Question: What's sexier than a bunch of cute boys in a rock band? Answer: A bunch of cute fabulously rich boys in a rock band.
While the term "punk rock" might traditionally conjure up images of ripped jeans, dirty hair and damp suburban garages, in fact, many of today's most successful rock stars grew up in a different world, one furnished with designer clothes, servants and European boarding-school educations.
New York's Strokes are the prime going example of what is being dubbed in music circles as the "rich-kid rocker" phenom. Their first album, Is This It, a collection of exuberantly unmacho postpunk ditties in the Velvet Underground/Stooges vein, was released last fall. The record has since been named best album of 2001 by New York Magazine, Entertainment Weekly, Time Magazine, CMJ and NME. (They are especially huge in Britain, where angsty white rocker boys have always ruled the day. Over there, a scalped ticket to a Strokes show will set you back as much as £200 -- or about $450.)
Scene-busting success stories are nothing new in the music industry. Every year now, it seems, some new group of hard-drinking twentysomething males is hailed by music dweebs around the world as the shining new saviours of rock 'n' roll (think of Coldplay last year and Radiohead before them).
So what's particularly panty-twisting about the five hard-partying, Mediterranean-complected guys from the Strokes then? The answer is crudely simple: They're wealthy bad boys.
The story of the band's privileged class background is no secret. Four of the five members came from serious money, and money of the new and racy, as opposed to the old and stodgy, kind. They are the children of the Dream: European and South American immigrants who came to New York and made a fortune. Julian, the band's pouty lead singer, is the estranged, high-school dropout son of John Casablancas, the founder of a chain of modelling agencies. But, as Julian is quick to point out in interviews, while his dad paid for his musical education, he grew up with his mother in a different house. The seed for the Strokes was planted at a Swiss boarding school, where Casablancas, then 13, met his future second-guitarist, Los Angeles-born Albert Hammond Jr.
Since their rapid ascent to rock 'n' roll gods, the band has endured a great deal of peanut-gallery sneering over their gilded roots, and perhaps it is somewhat justified. It's no accident, after all, that the New York scene has failed to produce a really exciting band since the early eighties. (The critical consensus is that the city's punk spirit dried up after Sonic Youth.) Few wannabe rockers can afford to spend their late teens and 20s honing their craft in one of the world's most expensive cities. As music writer Jim DeRogatis quipped in his Penthouse magazine profile of the band, "It's hard to be a garage band in a city where renting a parking space can cost $1,400 a month."
At the same time, it's impossible to deny the ugly envy behind the criticism.
"I don't think it's justified at all," says Kristine Luciw, a producer for MuchMusic's alternative showcase program The Wedge. "A lot of people around here have been complaining about the Strokes, slagging them as rich kids, but in the end it really just comes down to the music."
Luciw points out that the Strokes are hardly the only rich kids tearing up the rock scene today. Off the top of her head, she points to Stephen Malkmus, the lead singer of Pavement, and Justine Frischmann of Elastica, as examples of privileged teens turned adult rock stars.
Look past the ripped up garb and runny mascara of many talented young rockers today and you will find a rich kid slumming it. Courtney Love, for instance, famously blew through a trust fund before hooking up with Kurt Cobain. Pete Yorn, the L.A. based singer-songwriter, got his start singing on movie soundtracks through high-up family connections in the film industry. Canadian examples of well-to-do young rockers include Melissa Auf Der Maur, daughter of now-deceased Montreal journalist and city councillor, Nick, as well as well-furnished James Disalvio, creative brain behind Bran Van 3000.
Privileged kids slumming downtown has long been the story of rock 'n' roll. Those who sneer at the Strokes' posh education would be wise to remember that Pete Townshend and John Lennon were middle-class art students at one time. In many ways, rocking out is a privilege of the haute bourgeoisie.
Dave Bidini of the Rheostatics understands the Canadian rock scene not so much in class terms, as a suburban/urban dynamic.
"I think living in the suburbs, growing up middle-class, allowed us a perspective and voice that hadn't been heard from, at least in Canadian rock. Us, Barenaked Ladies, Kids in the Hall, Dave Howard, Jane Siberry, Cowboy Junkies -- all suburban phenomena. We didn't pretend to be city-wise because we weren't. There's a great tradition in rock of suburban kids pretending to be rough and street-wise, but I think we made a big leap artistically when we stopped that pantomime. We sang about what we knew. Our neighbourhood, our reality, could be just as vital, without the make-believe-I-wanna-be-a-suffering-urban-artist bullshit."
But for the richer-than-middle-class young rock star, family money and connections are not just helpful when it comes to getting a foot in the door, they also ensure that the artist will never have to "sell out" for financial need -- a serious edge in an industry in which a credible image is at least half the battle.
Part of the sex appeal of any rock band is their jet-setting elusiveness, and kids with juice can afford the luxury of inaccessibility. Compared to many breaking bands, the Strokes do little promotion and play only the venues they want to play.
Even the group's official Web-site bio comes across as shruggish and cocky. The Strokes describe themselves simply as "five close friends who began assembling together at the Music Building in New York City sometime in 1998 to lay down the foundations of a rock band." Their privileged confidence comes across in the last line of the bio, which states: "They plan to tour and record for the rest of their lives." Cocky, but probably true. Because, after all, what could stand in their way?