Is this…? That’s how I felt in early spring, while New York was reeling in acute terror: too scared to even finish the question. Is this it? Is this it? What even is it? How do you parse your own anxiety about something that throws your routines and relationships into terrible relief? Quietly panicking in isolation I hoped would help my community survive (and feeling lucky to possess relatively dependable wireless internet), I turned to my standby cultural items of comfort: Cinderella, Insecure, Sandra Bullock in While You Were Sleeping, and Is This It.
My love for the Strokes is deep and complicated. If you’re inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt, their impeccably timed songs are a delight. Their debut album crash-lands on your ears gently, with the sound of a slowed-down audio tape that evokes a tiny plane, zooming in on a drumbeat as Julian Casablancas comes in with the impeccably whiny “Can’t you see I’m trying / I don’t even like it.” It gets me from the drop, every time. But the track that hits me hardest is the second one, “The Modern Age,” maybe because Casablancas gestures to the fictionality of the lyrics in the first line: “Up on a hill is where we begin / This little story, a long time ago.”
The Strokes are good in part because they deceive you. What they do sounds easy: how hard is it to play some guitars really fast and sing about self-absorption and anomie? Incredibly hard, as it turns out, at least the first part. The band knows where the beat is and balances precisely on it. In isolation, I’ve listened to some of their songs on repeat, considering again why they’re so good, why they never bore me. (I was also amused to see the phrase “Alone, Together,” track six, used as a refrain by an array of commercials adapted for social distancing.)
Still, whininess isn’t everyone’s bag, and you can read the phrase is this it, important enough to be used as both album and track title, as a gesture of nasal disappointment with privileges already bestowed. Why was I comforted, in the middle of a pandemic that disproportionately affects Black and brown communities, by wealthy white prep-school boys who never take themselves to task for their crosshatchings of privilege? Does this white person—me, whose teaching and scholarship center on anti-racism, who lives in a city where the first move of the rich when the city shut down was to flee—really love these apolitical brats?
She does. I set aside my critiques during those dark March and April days, while I worried that the virus was around the corner and fought to feel functional with just my Velcro snuggler of a cat for company. Listening to Is This It on almost unthinking repeat peopled my small apartment with the remembered forms of people I wanted to see (and some I didn’t). There was the love of my life, interested in everything I think and feel, no matter how insignificant, cracking a smile at my impression of Casablancas’s lyrical character. (I pitch my voice lower and act blasé by leaning on furniture and avoiding eye contact.) There was also my worst ex, fainter but still visible, the one I was falling for when the album came out, the one who was too snooty to care about a New York City rock band, a weird echo of a time when I thought men’s opinions might be more important than mine.
Ghosts of the city came along, too. When I moved here a decade and a half ago, I was trying to be Patti Smith. I got to live in the East Village! Wasn’t that punk? (It was decidedly not.) I haunted wonderful and terrible Lower East Side bars and music venues, often wondering if I’d see Casablancas lurking around. I would hear stories about him from bartender friends, mostly about how much he could drink back then. But I also remembered being a starry-eyed college kid in Paris seventeen years prior, in the run-up to the Iraq War, thinking I was happy to be out of a jingoistic America. (“I think you might miss it here more than you think,” my progressive mom noted.) Fully homesick, I went to see the Strokes at Zénith de Paris by myself—a brave stance, especially then, in part because I tend to get pushed to and fro in crowds. When the band took the stage, the crowd whooshed forward in a blanket of legs and arms, and out of instinct I grabbed a random man to stay upright. Since then, I’ve learned to stand more firmly, elbows out, feet planted. When I get jostled, I jostle the fuck back.
The Strokes felt like home then and they do now, when I need a sonic towline. They remind me, sometimes inexplicably, of the resilience of my city and its regular people, abandoned by the rich and subjected to the craven infighting of our hapless mayor and egotistical governor and violent cops. We’ve found ways to protect each other despite all of it, and we’re still doing it, still inside even as the outside world seems safer. My favorite line in “The Modern Age”—The world is over, but I don’t care, ’cause I am with you—feels a little too on point sometimes, but other times it’s absolutely perfect. It’s for the person I love, for New York, for my family and friends, for my cat. As alone as I feel in these times, it reminds me that I’m not.
— Hilarie Ashton
New York, day 167