Jack, We Need to Talk About Us

Pin it

ook, I’m not saying the White Stripes are the greatest rock band of all time. I’m just saying they’re the only band I wanna hear right now, and it’s a crime, because I can barely stand to listen to them. When I hear their stuff, I don’t even hear music, really. I hear — or feel — what’s behind it: Jack White’s soul, which is as big and busted as they come. I have come to love them like I’ve never loved any band. And sometimes, especially lately, it’s just too much to bear. Their music requires more than I want to give right about now. It breaks my heart, for one thing. And my heart’s kind of already broken.
    I’ll get over that. The point is, the White Stripes are playing a game way beyond the grasp of anyone since Nirvana. I guess Iggy Pop kind of invented it — at least in our era and within the rock genre — but it’s an ancient process that reinvents itself whenever someone talented enough comes along.


I’m talking about an artist’s fearlessness in facing the infinite supernova within — that “invincible summer” Camus found inside himself — and bringing it out into the night. (Summer ain’t all butterflies and popsicles, you know; it can be a real crucible.) Jimi Hendrix, Ray Davies, Marc Bolan, Janis Joplin and John Lennon did this; Perry Farrell, Paul Westerberg, Frank Black, Prince, Sinead O’Connor and Jeff Buckley did too. You know it when you hear it, and there’s no faking it. It drives most artists batty and ruins their lives for a while or forever, because they just can’t stay balanced while their life force shoots out in all directions. (And yeah, they were probably pretty screwed up in the first place.)
    Jack White does this. Over and over. He gives me what I have begged for in other bands for years: real danger. Right now, nobody else has the guts or the skill to pull it off. (Ironically, it requires intuitive, creative self-control and a fuckload of technique. Without that, you’re just scattershot, or a raving loony.)
    Now the question becomes, how will the Stripes handle their success?

In my fucked-up little worldview, the White Stripes existed on a separate aesthetic plane from the Stones and Godsmack. They lived in a world without Korn.

It’s weird that they actually made it to the big time. The Pixies, X and the Replacements, et. al., never got the chance to be perceived as sellouts. Super-smart punk rockers just don’t have many examples to follow into mainstream success. (Obviously, Nirvana’s a dead end.) The White Stripes may have built their sound by mimicking everyone from Blind Willie McTell to the Stooges, but in terms of how they’re going to live as risk-loving artists and Billboard chart-crashers, they’re winging it.
    So are their fans. I’ve never before watched a beloved indie band explode, and it’s thrown me for a loop. (Nevermind was my first exposure to Nirvana, and I was happy to jump the bandwagon.) Eighteen months ago, when I was telling my friends that this weird little duo called the White Stripes were the best band on the planet, I said it with a sense of hyperbole. I didn’t expect Mojo to shout it from their cover. I would have choked on my Diet Coke if you’d told me they’d be opening for the Stones, playing four nights in a row on Conan, dominating MTV2, making the cover of Spin, or getting played nonstop on KROQ next to Godsmack. Somehow, in my fucked-up little worldview, the White Stripes existed on a separate aesthetic plane from those kinds of bands. They lived in a world without Korn. To fuse those dimensions would be impossible.
    Yadda yadda — all’s I’m saying is that the crappiness of radio over the past fifteen years conditioned me to love the Stripes with a comfy, elitist chip on my shoulder: When are the White Stripes going to get their due? Do they have to fucking die? I was kind of looking forward to it. I was going to feel so much smarter than everyone else.
    The band set me up for that, too. Until quite recently, everything they said or did had the air of the intentional outsider. In 2000, Jack wrote that Detroit bands were “free from the anxiety of not getting signed. We know that it’s never going to happen.” Last September he told Mojo, “We’re not really MTV material.” And their song “Little Room,” off White Blood Cells, seemed to brace itself against success: “When you’re in the bigger room/you might not know what to do/you might have to think of/how you got started/sitting in your little room.”
    “We’ve created our own little world,” Meg told Mojo. “When you do that, nothing can get to you.” And when a Rolling Stone reporter hung out with them backstage at the MTV Movie Awards a year ago, Meg said, “We’ve slipped into some other dimension.” “We’ve never aspired to this level of attention,” Jack protested. “I can’t even fathom why they asked us to perform here.”
    Aesthetically, even, the band has always had the narcissistic humility of true Puritans:

I’m not as in love with Elephant as with their earlier stuff.

They never fail to inform interviewers — and even imply in the liner notes to Elephant — that they detest digital technology, and record their music the hard way. (Those who buy Elephant on vinyl are asked to do a little work too: It’s a double album with just a few songs on each side. Forget about streamlined makeouts to this one.) The message is this: the White Stripes will make do with next to nothing, and by doing so, they will prove that wealth, abundance and options are the enemies of rock.
    But as it turns out, maybe they weren’t totally serious about the humility stuff after all. And why should they be? Why shouldn’t they sign to V2 Records for seven figures? Why shouldn’t they play corporate-sponsored concerts, and perform at the MTV awards show, and hobnob with P-Diddy and Renee Zellweger?
    I was at the MTV Movie Awards, the Stripes’ first big MTV-related event. They performed while fan-club members danced onstage around them. I was one of those fans. I sat in a corral with 200 kids for eight hours just to hear the band play a three-minute medley of their future hits. I probably could have gotten a press pass to roam backstage, maybe even meet them. But this was my big chance, for once, to be a fan, not just a writer.
    The audience was full of milquetoast aristocracy like Ben Affleck and Mandy Moore. So when the Stripes hit the stage and started playing — sounding as muddy and trebley as any Stooges club gig — we danced with a kind of manic glee, falling on each other and laughing like drunks on a rickety rollercoaster. The audience stared blankly, holding their collective breath as if someone had just farted. Then, the music stopped. For five seconds, the fans stared up at Meg and Jack to see what had happened. (Apparently, Meg had broken a cymbal.) We turned around and got a view of the auditorium, from the highest balcony to the rap stars in the front row — the tanned skin, the lights, the glitz and the money. And then it hit us. Our band — whom we had loved in our own little rooms — was being shoved into the maw of the beast. The sanitized citadel had been invaded; the dimensions had collided. And then, all 200 of us let out a spontaneous scream like nothing I have ever heard.
    I don’t think the audience got it; I don’t think the band even got it. Jack looked down on us from his performing perch with wild eyes, like he was stifling terrified laughter at what a mess he, and MTV, had created. How had it come this far? Who were these people? What was the connecting line from his first Son House record to our MTV-damaged ears?
    Fuck it, man. I don’t know. Like I said, the White Stripes have always been a kind of private thing for me. I never wanted to freak them out or mess them up.
    And I don’t really know what success costs, either. I do know that I’m not as in love with Elephant as with their earlier stuff. This is partly because I can feel the monstrous effort they exert not to be corrupted.

Love doesn’t just die, you know — that would be too easy. It never dies. It’s just that it’s never any good again.

I admire that like crazy, but I can feel it, and it makes me sad. For all of its lo-fi, ten-day, no-budget production values, Elephant just doesn’t have the innocence and openness of the band’s other records. And Jack has always had a degree of self-consciousness anyway. There’s nothing easy about the way he cops the blues; it’s all done so earnestly it’s a little awkward. Even when he’s trying to sound like a Delta sex-god blues-baller, or like a naïve minimalist, the effort is apparent.
    That conflict makes them compelling, of course, and I’m sure i’ll eventually come to prize Elephant for exactly the same reasons it now bothers me. (It would help if I could actually put the thing on from time to time.)
    Something else saddens me about the album, but in a rich, inspiring way. Jack says Elephant is based on “the death of the sweetheart” and the breakdown of romantic traditions in contemporary society. (Inside the album, there’s a picture of Cole Porter posing in a coffin.) But what I hear is Jack mourning the death of his own romanticism. “There’s No Home For You Here” is a cruel jab at someone he once pretended to love: “I’m only waiting for the proper time to tell you/that it’s impossible to get along with you/It’s hard to look you in the face when we are talking/so it helps to have a mirror in the room.”
     Most painful is the acoustic ballad “You’ve Got Her In Your Pocket,” an elegy to the first flush of true love. This song describes precisely how it feels when young love grows old. (“You keep her in your pocket/where there’s no way out now/Put it in the safe and lock it/’cause it’s home sweet home.”) Love doesn’t just die, you know — that would be too easy. It never dies. It’s just that it’s never any good again.
    It’s my theory that Jack and Meg love each other as man and woman, but couldn’t make it work that way. Through their music, though, they’ve found a way to make something good from it. That’s the redemption of all the pain apparent on their records — music has preserved their love. I just hope that after all the success they’ve seen, and all the success to come, their love will be able to preserve their music. And that they won’t have to put it in the safe and lock it. 


© 2003 Kate Sullivan and Nerve.com.


Kate Sullivan lives in Los Angeles and writes about music, film and radio for the LA Weekly and on her blog: katesullivan.blogspot.com.