I really wanted to not fall for it, I really wanted to be able to stand back and scoff at it. I’ve done so for a while now, very successfully. And in the end, what did I do? In the end I went and bought the White Stripes new album Elephant. And I really enjoy it.
I have a hard time getting involved in anything while the hype-machine is in heavy operation – which is certainly the case for the White Stripes for the past, oh, 18 months or so. The problem, I find, is that a “new thing” is a fairly fragile entity in my world, and as much as I enjoy it, it may not take much to knock it out of my favor. Overhearing a single song can do it. The catchy hook being hung on every MTV ad can do it, having been gutted from the song as a sort of icon. Just hearing too much, too much about the band can do it – the “everywhere I turn, there they are” phenomenon is particularly lethal.
I admitted to myself a long time ago that there might be something in the White Stripes for me to enjoy. I hold an love of the scratchy, lo-fi, high-energy rock of the late sixties – so when I started hearing more and more about this new wave of bands emulating that sound, I was immediately intrigued. Then MTV latched onto it. Even if they wouldn’t show the videos, they sure liked to talk about them a lot. It was enough to put me off of them for a while. These bands needed to battle it out for a while and I needed to let the hype machines of each die down a little before I dove in on any of them. For good music, I can wait.
Wait I did. It was hard to escape the constant barrage of news on music sites about work on the Stripes’ new album, accompanied by the usual mention of Jack White’s possible-sister/possible-ex-wife Meg. The latter is what really caught my attention. It’s not the fact that some odd relationship between the two was being used as cannon-fodder for the gossip columnists, it’s the fact that Jack White has continued to simply let it run its course – with a knowing smile. It’s obvious that the truth is that this is just a fun joke he’s content to leave be. His handling of what could be a key publicity generator (bad publicity being as good as – or better than – good publicity, afterall) was what really intrigued me. It was that knowing smile – never really seen but heard, or understood, in every statement the band has put forth.
What sold me in the end was not hearing the album but finding a cache of live bootlegs that I quickly downloaded. I spent a few weeks listening to bits of each, every time hearing something that hooked me a little bit more. What was so different about the Stripes that even jaded I would give in?
There’s a knowing swagger informing every track, every lick. The White Stripes play a blend of garage-derived blues-rock that was well-tread by the early Led Zeppelin, but has rarely been successfully resurrected since. The key is that the Stripes aren’t simply in this to make a buck or to gain fame. Jack White sings with a weight fitting of the blues, but never gives in to the unfortunate tendency most rock groups have when approaching the blues – that the blues is primarily sad. The blues is anything but sad, and is in fact a celebration of sorts – celebration grown from the fertile soil of pain. Rock tends to misread the blues as simply a reading of one’s worst moments, and that the only way to present them is with the most down and depressing of presentations possible. A blues man picks up his instrument, sings his song, in order to set it all free, and in doing so looks for others feeling the same way. The blues is the sound of everyman looking for a compassionate soul with whom to share his sorrows, so as to be stronger for it – together. The blues in rock has nearly always resorted to laying it all down for you, the listener – not in an effort to join together with you but to tell you how bad he’s had it. The White Stripes get this. The White Stripes may be rock, and Jack White is clearly feeling the blues, but he clearly wants to hear you say you feel it to.
The White Stripes work because the music isn’t condescending. Jack White’s knowing smile is present through every moment of the album, but never becomes an insulting smirk. It’s not that the music is particularly groundbreaking or new – there are countless riffs lifted out of songs that sit on the end of my tongue, yet I never feel like the Stripes are just copping great riffs of the past. Good artists copy, it has been said, and great artists steal. The Stripes steal – Jimmy Page’s slippery blues riffs are everywhere, and I even hear a tiny, tiny bit of Geddy Lee from Rush during a quiet acoustic moment from 2112, in the way Jack White phrases the very end of the verses in “You’ve Got Her In Your Pocket.” (I don’t doubt the latter will confound any Stripes fans who are not Rush fans. Just believe me.) Not to mention slight nods to early Metallica and Kiss in “Black Math.” None of these are presented as if to convince the listener that they are new – they’re there as if to confirm the musical pedigree the White Stripes are bred from. The blues, afterall, has never been about forging a new path, but simply connecting through a shared knowledge or experience. The White Stripes use what has come before them to make a further connection – like saying “you know these riffs from somewhere, and now you know us because you know where we came from.”
Unlike before, I’m not as concerned about where they came from – but where they’re going next.