White Stripes

By Timothy Finn
KANSAS CITY- How do you explain what seems so inexplicable - the success of the White Stripes?
Steven Van Zandt chooses one word and then issues a disclaimer: It's a phenomenon,'' said Van Zandt, who hosts a syndicated radio show when he's not playing guitar in the E Street Band or pretending to be a gangster in The Sopranos.’’
Unfortunately you can't use them as an example of anything other than they're a part of this contemporary garage-rock movement.'' Well, sort of. The White Stripes did emerge several years ago when other bands were reviving and recycling certain sounds of the 1960s. But the Stripes' sound was something completely different. In fact, their take on American blues has much more in common with '70s British rock bands, especially Led Zeppelin, than with any of the neo-Nuggets’’ bands.

But the Stripes aren’t Led Zeppelin either; if they were, they might get played a lot on classic-rock radio instead of only the indie/alternative stations that love them so.
Listen to their latest single, Blue Orchid,'' next to Zeppelin's Black Dog’’ and you get the feeling John Bonham could eat Jack White for lunch and then pick his teeth with Meg.
Zeppelin was an epic rock band overstocked with virtuosos and egos. The Stripes are something else. In a recent New Yorker review, critic Sasha Frere-Jones called the Stripes’ new record a ``Led Zeppelin album without the pleasure principle.’’

True enough, but it’s not really pertinent. The Stripes are a phenomenon for reasons that have little to do with who they sound like or don’t sound like or which eras they draw their sound from. Some of those reasons make perfect sense, and most concern Jack White, who is arguably the biggest young rock star on the planet and the closest thing we’ve come to Kurt Cobain in 10 years.
Why? Chalk it up to a guitar virtuosity in the league of Jimmy Page’s, a personae that mixes charisma and machismo, a singing voice that gives mainstream music the finger, an unwillingness to stand still and deliver merely what’s expected of him, an absorption in several forms of vintage American music, and the ability to contrive a mystique about his band that somehow falls well short of pretense and self-indulgence.
If the Stripes’ success is indeed a phenomenon, it’s one built on two primary components: music and myth - lots of black magic and a few white lies.

Meg White gets lots of love in the music media, but she gets some heavy grief, too, mostly because she isn’t in Jack’s league when it comes to being a musician or vocalist.
In her review of Get Behind Me Satan,'' critic Frere-Jones affords her no apology or slack: Meg White may be his muse, best friend or soul mate, and she exudes a steady and positive energy on stage, but she is a lousy drummer and only a passable singer.’’ She then goes on to wonder why Jack White doesn’t replace her with a certain jazz-trained musician who has played with Lenny Kravitz.
If she’s serious about that proposal, then she seems to have missed a point about this band and how it seduces its ever-growing fan base. Jack White may be the brightest guitar star of his generation, but the Stripes are about something other than his hellacious riffs and their songs, which, if broken down into music components, aren’t all that brilliant or dynamic. Even one of their best and most popular songs, Seven Nation Army,'' is built around a rugged, shotgun-shack frame, then embellished with vocal histrionics and heavy guitar decor and plenty of attitude. Or take My Doorbell’’ from the new album, a song widely described as one of the Stripes’ catchiest - as pop, even, as something Paul McCartney would write. It does have a simple pop bounce to it, like a jingle in an air-freshener commercial or the theme to a TV show, but its melody is primitive and unimaginative.

As a lyricist, White is in a category of his own - as wry, witty and clever as he can be tragic, sarcastic and romantic. As a melodist and a song craftsman, though, he is several bus stops shy of Tin Pan Alley. But none of that is exactly the point either. Doorbell'' is significant because it is both surprising and contrary, mostly because it features White on piano, not electric guitar. In fact, he spends most of Satan’’ playing something other than the instrument that has made him famous, including the marimba. Imagine Eddie trying to pull that off on a Van Halen album.
Satan'' also separates itself from the other Stripes albums, especially its predecessor, Elephant,’’ by playing games with something other than the most primitive form of black American music, the Delta blues. Little Ghost'' is a country-blues ditty that bounces and sways like a wagon on two broken wheels; and I’m Lonely (But I Ain’t That Lonely Yet)’’ is an austere and creaky piano ballad that borrows its lyric theme from the Hank Williams tradition (and most of its title from a well-known Dwight Yoakam ballad); and then there’s the spooky ``The Nurse,’’ Jack’s debut on the marimba - the one instrument, his up-to-date resume now declares, he didn’t teach himself how to play.

So the Stripes can sell themselves and their many new twists because as long as Jack is driving the show and Meg is tagging along in the back seat, their fans (and the media) will watch and wonder when the next dip, swerve and diversion is going to arrive in this duo’s serial drama.
The music has much to do with that attraction, certainly, but the fascination arises from other, more superficial facets: the strict red/white/black fashions (in clothes and stage sets); the disparate women in Jack’s real and fictional lives (Meg, Holly Golightly, Loretta Lynn, Renee Zellweger and now his supermodel wife); and certain little lies and myths, including the joke that Jack sustains and fans continue to go along with - that Meg (his ex-wife) is his sister.
That fiction adds nothing to their music, but it helps in the suspension of reality, an act of faith between band and audience that lifts the music out of the here and now into another time, into another imagined realm, one that evokes nostalgia for another era as much as it ridicules prevailing trends and fashions.

Meg’s sloppiness as a drummer and her weaknesses as a singer burnish Jack’s idealized version of the truth: that music is about immediacy, about capturing a live moment, not about perfecting it with lots of formal lessons and theory, recording it laboriously and then airbrushing it with expensive technology. Jack is a do-it-yourself/indie rocker at heart, so he wants his music to sound homemade and unprocessed, an important point Frere-Jones makes in her review. Thus Satan'' was recorded in about two weeks, and Jack White made sure everyone knew it. In the end, the Stripes demonstrate on Satan’’ that they can swim without a few vital organs and limbs: without Jack’s infernal guitar on every cut, without a strict diet of deranged rock blues, without a drummer who knows her meters and can handle her fills. Conversely they proved the one thing they can’t survive without is each other. They need Meg’s novelty as much as they do Jack’s talent and magnetism and knack for choreographing and constructing his band’s image. Next to her, he seems larger, more heroic, more in command and more humane. With a jazz-schooled drummer behind him, they’d sound tighter and cleaner and better technically, but they’d be something completely different and much less interesting. And therein lies the phenomenon.

Van Zandt has had his eye on the Stripes since before they broke into the MTV mainstream in 2002 with their White Blood Cells'' album. Three years later, its success still mystifies him. You can’t look at them and say, ‘There are gonna be a bunch more two-piece rock bands’ because there aren’t gonna be,’’ he said. It's amazing they can do that, it really is. I've seen them several times, and it's crazy. I can't quite believe they pull it off. It's impossible. On paper it should not work. I don't even like three-piece bands. I encourage all three-piece bands to add a fourth member. Jack is extremely talented. They are both unique people who have a certain vision and the talent to realize it. What’s so interesting is how many people hear it and respond to it. It’s wonderful to have that kind of creativity expressed in a world where no one encourages it.’’

There won’t be a bunch more White Stripes because if it were going to have happened, it’d have happened by now. Some record company would have invented one, or some other hotshot guitar player would have studied Charlie Patton and Huddie Ledbetter and then stood up to play Eddie Vedder to Jack’s Kurt Cobain. But it won’t happen.
Take the Black Keys, who, like the Stripes, are an industrial-belt garage-blues two-piece who make a crazed noise (but both play their instruments well). But even they aren’t Jack and Meg. They’ve got a head start on anyone else who wants to join the club: Their music sounds both of the here and now and of the past. All they need now is a uniform, a quaint story behind them and a few harmless lies to back it up.