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What Ever Happened?

Sorta fell in love with the Strokes tonight. Maybe that’s overstating it, but I got them for the first time, listening to Room on Fire while waiting for my luggage to roll off the carousel at SFO. Locked into my iPod, watching with a wary eye as families gathered around the belt, overstuffed businessmen checked their cell phones, and reuinited couples kissed deeply, I sunk into tinny fake-retro and let the melancholy wash over me. Totally indulgent, but that was just as it was supposed to be. Listening to “What Ever Happened?” and then “Reptilia,” I imagined a music video based upon said setting, featuring the sad, shaggy rocker waiting, waiting, waiting under bleak fluorescents, watching all the happy people gather their belongings and scatter. “I wanna be forgotten/ and I don’t wanna be reminded/ you say, ‘Please, don’t make this harder’/ No, I won’t yet,” goes the song, and so no one comes, and sad shaggy rocker knew it would be that way all along: “You don’t miss me, I know.” Cut to faces of the departing familiars: the spiky-haired punk with tattoos crawling down his neck rolling out the cart on the arm of his grad student girlfriend; the tanned hippie couple whose t-shirts rise under the pull of enormous backpacks, revealing taut rock-climbing abs; the boring normals he’d hate for purely aesthetic reasons if he could muster the indignation that had fired him only a week or a year ago, when he still cared. On “Reptilia,” the guitar breakdown sends the camera panning away from the spinning belt and then zooming in to spin around him, dark circles bagging under his eyes like the undersides of carousel horses as the lens closes in on a blank face greased with one too many sleepless flights. At the video’s close, we see him standing alone in an empty baggage claim room, all bags claimed but the one that’s missing from his empty hands. Silence: dead time, and then a battered guitar case comes spitting out the metal mouth, clattering onto the belt, and he stoops, picks it up, and slouches out the sliding doors to the rain-slicked curb.

Ok, I said it was indulgent. This is the joy of the headphone life, I’ve rediscovered: everything is a music video.

(And really, that wasn’t about me, promise. Not that I haven’t felt that way, more times than I’d like to count, but tonight, at least, it was purely an exercise in [stock] character; it was a moment of pure pop fantasy served up just as ordered.)

One of the things I realized I like about the Strokes is that they don’t fuck around; those songs, rudimentary as they are, could go on for six, seven minutes, no problem, but they don’t. I was jolted out of my video-director reverie by the abrupt ending of “What Ever Happened?” I’d been certain that it would continue for twice as long. There’s something refreshingly half-assed about the way they cut and run. Not with a bang but a shrug – like some low-self-esteem romantic playing his girlfriend a song on the guitar and then shutting up, stonefaced, before he ever gets to the last chorus. “Automatic Stop,” indeed.

And they’re clever, these Strokes, or at least cleverer than I’d taken them for. I like the way they rip off the guitar lead from “Sweet Child o’ Mine” for “The End has no End” – pop agnostics to a T, they’ll borrow whatever they need and then wear it down like dirty denim and weathered leather. I like to pretend they’re misquoting GBH’s “one step forward/ two steps back” line on “The End Has No End,” even though I’m sure that’s wildly optimistic on my part. Hell, they even cop programmed dance beats on “The Way It Is” and then muck’em up in distortion, like they thought they could fool us. Didn’t Will Oldham get cussed out for doing the same thing back around Arise, Therefore? It’s a pretty punk thing to do, and I like the fact that they sort of back away from an actual avant gesture. They’re sheepish, these Strokes. And I’m sheepish for liking them, but not so much that I won’t admit it.

It’s just pop music, after all.

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