Thursday, October 30, 2008

10/30/08 - In praise of the White Stripes

I'm wondering where the backlash stands on the White Stripes these days, as just in the last two weeks I've talked to people whose opinions on rocking I respect greatly that both possess an avowed dislike of Jack White and the White Stripes. One of these people is a drummer and I wonder if it is significant as another friend of mine that is also a drummer was the loudest anti-Stripes voice that I remember in college.

Both of them have not really given the Stripes more than a cursory listen, but both responded viscerally in the negative, which is interesting to me considering how much of breath of fresh air they were to me when White Blood Cells exploded out of the gate. But it's a strange band to write off sight unseen, as though they're just another Snow Patrol or Fall Out Boy, a mainstream act grabbing for the brass ring with an inescapable song or two and a blend of phoniness & ambition that marks the dregs of mainstream chart-dwellers.

In a lot of ways, the White Stripes seem to be victims of their own success, at least when it comes to perception, and the devil of it all is that they saw it coming. "Little Room" off of White Blood Cells is a simple metaphor for the plight of the artist rocketing toward success, and it clocks in at under a minute. After the release of that album, the Stripes were bound toward bona fide rock stardom, and figuring out how they got started sitting in their little room.

Aside: I remember seeing them at the Bowery Ballroom in NY with my friend Andrew right after White Blood Cells was released, and it was clear that the band was going on to bigger and better things. Probably the best concert I've ever seen. The amount of energy they poured into the place was nigh-destructive in nature; I've always wondered what it would be like to see some of the great high-energy rock acts at the go-for-broke club stage, your AC/DCs, your Nirvanas, your Rage Against the Machines, and this was what I imagine it felt like.

So, to me, the ways that the White Stripes are a great rock band, and why they don't deserve your hatred for their success:

1. Understanding of negative space. This was something that my friend Nate was talking about the other day (he is a drummer, he doesn't like Jack White and claims not to like the White Stripes either). The Stripes get a lot of shit for Meg not being a good drummer (especially from drummers), but I would argue that this criticism is a fundamental missing of the point of what they're trying to do. Meg is not a rhythmically challenged musical idiot - she keeps time just fine, thanks. What she doesn't do, ever, is play any fills. Her drumming is strictly patterned minimalism - when the band alters the sound of a section of a song, she'll switch from one symbol to the other, or hit the bass drum on the even beats, but she never plays a single drum fill. I think this is by design - the lack of drum fills makes the hits that are there much more powerful.
My friend Andrew observed that Elephant was a great name for a White Stripes album, because the band sounds like an elephant trampling through the jungle. This is due, in large part, to Meg's drums, which hit hard on the downbeats and nowhere else. The space created thus makes the downbeats hit twice as hard as they would otherwise. The difference between the way a Who song "rocks" and the way a Stripes song "rocks" is like the difference between being knocked out by a devastating series of technically impeccable jabs (Keith Moon style, a million hits on a million different drums/cymbals) and being KTFO with one solid Tyson uppercut (Meg). Technically, obviously, Keith Moon is a better drummer, and that's an understatement...but the style of each person's drumming fits each band's music equally. Jack White plays with a forceful blues primitivism, and Meg's downbeat heavy drumming brings it to life.

2. Jack's diverse songwriting talent - for all of their sonic limitations, the White Stripes hit a pretty wide range of moods, which is due mostly to Jack's facility with songwriting. He can write guitar ballads ("We Are Going To Be Friends"), country songs ("Little Ghost"), punk raveups ("Let's Build a Home"), Zeppelin-style blues stomps ("Why Can't You Be Nicer to Me?"), and piano ballads ("I'm Lonely But I Ain't That Lonely Yet"). So, even though the sonics are not diverse, the songs themselves are.

3. Jack's a skilled guitarist and singer. Bands these days rarely have talented singers and talented lead guitarists - Jack White is both. For evidence of White as talented singer, see "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground". He hits that Robert Plant quaver without the preening to illustrate the desperation of love gone wrong. For evidence of White as talented guitarist, refer to "Ball and Biscuit". Never has the digital whammy sounded so good.

4. A keen understanding of history/myth as they intersect in rock and roll. Unlike fellow 2000s breakout band the Strokes, who always seemed keenly uncomfortable with being cast as rich rock dilettantes instead of embracing the role of, well, rich rock dilettantes, White famously got in front of the star-making machinery, making up a story that he and his ex-wife were brother and sister, talking up his adventures in upholstery, and talking about his rabid love of the blues. A mix of truth and absolute, bald-faced lies, this gave White a persona and an escape route - he wouldn't have to answer Fleetwood Mac style questions about the fallout between his and Meg's relationship because he was lying from the start about the entire thing. Instead he could concentrate on his real loves, storytelling and the blues.

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