Based on the book of the same name by Lizzy Goodman, Will Lovelace and Dylan Southern’s documentary Meet Me in the Bathroom surveys the early-oughts music scene in New York City, particularly The Moldy Peaches, The Strokes, Interpol, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, LCD Soundsystem, and TV on the Radio. For the health and hygiene of all involved, I hope the titular bathroom was not the one in the Mercury Lounge.
I don’t know if you knew this, but people tend to have strong opinions about music, and it’s difficult to find two people that share the same set. A quick skim through the Letterboxd reviews displays a wide array of stances, ranging from (paraphrasing) “it was all noisy garbage until James Murphy tried ecstasy” to “Julian Casablancas is a delicate snowflake that must be protected at all costs”. But to be fair, there is common ground: most seem to acknowledge that gentrification sucks, 9/11 was traumatic, and Ryan Adams and Courtney Love were not good influences, to say the least.
Despite living in NYC at the time, being about the right age, and a big live music fan, I’m not a devotee of any of these bands in particular. There is one I actively dislike, one that I’ve never heard of, one that I’ve seen live, and the rest I enjoy to different degrees. OK, I’ll name names: The Strokes always sounded to me like a bunch of annoying drunks just thrashing around, The Rapture somehow never crossed my radar, and I’ve seen TV on the Radio (albeit after they made it big).
There’s an astonishing amount of footage available, considering it all dates from a point in time right before everybody started carrying cameras around in their pockets. But it’s a pity the new voiceover interviews are awkwardly delivered in the present tense, redundantly narrating exactly what you’re seeing, just like a reality TV show. There were numerous fascinating individuals and stories in this milieu, and it should have all added up to more than a feature-length episode of Behind the Music.
In retrospect, the ’90s were a golden age for female-led bands (see Garbage, Curve, Belly, The Breeders, and countless more), but in the early 2000s, it seems that Kimya Dawson of The Moldy Peaches and Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs stood nearly alone. The latter speaks very movingly about the sexism she encountered, primarily from the music press. Her exuberant stage persona sadly descended into a form of self-flagellation, a hole she had to dig herself out of.
Karen O is not the only fragile soul depicted as driven to express herself in public despite deep insecurity, shyness, and various economic and political headwinds. Coming across as the most well-adjusted are TV on the Radio and the very dapper Interpol. The only figures that seemed to roll with the punches and just have fun are Adam Green and Kimya Dawson of The Moldy Peaches. Certainly, none of them responded well to being asked idiotic, insulting questions by VJs, over and over and over; one exchange that stood out to me was Casablancas bemoaning his belated realization that the music biz is… a biz.
As naive as he sounds now, it is true that nascent file sharing tools stalled these bands’ momentum (sales of a critical Interpol album were killed by it leaking online far ahead of release, and DJs like Murphy saw the value of their meticulously curated LP collections suddenly evaporate as any kid with a laptop and modem could cue anything up on demand), gentrification pushed everyone out of Williamsburg and Dumbo, and of course 9/11 changed everything.
As a New Yorker since 1996, the inclusion of explicit 9/11 footage struck me as tasteless, something that even Michael Moore had the decency to exclude from Fahrenheit 9/11. But upon reflection, I think it might be useful to occasionally illustrate what it was like to live through it, for those elsewhere who may admonish New Yorkers to “never forget” but don’t truly understand what they think we don’t remember. Particularly memorable is footage of members of The Strokes picking through the detritus-strewn streets, before it occurred to anyone that the ash was carcinogens and incinerated bodies.