It may be a cliché to say that there is a surreal feeling to watching one’s youthful icons get the historical prestige treatment. Perhaps it is simply the inevitable headspace shift of realizing you are now one of the old fogies that complain movies, TV, and music were simply better in some abstract sense in your day. Perhaps it is the disappointment that these artists and the moments they captured are now locked behind museum glass and are to be observed more than fully engaged with as ongoing concerns. More simply, perhaps it is just the disappointing feeling that, much like the artists we admire, our best, or at least most interesting, days may be in the past rather than the future.
However, there is perhaps a doubly surreal feeling when the experiences that you associate with the idols of younger years are distinct from the experiences of those idols themselves. If you weren’t there in Swinging London when the Rolling Stones set the standard for what a rock band could be, does that make the memories tied to their music any less authentic? If you didn’t taste the blood on the floor when Black Flag got in the van and created hardcore punk, does it mean it wasn’t the proper soundtrack to youthful rebellion? And, more relevantly to today’s waves of millennial nostalgia, if you weren’t there for the coke-fuelled dance-rock parties birthed by post-9/11 New York City, do you have any less of a right to claim their sounds as nostalgia soundtrack?
Last Night, She Said
These are the sort of thoughts that came to my mind while watching Meet Me in the Bathroom, the at-times riveting, at time self-important new documentary about the indie music scene of mid-’00s New York, based on the book of the same name by music journalist Lizzy Goodman. Framed primarily around the stories of The Strokes, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and LCD Soundsystem, the film traces the rise and fall (at least out of fashion favor) of a distinct style of indie rock that combined punk energy with danceable beats and, above all, an air of effortless cool. This was music for the era of that now-despised term, the hipster, but, as the movie shows it, this all came across as a deep balm for a world recovering from the late-90s dominance of nu-metal and sugary teen pop (an era also recently documented in two films about the disastrous Woodstock 99 festival).
I won’t pretend to be unbiased when looking at a film like this, as much as certain artistic choices could be criticized. It is deeply thrilling to me to see archival footage of some of the bands that, for a teenager from a small town in the space outside of Toronto in the period from 2005 to 2010, defined what a world beyond that small town looked and sounded like. The film makes occasional references to the revolution that the internet created in terms of being able to both read about and listen to music like this if you weren’t from a major urban center, mostly through mentions of the double-edged sword that illegal downloading proved to be in terms of gaining exposure for these groups.
To me, though, these cursory mentions actually give short shrift to what this opening up really meant for listeners who couldn’t make it to the hippest indie shows in Brooklyn. Websites like the much-vaunted, much-parodied Pitchfork may have been based in places like New York and Chicago, but their ability to play tastemaker was much wider than that. The “Best New Music” seal of approval was enough to send Limeware clients and record shop request chats alike up and running, leading me to listen to all kinds of things I, raised in my parents’ backseat on a steady diet of classic rock and pop-country, never would have otherwise. That’s not to say I enjoyed every song I downloaded or recorded I bought this way (I could never understand the appeal of “freak folk” acts like Devendra Banhart), but it widened my tastes in ways that other media channels simply couldn’t at that time. It might just be an artifact of youthful habit, and certainly, their sensibility has evolved since the uber-indie snob days of yore, but to this day, if Pitchfork does give a recommendation to a new artist, I feel an obligation to at least give them a listen.
It’s important to note that this time also existed as something of a middle point between the pay-your-money-and-pray-it’s-good era of vinyl and, later, CDs, and the Spotify-fuelled accessible free-for-all of today. If you read about an interesting band on your preferred music website or blog at this time, you might be able to download an MP3 of a track (if your internet connection was good enough, which it sometimes wasn’t outside of cities at this time), or you might be able to find a clip of them on the then-nascent YouTube. But you definitely wouldn’t be able to stream an entire album for free, and if what you wanted to listen to was more obscure, even illegal methods might not be an option. Music piracy was big, but, by nature of economies of scale, the most popular songs were the most available. It was relatively easy to pirate, say, Green Day’s entire American Idiot album at this time but it was much harder to get full albums by more obscure artists. There would also be the occasional fluke indie band that had a truly mainstream breakthrough, either through placement in other media (Death Cab for Cutie’s appearance on The O.C., Natalie Portman changing Zach Braff’s life with The Shins in Garden State), clever marketing (OK Go’s early viral music video for “Here It Goes Again”) or just sheer undeniable catchiness (Franz Ferdinand’s “Take Me Out”). With those exceptions, though, one was left with the option of, gasp, paying for the album without having fully listened to it beforehand, plunking down hard-earned part-time job cash, and hoping for a world-expanding experience.
They Don’t Love You Like I Love You
Coincidentally enough, the release of Meet Me in the Bathroom comes in close tandem with the long-awaited comeback of one of the bands it most closely follows. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs released Cool It Down, their first album in nine years, in September 2022, just prior to the release of the documentary. Listening to the new album alongside the sounds and images of a much younger Karen O and crew creates an uncanny sense of peering through time. The band was arguably the most confrontational of the groups making up the scene chronicled in the film and certainly was the most prominent with a female frontwoman. Some of its most compelling scenes mine this vein, where the self-described natural introvert born Karen Lee Orzolek paints her face as if preparing for war in order to transform into one of the most magnetically self-destructive performers of her era. The Karen that appears on the new album is considerably less manic and more reflective, her voice deepened with age and her songwriting less frantic and more elongated. Indeed, the album opener “Spitting Off the Edge of the World”, is a churning, cinematic cut which contemplates the devastation of climate change, and even an uptempo highlight like “Burning” moves with a more considered grace than anything from the band’s early days. This might come as something of a disappointment to fans (though by consensus the record is rating better than its mostly-forgotten 2013 predecessor Mosquito) but it reflects a band maturing more honestly than attempts to play-act as their earlier, scuzzy art-punk selves would have.
Listening to, and watching, the early Yeah Yeah Yeahs performances is also to look back to a time when it was definitively New York — and the United States more broadly — that set the cultural tone for the world. In the words of a friend, Karen O in 1999 was defining a look and style that would be copied by “every Ontario scene girl in 2006.” In the present moment, given the much greater expansion of the internet to non-Western countries and the relative cultural power decline of the United States (for a variety of economic and political reasons), fashion cues are just as likely to come from Soeul as they might from SoHo. What Meet Me in the Bathroom most revels in nostalgia for is the idea of a “scene,” that place of magical alchemy that happens when a lot of young, creative people can collide in a physical space. It’s hard not to argue, whether you were an NYC devotee or a fan of the Montreal musical ferment of the mid-00s (which gave birth to indie darlings such as the Arcade Fire and Wolf Parade), that there simply isn’t a singular “place” generating the same buzz now. Perhaps this is an inevitable effect of much more of our lives taking place in the digital space (particularly given the abrupt shutdown of live music venues at the beginning of the COVID pandemic), and it isn’t necessarily a bad thing that musical ideas can travel more freely across continents without occasionally stifling an insular hothouse atmosphere of a geographically-defined style. Certainly, it doesn’t leave as many opportunities for feeling out of the loop if you couldn’t hop the L train to see the earliest Strokes shows in Manhattan, the ultimate marker of “I liked them before they were popular” posturing that’s become much-parodied in retrospect.
Losing My Edge
As it happens, I would eventually see the Strokes in concert, but it wasn’t until 2020, at a free concert performed at a Bernie Sanders campaign rally in New Hampshire. Though not exactly their days of glory chronicled in Meet Me in the Bathroom, it was a thrilling time all its own (not least of which for a performance of “New York City Cops” accompanied by an actual attempt to shut the concert down by local police). During that concert, amongst all the other things rattling around in my head, it struck me as funny how the first time I ever heard a Strokes song being performed live, it wasn’t by the band themselves in a beer-soaked basement, but rather the most unhip thing possible: a ramshackle performance of “Reptilia” by a group of my friends at a seventh grade talent show. The fact that they managed to still sound pretty decent is a testament to the strength of the underlying songwriting.
But, just because I wasn’t there at the genesis of this turn in what was cool, are the memories I have attached to the music any less valid? The musicians chronicled in the film speak of arriving in New York City as the classic opening up of possibilities, particularly that of being reborn as a different version of oneself. Indeed, they transformed themselves from prep school kids and shy outcasts to the epitome of detached urban culture mongers and grandiose rockstars. Even the peripheral hangers-on in the scene, some of whom (such as LCD Soundsystem founder James Murphy) later went on to fame in their own right, have a kind of ownership over the “I was there” aspect of how this vision of what it was to be young and ready to take on the world was. For me, and all the others who had to experience it through the third-hand detachment of computer screens and early iPods, though?
At an earlier point in my life, I would have lamented that I couldn’t have taken part in those drunken nights and backroom smoke sessions, finding my own life infinitely more boring and constrained than whatever happened where things actually happened. Now, I see it differently: these songs and the artists behind them gave me a distinct set of memories that could only have been made when they were. They aren’t the same as those reflected in the film, but they are no less real and no less impactful for having been made in the backseats of cars on rural routes and in cheap suburban basements. One of the less-profiled bands that appear in Meet Me in the Bathroom are post-punk revivalists Interpol, who speak to the effect of their second album, Antics, being leaked online before being released. Defying expectations of musicians in the Napster era, they are rather relaxed about the whole thing, reasoning that it created more fans in more places and being amazed that everyone knew the words to songs they thought they were debuting on tour. This generous spirit, the sense of a fan being a fan no matter where and when they found you, was sometimes missing from the scene at its zenith, but the music continues to hold up that spirit all the same.•