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Wednesday, February 2, 2011

R.I.P. The White Stripes, 1997-2011: An Appreciation

Posted By on Wed, Feb 2, 2011 at 11:42 AM

R.I.P., guy and gal.
  • R.I.P., guy and gal.
More than just a band ended today, with the White Stripes' announcement that they are formally ceasing to record, perform, exist. (They hadn't done anything for a long while, anyway.) Easily the best of a cohort that might loosely be known as the "The" bands -- the Strokes, the Hives, the Vines, the Black Keys, the Von Bondies (haha), and many more, the end of the White Stripes also brings to a close a fruitfully nostalgic and fun period of American rock. That age mostly ended some years ago -- and that's likely true no matter how good the Strokes' upcoming album proves to be -- but only today was its question-discouraging, color-coordinated epitaph published.

What most clearly separated the Stripes from their peers was the way they successfully left their own imprint on bluesy, garagey, countryish rock -- something akin to making a strikingly unique apple pie. Partly, this was good timing: blues and country, along with the other building blocks of classic rock, were due for an update in the post-grunge era, and the Stripes' interpretations felt all the more refreshing after the hegemony of emotionally flat nu metal in the late '90s/earlys '00s. But though they shared musical influences with a great number of contemporaneous bands, the White Stripes channeled those influences in a way that made them seem unlike anything that had come before.

To be sure, the band gained attention for many things besides its music. First, there was the ambiguity of Jack and Meg's relationship -- were they brother and sister? husband and wife? neither? -- which dominated early conversations I heard about the band. (Turned out they were a married couple until 2000.) There was the fact that the White Stripes had only two members (this was still pretty rare in the early aughts, especially for a live band) and that Meg was regarded by a great many as an awful drummer. (Personally, I beg to differ, but it sure is/was fun to argue about.) Then there was their striking visual aesthetic -- white, red, and black were the only colors the Stripes ever wore or used on themselves, their album art, or their stage setups, whether in the form of a peppermint, a Mondrian painting, or a vintage plastic guitar. It made them extremely memorable.

All of this, though, was mere window dressing for the songwriting force that Jack White turned out to be. The man didn't just bring blues, country, and grunge back into mainstream rock; he recasted them in a way that made it all his own. "Hotel Yorba," off the White Stripes' breakthrough album, White Blood Cells, marries a near-parody of a country chord progression to a childish earnestness that would become a signature lyrical mode for much of the band's music. It's jaunty, and fun, and also cute in a way that little music at that point was. "We're Going To Be Friends," in which Jack plays an expectant schoolboy doting over his first crush, does the same with a gentle acoustic blues. "We don't notice any time pass/ We don't notice anything/ We sit side-by-side in every class..." 

Then, of course, there was the other Jack White, the guy who took to a thundering electric blues in "Ball and Biscuit" to sing, "Right now you could care less about me, but soon enough you will care, by the time I'm done" before proceeding to basically demand a "ball." (You can guess what that is.) White could transform from the mild boy next door to a brusque sexual animal from one song to another, yet despite those quick transitions, he managed to inhabit each character forcefully and completely. The fact that this seemed on its face impossible -- was White sensitive, or the strong, silent type? -- only made the White Stripes more mysterious.

We'd be remiss without mentioning to Jack White's considerable instrumental skill -- he's among the best guitar players American rock has had in the last 10 years, and maybe ever, which is impressive considering he started out playing drums as a kid. (The Stripes never made much out of the irony that their frontman was a better drummer than Meg, their drummer, but it was certainly true.)

Come to think of it, there were quite a few lingering contradictions in the Stripes' music and the persons behind it. (The vintage gear-obsessed punk-rock fan is also a Porsche-driving, supermodel-dating bar brawler?) But Jack White, at least, was always too restless to linger on the details. He effectively put the Stripes on hiatus years ago to pursue a string of side projects (the mostly skippable Raconteurs, and the more lively Dead Weather), but unlike, say, Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, White apparently never found cause to go back to the group that made him famous.

Ending it now is a wise decision for this band. The era that birthed the White Stripes and drove it to mainstream success was over some years ago (and many were surprised today to hear the White Stripes hadn't already expired). But by ending the band deliberately, forcefully, and without having made anything approaching a dud of a record, the White Stripes allow us to remember their run with all the fondness it deserves.

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