Get Behind Me Satan (The White Stripes)
Rock and roll has a quality of incompleteness that connects it to young adulthood. The music is formally underdeveloped. The lyrics do not need to hang together; the chords are not supposed to follow harmonic convention; the playing need not be precise; and if the singing is dead on pitch, it sounds wrong—that is, it sounds too right, too grown-up. Immanently unfinished, the music, like its audience, exists in a state of permanent adolescence, and carries an implicit critique of adult society’s esteem for maturity, effectuation, and refinement. Rock musicians have employed and periodically updated this aesthetic (or conspicuously rejected elements of it) for five decades, though few have done so as rigorously and as successfully as the White Stripes.
The band is not a band in the usual mode, but a duo of guitar and drums whose creative scales are heavily tipped on the side of the guitarist, Jack White. Born John Gillis in Detroit thirty years ago, he took the surname of his first wife, Meg White, a former shop assistant and barmaid who started playing the drums two months before they had their first gig as the White Stripes, in 1997. The Whites divorced at some point, but continued working together. They have maintained a creepy ambiguity about their relationship, referring to each other as brother and sister while trading in sexual innuendo on stage and in lyrics to songs such as “Sister, Do You Know My Name?” Jack White apparently writes all the material, words, and music. (Although the first three of the group’s five albums credited their compositions vaguely to “the White Stripes,” subsequent releases of the same songs on DVD attribute them solely to Jack White; on the last two albums, all original songs have been credited to him alone.) He does virtually all the lead singing, save for two Meg White solo numbers among the albums’ seventy-three songs, one of which is only thirty-five seconds long. And he plays the duo’s dominant instrument, guitar, as well as some piano and, on the new album, a bit of marimba. The White Stripes is essentially a two-person one-man band.
A new class of youngish singer-songwriters working under band aliases— Bright Eyes (Conor Oberst), Onelinedrawing (Jonah Sonz Matranga), Eels (Mark Oliver Everett), and Pedro the Lion (David Bazan), among the more prominent— has emerged in recent years, since desktop recording software such as ProTools has lowered the cost and the skill level necessary to make impressive-sounding multi-track recordings. Nearly anyone with some talent can now make a CD, alone, in his or her room. Digitally armed, solo artists have crossed into the terrain of bands and started taking their names. In due course, they have laid claim to the cool that comes with being in a group, while escaping (or postponing) the taint of wussiness inherent in being a singer-songwriter like James Taylor or Jackson Browne.
The White Stripes are radicals of this class, in part because they reject the technology that facilitates the music-making of most other one- and two- person groups of the day. (Quite a few guitar-and-drum duos, such as Nice Nice, Two Gallants, and Scissormen, have sprung up in the past several years, many in the Stripes’ wake.) They play retro instruments—at a White Stripes concert at Manhattan’s SummerStage two years ago, Jack White was playing a decades-old Kay archtop guitar, a starter instrument—and they record quickly, live in the studio, the way the Beatles did before they learned to exploit the studio, and make the recording, not the composition or the performance, into the art form. A note in the booklet of the White Stripes’ Elephant, which appeared in 2003, proclaimed in red italic type: “No computers were used during the recording, mixing or mastering of this record.” That is to say, no romantic notions about the analog past were harmed for the production. The statement was not so much a disclaimer as a claim to higher ground in a realm of pop recording perceived as authentic, and therefore superior, mainly because most other young artists aren’t doing it that way today. So in truth its real claim is not to authenticity, but to exceptionalism—the enduring aspiration of permanent adolescence.
Unlike Conor Oberst and the rest, Jack White has no interest in synthesizing the sound of a band. Synthesis is scarcely his interest. White uses a minimal number of instruments—on most tracks on the majority of the White Stripes’ albums, just guitar (sometimes piano), drums, and voice: no bass to lay a harmonic foundation for a song and flesh out the rhythm section; no second guitarist to add counterpoint or stimulate his own playing; with very few exceptions, no additional musicians at all. The intent is clearly to sound not like an ensemble but like an ensemble part, a piece of something unfinished whose larger form is uncertain and irrelevant. White Stripes tracks sound like demos—or, occasionally, rehearsals for demos, the work of a couple (or a former couple, or a sister and a brother, or whatever) trying out ideas in their rec room. The recordings are bonus tracks of outtakes for albums never meant to exist. Few artists have taken the fractional nature of rock and roll so to heart as Jack White and his ex-wife, the drummer who plays the same rudimentary beat to almost every song.
The White Stripes had released two albums to little effect in the United States when, in the summer of 2001, they went to England and were acclaimed there as the next new thing, largely because they reminded English critics of past next new things that had come from their own country: Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, and the Beatles. “Believe the White Stripe Hype: Jack and Meg White Are the Story of the Moment,” announced a rather self-referential headline in The Independent. Like Jimi Hendrix and the Ramones in olden days, the White Stripes returned to America legitimized by England, and they broke through here with their third album, White Blood Cells. The American musical climate was hospitable: pop was nearing the end of an overtly commercial phase, the era of boy bands and Britney Spears. The White Stripes seemed an antidote to the corporate thinking and technical artifice infusing the airwaves.
The English critics were on to something. The White Stripes do sound a lot like Led Zeppelin (and other groups, several of which came up through the English electric-blues revival of the 1960s). On many tracks on their first few albums, Jack White sings almost exclusively in a pinched laryngeal squeak that seems almost a parody of Robert Plant, down to the hiccupping into falsetto and the abrupt, arbitrary wailing. His guitar playing, much the same, amounts to a reconfiguration of chordal effects and riffs that Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton (in his Cream days) adapted from vintage American blues. Compositionally, too, many of the White Stripes songs feel patched together from vinyl swatches: “Fell in Love With a Girl” (from White Blood Cells, which has been covered, as in obscured, by Joss Stone) uses the chorus of the Pretenders song “Middle of the Road”; “Hypnotize” (from the White Stripes’ fourth album, Elephant) cribs the melody of Johnny Rivers’s “Secret Agent Man”; and “As Ugly As I Seem” (from the Stripes’ recent CD, Get Behind Me Satan) lifts the tune of Bob Dylan’s “I Believe in You.” Other songs appropriate more generally: here, a generic punk number (“Jumble Jumble” from the second album, DeStijl, named for the Dutch modernist movement); there, a playground chant (“We’re Going to Be Friends” from White Blood Cells) or a country thing (“I’m Lonely” from Satan). Of course, all this comes in reduced form, as quick sketches—a couple of power chords, a few notes of lead guitar—that trace the outlines of earlier, more fully realized work; mnemonic devices for better things.
Meg White plays so sparingly that on some songs, such as “Sugar Never Tasted So Good” (from the first album) and “As Ugly As I Seem,” Jack White feels compelled to add percussion fills by tapping patterns on his guitar. One way to think of her playing is economical. As such, it has an economy comparable to that of Baltic and Mediterranean Avenues, the dark-purple properties in Monopoly: it’s the closest thing to bankruptcy, but only a game. Her ex-husband uses her as a found musical object, because her nave, repetitive tapping in 4/4 time counterbalances his flailing and screeching, and also, I suppose, because she is incapable of getting in his way.
Jack White’s various explanations of his partner’s function are endearingly fanciful. “She brings a child-like quality to the music, an innocence, which is perfect for what we do,” he said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times recently. Last year, he told the London Observer, “I love the fact that it’s hard for people to understand. We’ve said before that it’s always been a great thing to get certain people to go away thinking, ‘Oh dear, she can’t play the drums!’ ‘Fine, if you think it’s all a gimmick, go away!’ It weeds out people who wouldn’t care anyway.”
Care about what? He didn’t say. I would think that evidence of incompetence and gimmickry would weed out people who care a great deal about aesthetic integrity and creative authenticity. White Stripes fans, whose numbers keep growing, must have a stronger appetite for contrivance and gamesmanship—or a more acute sense of irony—than Jack White realizes. From the studied theatricality of the duo’s public relationship, through their fetishization of old technology, to the rigid constriction of their music and their highly codified stage presentation, the White Stripes are a small circus of gimmickry.
In concert, the Whites wear only red, black, and white, and their stage sets invariably utilize the same motif. Every one of their albums (and singles) has been packaged in these three colors, evocations of which also lace through the words of their songs (“Broken Bricks,” “Apple Blossom,” “Black Math”). Graphically, this color scheme is elemental and severe, like the White Stripes’ music. The visual components work together through sharp contrast and have a dynamic, kinetic effect. In this group of three visual elements, only one, red, is really a color. As an allusion, the scheme evokes early twentieth-century constructivist art and Soviet propaganda posters, in which extremism and delusion found vivid expression.
The latest White Stripes album, Get Behind Me Satan, appears at first to be a significant departure from the duo’s past music. Just three of the thirteen songs (the opening cut, “Blue Orchid,” and “Instinct Blues” and “Red Rain”) have Jack White’s thrashing, distorted electric guitar, and only two of them give us White in his Robert Plant voice. On the first selection, White adopts a chirping 1970s funk falsetto, and the color in the song title isn’t even red, white, or black! Most of the tracks have White strumming or fingerpicking an acoustic guitar, blocking chords on a piano, or tapping on a marimba, while he sings in a nasal, conversational tenor. Meg White’s presence is often spectral; on some tunes, there are no drums at all, just some dinging on a triangle or ringing bells. (The tambourine-playing on the album is by Jack White.) The record—which is literally a record, released on vinyl LP as well as CD—is quieter and more varied in texture than the previous albums.
But finally it is of a piece with them, and ultimately less satisfying. Beneath its textural surface, Get Behind Me Satan is another collection of homages or larcenies (“The Nurse” ends like half a dozen John Lennon songs, the piano part to “White Moon” comes from Dylan’s “Dear Landlord”), conspicuously arty gestures (a toy piano on “Red Rain,” coy references to Rita Hayworth and studio-era Hollywood throughout the album’s lyrics), and perfunctory musical ideas weakly or partially executed. As Jack White has said in interviews, he went into the recording studio without having finished the album’s songs. He came out the same way.
Like most of the White Stripes’ output, Get Behind Me Satan has the character of work tapes, the sound of music very much in progress. It disappoints more than its predecessors because the musicianship is poorer. Jack White is a skilled rock guitarist; mimicking Jimmy Page is not an easy thing to do. (That is why every teenager plays “Whole Lotta Love” to show off in the guitar store.) But White can barely execute simple triads on the piano; and his marimba playing is not exactly playing, it’s learning on studio time. In a way, then, Get Behind Me Satan represents a triumph for Meg White as a musical force. The White Stripes’ scales are now leveling to a point of equilateral amateurism.
Usually described as minimalism or primitivism, the aesthetic of the White Stripes is also a kind of formalism, in that they have always made themselves work within a set of carefully defined structures that matter more than their contents. They are obsessed with form, as well as with the dissembling of forms into smaller, essential units: a couple of instruments, a few chords, three colors. “The band is so special and so boxed in, and there are so many limitations,” Jack White told the Ottawa Citizen a few years ago. “It’s such an art project, in one sense.... I think eventually it’s going to burn itself out. It can only go so far.”
Two years later, we have, in Get Behind Me Satan, White’s manifesto for survival: an album that attempts to retain the specialness of the White Stripes by keeping the box, retaining the limitations, and changing only what is inside. The White Stripes still fetishize the past—Satan sounds as if it were recorded in Sun Studios after Elvis’s sessions, and the CD booklet has a staged black-and-white photo of Meg and Jack White as members of a rockabilly band that could have been in Memphis in 1954. They still play all the instruments themselves, with Jack handling most of the creative work, and nearly all their songs are still variations on the same three models: electric blues, country blues, and children’s music. Now they’re doing so with acoustic instruments.
The White Stripes remain contemporary rock’s masters of malformation. They have produced a body of work characterized by nothing so much as a refusal to be whole. All notions and whims, experiments and fits, their music begs for resolution and denies it. No wonder the band is so popular with young America: the White Stripes create the music of the IM age, the sound of tossed-off partial thoughts, blurted out and blithely replaced with more of the same, never concluding. Jack White may think of his work as a protest against the proliferation of digital technology, but his music is its leitmotif.
This article originally ran in the July 25, 2005 issue of the magazine.