Casablancas would later describe it as an “overtly political song” written in response to the 1999 murder of Amadou Diallo, the 23-year-old Guinean immigrant who sold videos and gloves on 14th Street and was shot 41 times by four plainclothes NYPD officers. (You’d never know that from the lyrics, though, which mostly concern a woman named Nina, who is doing something or another in a bedroom—presumably not protesting against police brutality.) 

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Perhaps to draw from their international appeal, Is This It was first released in Australia and Europe, in the summer of 2001, leading up to a U.S. CD release on September 25. The vinyl release hit stores a few weeks earlier, on September 11th.

After the attacks of 9/11, a perplexed music industry, fundamentally in the business of escapism, struggled to course correct. Several newly released albums with images or lyrics referencing violence or terrorism were pulled from shelves and reconfigured for a nation in mourning. Radio giant Clear Channel went so far as to suggest that stations refrain from playing 165 songs—including “What A Wonderful World,” “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” “Walk Like an Egyptian,” “Bennie and the Jets,” and “99 Luftballons”—for fear that they might traumatize unsuspecting listeners. 

Though “New York City Cops” was already available on the domestic vinyl release and international CDs, The Strokes and their label mutually agreed it was tonally inappropriate for the moment. The song was removed from the forthcoming CD release, which was delayed until October, and a lesser new song, “When It Started,” was recorded in a rush to take its place. In Casablancas’ eyes, “the political element got removed from the band’s narrative” as a result. 

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And so like Seinfeld and Friends before it, the revamped Is This It depicted a city that was ripe with sensual pleasures and devoid of any real danger or strife—a drastically different picture than the one painted by the New York punk classics that preceded it. None of which is to say the album isn’t a masterpiece: It’s widely and rightfully recognized as one of the best rock records of the decade, if not the best. But it also fit the cultural needs of New York City so perfectly in the moment that, looking back, it’s almost as if the songs had been secretly penned by the NYC Tourism Board.

A November 2001 Chamber of Commerce report estimated a gross loss of $83 billion for the city as a direct result of the 9/11 attack, with tourism and retail among the hardest hit. Polling data suggested that “some potential visitors feel the need for permission to enjoy themselves again in a place where tragedy has occurred…[so the city’s] marketing campaigns should take advantage of the fact that New York City continues to be perceived as an exciting and vibrant place, rather than appeal to the sympathy of potential visitors.” While city leadership under Giuliani had already been working overtime to rehabilitate New York’s formerly dangerous image, that campaign went into overdrive under his successor, Michael Bloomberg, who was elected in November 2001. 

Within a month of the attacks, the city launched a $40 million advertising blitz that included a re-imagining of the classic NYC tourism logo as “I Love New York Now More Than Ever” and a Broadway-themed commercial featuring Bernadette Peters leading other actors in a rendition of “New York, New York,” before Nathan Lane urged viewers to “Come to New York, and let’s go on with the show.” Said Lower Manhattan Development Corporation cofounder Matt Higgins, "It was important to send out a global call to come to New York as a patriotic act."

While the Strokes might have had good reason to believe that the “New York City Cops” fiasco would sink their commercial prospects domestically, the incident actually ended up accelerating their rise. By cutting the song, the band demonstrated the requisite deference to members of law enforcement who had lost their lives in the attack, while press coverage of the cut ended up having a sort of Streisand effect: Articles about the song’s removal placed them shoulder-to-shoulder with pop music heavies like Bush and Dave Matthews, all while accentuating the Strokes' lovably gritty persona, which now seemed inextricable from the city of New York itself.

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A cultural connection between the band and the events of 9/11 swiftly became canonical. In a live review from October 2002, the New York Times anointed the Strokes as a “voice of New York” and called Is This It a “post-9/11 soundtrack.” The review went so far as to compare the band’s increased professionalism onstage with “the way that all sorts of ‘brotherhoods’ in the city—and not just firemen—seem tighter now.” In a cultural moment defined by a move away from the diversity concerns of the 90s, criticisms of the band’s privileged upbringings were frequently brushed aside—as the Times claimed in the same review, “class got a little more complicated in New York after the Trade Center dead were tallied and described.” 

Once the powers that be realized the Strokes could be sold to a mainstream audience, they doubled down, pushing them for stardom with feature profiles in the New York Times and Rolling Stone and a January 2002 appearance on SNL—a serious red carpet roll-out for a band whose debut album peaked at #33 on the Billboard charts. When it popped up on mainstream rock radio, sandwiched between bro-rock hits, there was no ignoring that the Strokes’ anachronistic style could feel out of place—or that some perplexing choices were made in selling them to America at large, such as having the group tour with Jimmy Fallon, then riding high on the success of “Idiot Boyfriend,” as their support act. But it all worked the way it was meant to. Within five months of its domestic release, Is This It had sold over 500,000 copies.

With the door kicked open by the Strokes, other New York bands who would never have expected to receive international attention became the focus of it, often with a similarly classicist bent. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs were regularly compared to both the Patti Smith Group and Blondie, despite sounding nothing like either act. Interpol found themselves shoehorned into the punk nostalgia discourse despite mostly sounding like British goth bands from the 80s; frontman Paul Banks later recalled to Pitchfork, “It really wasn't until the Strokes broke that anybody started talking about the New York scene. There was some protection in the idea that there was this romantic moment happening among musicians, but that didn't really exist.” Still, Interpol went so far as to simply title one of their songs “NYC”—a move that was either incredibly self-aware or entirely the opposite. 

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Of course, leaning into nostalgia isn’t anything new for New York: One could argue that the first wave of CBGB bands, which flourished in the aftermath of Richard Nixon’s impeachment and throughout the fraught presidency of Republican Gerald Ford, was itself a retro movement, uniting an otherwise disparate group of bands in a shared nostalgia for late-50s and early-60s Brill Building pop and garage rock, as clearly evinced by their choice of cover songs. This time, however, the City's leadership embraced the nostalgia, too: When landlords were finally able to evict CBGB in 2006 after years of rent disputes, Mayor Bloomberg half-heartedly offered (and ultimately failed) to intervene, noting that the club “brings a lot of business here.” Owner Hilly Kristal seriously considered relocating the club to Las Vegas, where it would have fit comfortably alongside simulacra of the Eiffel Tower and the Giza Pyramids.

Eventually, America’s infatuation with New York began to fade. But the Strokes soldiered on: Rather than being viewed as a contemporary link to the city’s storied past, they became just another popular mainstream band that some people liked and some people didn’t. When they released subsequent albums, like 2003’s Room on Fire, critics didn’t analyze how they stacked up to classic punk records; they asked if they lived up to Is This It. (The answer was consistently no.) 

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And now that New York indie rock had become part of the conversation again, outside tastemakers began to turn their eye to the city’s more experimental bands, like TV on the Radio, Oneida, Animal Collective, Gang Gang Dance, and Dirty Projectors—bands that were usually from Brooklyn, then the traditionally unhip borough, and that had little whatsoever to do with the 1970s. The link between “New York Rock” and its Manhattan roots became severed, and new musicians were freed from downtown’s subcultural baggage.

By the mid-aughts, classic New York punk had been so thoroughly gutted of its meaning that CBGB and Ramones shirts were conspicuously worn in multiple mainstream rom coms without a shred of irony. The situation got so dire that this very website called for a moratorium on CBGB shirts nine years ago. (Sadly, that call seems to have been ignored). But such a progression is only natural: When we don’t reckon with how we’re using nostalgia, it can easily become misinterpreted and misappropriated. Ironically, given punk’s antiauthoritarian and liberal bent, the impulse for younger punk-inspired bands to mimic the sounds of their predecessors can be a conservative one—a stance all too easy for mainstream, corporate culture to exploit.

This isn’t to say that the Strokes are responsible for the way classic punk aesthetics have become a marketing tool for the city’s gentrification—used in recent years to sell pricey hamburgers, big box stores, and luxury condos, to say nothing of the high-end faux-rock star clothier that now occupies CBGB’s carcass. But we wouldn’t have it without them, or the same aching, confused cultural void that opened in 9/11’s wake.

Jesse Rifkin is the owner of Walk on the Wild Side Tours NYC, a music history walking tour company, and consults as a pop historian and researcher with the Association for Cultural Equity. His first book—This Must Be the Place: Music, Community, and Vanished Spaces in New York City—is scheduled to be released in 2023.

Correction: This article has been updated to clarify the number of band members in the Strokes.