The Strokes don’t like San Francisco, and, after this weekend, San Francisco doesn’t like them back.
These were the mutual feelings expressed during and after The Strokes’ Friday night performance at Outside Lands. In a headliner set that started late and ended early, Strokes’ frontman Julian Casablancas complained about The City’s vaccine policies, its noise ordinances and its general ethos of compassion.
The next morning, a Chronicle article on the performance reflected the sentiments of many concertgoers I spoke to: The Strokes’ rudeness fouled up the mood of an otherwise idyllic coming out party for San Francisco.
But if The Strokes’ tone was a poor fit for Outside Lands, it seemed fitting for, well… The Strokes.
Since their start at the turn of the Millennium, The Strokes have very self consciously channeled the beer-swilling belligerence and disregard for polite society that run in the DNA of rock music. Despite their upper class pedigree, the band acted like a “gang” in those early days, as rhythm guitarist Nick Valensi told Lizzy Goodman in “Meet Me in the Bathroom,” an oral history of rock’s early 2000s revival, with all the attendant substance abuse, hijinks and bad boy behavior. Their quintessentially New York City aesthetic combines grittiness and snobbery in a way that couldn’t be more at odds with how we do things in San Francisco.
The band members were quite literally wearing this legacy on their sleeves at Friday night’s performance. Lead guitarist Albert Hammond Jr. donned a Lou Reed t-shirt, paying homage to the avatar of downtown New York rock. Casablancas wore a jacket emblazoned with the Pink Floyd logo, like countless teenage boys have worn to countless rock shows.
In both their self-presentation and their critical reception, The Strokes represent the last gasp of a now old-fashioned conception of rock music, the form lionized in the critical school known as “rockism.” They embody the ideal that the highest expression of popular music is four or five white guys wailing on guitars and sticking it to the man. No one has done it better than The Strokes over the past two decades, even as the rest of the culture has moved on. Today, hip hop fulfills our sexual-aggressive desires like rock once did, and the most popular artists recognize that fusion, not authenticity, speaks to the widest possible audience.
These trends were on full display at Outside Lands, with Strokes heirs apparent Vampire Weekend and Tame Impala taking the Lands End stage the following two nights. As the next big thing to come out of New York City’s rock scene after The Strokes, Vampire Weekend eschewed the rock canon in favor of an internet-inflected palette complete with baroque, African, and hip hop elements. Tame Impala, arguably today’s biggest “rock band,” marries the sounds of classic psychedelic rock with a populist, inoffensive EDM sensibility.
In a way, the harsh vibes at The Strokes’ Friday night show make more sense in light of Tame Impala’s cloying cutsiness two nights later. Tame’s set was peppered with a schtick impersonating The Wiggles, a musical group for toddlers. There were also references to the made-for-memes Netflix show “Squid Game,” and a popular TikTok clip known as “Island Boy.” The rockists were rolling in their graves.
And yet, Tame Impala, playing their third Outside Lands and clearly feeling a kinship to the legacy of psychedelic rock shows in Golden Gate Park, were gracious guests in our fair city. Frontman Kevin Parker didn’t mince words as he closed out the festival: “I f—ing love San Francisco.”