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Stroke of luck?

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What makes pop culture so captivating are the neutralizing forces of attraction and repulsion that occur when watching famous people do their thing. Moral standards are lowered while the level of absurdity seems to rise, leaving us, the spectators, feeling as if these "artists" live in a vacuum of indifference created by their own fame. These entertainers that we seem to know so well produce some of the most soulless music known to the thinking music consumer. No names are needed; just check the Billboard Top 20.

If you've been remotely interested in current music, you've heard about The Strokes, five really hot guys who make really catchy songs and look really good in skinny ties and Converse sneakers (the fashion world has already been affected by this accessory renaissance). They look really good. They've got famous parents. They're huge in Europe. They look really good. They have a record, too. Surprisingly, given all of the above extenuating circumstances, their record is really good, full of disarmingly simple riffs, vocal hooks and pseudo-soul rhythms. Not surprisingly, these comments have been made way too many times already by countless other publications.

The Strokes graced Carrboro with their presence last week, playing a sold-out show at the Cat's Cradle. Tickets were a hot commodity. Dozens of people stood outside desperately searching for a way in. This was, after all, The Strokes first visit to North Carolina, and since they've been on the covers of countless music and fashion magazines all year, they were not to be missed. They're also a good band--probably an added bonus for much of the crowd.

But all this notwithstanding, The Strokes show was a phenomenally fascinating cultural event, presenting a treasure trove of contradictions--and not just the actual show, which was exactly what I expected it to be. They sounded just like their record, only louder and crisper: The songs were ridiculously catchy, the light show was great and the singer showed off by beating himself in the head--somewhat petulantly, I thought--with the base of his microphone stand. Musically, the show was fine.

What was more interesting about the evening was the crowd: their opinions, their fashions, their overheard conversations, their studiedly indifferent adoration: The show was not on stage. It was as if we all felt we'd discovered the unthinkable: a popular band that was actually good, dangerous and fun. Lately, respect or admiration for pop music is perceived as a sign that our culture is slowly dying, the blanket of banality wrapping us into a collective sleep.

Of course, the backlash against The Strokes is growing to be as powerful as the raves. Outside the Cat's Cradle, the band got their name spray-painted on their tour bus--a huge dollar sign substituted for the first "S." There are those who believe The Strokes aren't doing anything that Lou Reed or Tom Verlaine or Elvis Costello didn't invent 20 years ago. Therefore, they're invalid. Nonexistent. And it all came to them so fast and easy, probably sped along by their wealthy parents and certain "strokes" of luck. They reek of money now, and that smell is equally repulsive and seductive.

It's a sad thing that after only 50 years, we can't--without cynicism--accept a rock 'n' roll band for being just that. Is it because we've been inundated with so many transparent artists that we're distrustful of anything that gets a lot of attention? Reacting to music is now a learned behavior, not a response based in feeling, which is why few of us can see past the accessories that surround our musical icons to realize that what they make comes from them as people, rather than the images we make them.

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