The intricacy of being a New York band contains a process that seems almost cyclical. First comes adhering to the obscure underbelly of whichever music scene said band chooses to align themselves with. Gaining traction only seems effective when it’s slow and steady—most notably when trying to court fans. After touring the usual circuit (small clubs, pungent bars), word of mouth as well as notoriety inevitably ensue and the band becomes the proverbial talk of the town. They often go on to move a palpable number of units, tour with other noticeable acts, and sell out venues left and right. Of course, selling out also implies selling out–that is abandoning underground scenes in hopes of getting scooped up by a major label (a topic that is another article within itself). But why does NYC have this reputation of being the Holy Grail when it comes to the cultivation of musical talent? And do these bands actually live up to the hype?
Naturally, there are various contributing factors as to why acts proliferate in New York. Diversity is rampant, venues are aplenty, and labels are desperate to spot the next big thing. Among the thousands of musicians promising to set the industry on fire, only a few ignite. Sadly, it becomes a question of timing more than talent; especially in the indie stratosphere where many are trying to shatter certain glass ceilings that have been set in place. Take The National, for example. While the members of the band aren’t New York natives, they managed to construct their base in Brooklyn. After self-releasing their eponymous debut album in 2001, legions of dedicated listeners caught on and made 2007’s Boxer their breakout record. Consistency in quality has been The National’s greatest ally, and their last two albums High Violet and Trouble Will Find Me were critically acclaimed. But New York bands who strike it big don’t always have the same luck.
The massive success of MGMT’s 2007 debut Oracular Spectacular made the duo a household name. Despite the opportunity to flesh out their trademark psychedelia on their sophomore record, Congratulations, they opted to capitalize an even weirder noise. This resulted in the band slowly tapering off, although they are currently touring. While MGMT led an all too brief revival in the experimental movement, it was The Strokes’ 2001 classic Is This It that gave even more credence to the notion that New York has the ability to crank out acts whose originality is unprecedented. Their sound, which is best categorized as uncompromising, guitar-laden rhythms juxtaposed with frontman Julian Casablancas’ wry vocal swagger, stimulated the city’s rock scene and once again made garage-rock cool a caveat to aspire to.
While The Strokes possessed a direct agenda, other bands like TV on the Radio, Dirty Projectors, and Vampire Weekend indulge in genre-bending sonics that widen their appeal while still making music that remains accessible. Characteristics include African rhythms, sculpted guitar rattle and sparse production. While untraditional, their music resonated with a generation. Then there is the quintessential New York City band that is Interpol. Like The Strokes, when Interpol burst on the scene in 2002 they were quite the breath of fresh air. Turn on the Bright Lights exploded outward from the palette; it was an awkwardly emotional gem that dazzled fans and critics alike. While many have been disparaging of follow up efforts, Interpol still remains an important part of the music that has been spawned from New York City serving as a visionary backdrop.
To call The Big Apple a formidable nucleus for music would be quite an understatement. But in a land dominated mostly by males, women often have to fight for their place in the sun. Le Tigre understood this concept wholeheartedly. When they formed in 1998, Kathleen Hanna and company lyrically championed the ideas of feminism and social and political equality. Their 1999 self-titled debut album was showered with positive reception. Needless to say, their fearless stance earned them quite the cult following. Like Hannah, Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Karen O has a persona that is larger than life. 2003’s Fever to Tell was soaked in acrid blasts of distortion and buoyant affliction that landed the trio into the limelight. O’s harrowing voice coupled with cutting, lyrical awareness made her a sought after songstress and may have prompted her desire to go solo and release Crush Songs that came out earlier this year. Kim Schifino of Brooklyn duo Matt and Kim is another example of how a female musician can hold her own in a predominantly male industry. Much quirkier than both Hanna and O, Schifino’s vocal prowess and stage presence are irresistible in their undeniable infectiousness: both have become Matt and Kim’s signature trademark. It’s clear that as long as they are talented, female rockers have no problem fending for themselves.
The best part about New York’s ever-evolving music scene is its unpredictability. The city nurtures creativity but thrives in chaos; a combination that has produced some of this country’s top musical talent. It also makes determining which NYC bred band is next to take the world by storm. From the acts that are currently kicking around these days, there seems to be a variety to choose from. The selection can encompass: Parquet Courts‘ post punk energy, Wet‘s ominous vibes, Chairlift‘s frenzied beats, and Tanlines‘ synthy goodness. The fact of the matter is that New York artistry is endless. The city will continue to push limits and set trends, to inspire and foster originality. It will also continue to bring us acts that aren’t that polished or cohesive or even good–but that’s part of the fun. And quite frankly, New York probably wouldn’t want it any other way.
– Article by Candace McDuffie for The Untitled Magazine