Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The White Stripes.

Since the White Stripes announced their break up last week, I have struggled to find the words to celebrate what that band has meant to rock and roll over the last decade, and what it has meant to me personally. It feels inappropriate to eulogize a band in which the dominant personality, Jack White, continues to prolifically make music in other bands. Further, in band eulogy it is commonplace to overstate artistic genius. While Jack White is a mad genius of sorts, the White Stripes were flawed, and they purposely strived for imperfection. Fortunately, they came into our lives at a time when a resurgence of dirty imperfection in rock an roll was sorely needed, and that is why they are often credited as modern saviors of rock.

To appreciate fans’ heartsick reaction to word that Jack and Meg White would no longer make music together, one must recall the bleak landscape of rock and roll when the Stripes emerged on the music scene. By the late 1990’s, popular music had become a homogenized mess of boy bands, pop tarts, and whatever awful category of music includes Creed, Limp Bizkit, and Linkin Park. Record labels had seemingly hijacked artistic freedom, and music making was reduced to a formulaic process that left little variation in finished product. Everything new and emerging at the time felt fake, dishonest, and shallow. Fans of grittier guitar and drum-driven rock relied on new releases from old favorites, bands who had emerged in a different time and had managed to hold on to their creative integrity.

Then came along the White Stripes, a duo that shocked every sensibility accustomed to the tidy, glossy, buffed and polished state of music at the turn of the millennium. Meg and Jack - a drummer of basic skill and simplicity, and a guitar master with a raw and grating vocal - were anything but polished. But their calling card of a simple drum beat as the backdrop to killer guitar riff – an obvious formula that had been dormant for too long – was the freshest sound the world of rock music had heard in years. The simplicity of the White Stripes – two people with homegrown style, making heartfelt blues-rock, without back-up singers, dancers, and entourages – offered a stark realization of how so many musical acts had lost focus of what is most important: the music.

In a previous post, I expressed my gratitude for the White Stripes and the pivotal role they played for me as a music fan. Prior to my introduction to them, I was stuck in (mostly) a classic rock rut, listening to the same music I had loved for years, made decades before. I felt hopeless that a band from my generation would come along and live up to the songwriting integrity of the music I was raised on. I have said before that my journey as a music fan thus far can be divided into two eras: before I discovered the White Stripes and after I discovered them (specifically, that line drawn from first listen to the “Elephant” album). They were the bridge that linked my love of classic rock, including Led Zeppelin and Bob Dylan, to a new period of music discovery that has come since that first listen to “Elephant.” Simply put, the White Stripes were the first band to come along that made me believe in my own generation of music makers.

It wasn’t just the music that made the White Stripes so intriguing. It was a dichotomy between the brash, honest, in-your-face quality to their sound, and the enigmatic image in which Jack and Meg presented themselves to the world. A divorced couple, claiming to be siblings, they had an on-stage chemistry that was hard to pinpoint as familial, friendly, or outright sexual. Meg’s painfully shy demeanor in interviews, her inability to look up from behind a curtain of hair and a voice so inaudible that she required subtitles, gave the viewer the uncomfortable feeling that she was not a participant by her own free will. Contrast with Jack, part bluesman prodigy, part cunning businessman, driven, eccentric, provocative, perhaps even a bit tyrannical. To witness their public interaction begged the question “What the hell goes on with those two behind closed doors?” Image and interpersonal dynamics are always a component of fan interest in a band, and the White Stripes remain a mystery in that regard.

As Jack and Meg White end their career together, they leave as their legacy a few important lessons and reminders: 1) With imagination and the right equipment, two people are capable of captivating audiences at the world’s largest venues and rocking harder than most bands two or three times their size. 2) Cool is a premium in this industry, and the coolest thing a band can be is enigmatic. There is a fine line between keeping fans interested and sharing too much, and the White Stripes leave current and future fans puzzled by their eccentricity as a duo. 3) Sometimes rock and roll is a dish best served raw, and all of the imperfections in a live experience – a guitar slightly out of tune or a note sung off key – assert that human error is preferable to technological perfection.

And so, the book on the White Stripes is closed and put on the shelf. While Jack continues with a number of projects, the reclusive Meg may slip off into hiding, only coaxed out now and again to appear as a guest in the studio or on stage. But the core philosophies of the White Stripes live on, both through Jack White’s ongoing projects, and in new bands that have and will been inspired by the Stripes. In the history of rock and roll, we can peg their influence on the genre right up there among the greats.