Left free to my own devices, I ruminated over which artist I would examine to understand dialogic meanings and music hybridization in contemporary culture. The first to come to mind was Moby, whose lush and rich textures seduce the listener with layer upon layer of dense auditory bliss. I also considered Radiohead, mostly because I think they’re the quintessential alternative rock band and the first “real” band many kids in my generation started listening to in college cleansing themselves completely of pop and radio friendly rock.
Instead, no other artist represents this notion of hybridity dialogic meanings better than Jack White. White is best known as the enigmatic leader of The White Stripes, formed in 1997 with then-wife Meg White (Handyside, n.d.), but also as the founding member of two following bands, The Raconteurs, formed in 2006, and The Dead Weather, formed in 2009. In addition, White has released his own music to much critical acclaim. The White Stripes were at the forefront of the lo-fi indy rock movement that began in the late 90s as a reaction to mainstream rock and the post-grunge scene that formed after the deaths of Kurt Cobain and Layne Staley and the decline of Pearl Jam and the breakup of Soundgarden.
The White Stripes not only looked different, a two piece band dressed in Meg’s signature peppermint coding scheme, but they sounded different. Melding garage rock and blues in a raw visceral way, the band rose to prominence with a string of hit records, including the cult-favorite De Stijl (2000), White Blood Cells (2001) and Elephant (2003). Of those early albums, AllMusic wrote, “Jack White’s voice is a singular, evocative combination of punk, metal, blues, and backwoods while his guitar work is grand and banging with just enough lyrical touches of slide and subtle solo work” (Handyside, (n.d.)a.). Later in the same article, the author Handyside bemoans, “All D.I.Y. punk-country-blues-metal singer/songwriting duos should sound this good” as he clearly had difficulty in describing the band’s unique sound. Even when the band broke up, they did it differently, no lead singer marching off to soar or fail as a solo star, no tabloid level brouhaha, just a quiet end to a remarkable run. “The White Stripes do not belong to Meg and Jack anymore. The White Stripes belong to you now and you can do with it whatever you want. The beauty of art and music is that it can last forever if people want it to. Thank you for sharing this experience. Your involvement will never be lost on us and we are truly grateful” (Greene, 20011)
While Jack White’s haunting guitar work made a name for himself, Rolling Stone ranked him No. 17 on their list of “The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time” (Rolling Stone, 2013), it was a combination with the naiveté of Meg White’s drums that often made their work so distinct, (which he strongly defended (NME.com, 2010), and true to the lo-fi aesthetic. Jack could have probably played the drums for the Stripes as well he does for The Dead Weather, which had one critic raving “Perhaps it’s time for the hobby to become the day job” (Aizlewood, 2010).
Just as Janelle Monáe has her influences, one could say that Jack White has his “influence-ees.” White has collaborated with such music luminaries as Beck, the Rolling Stones, Jeff Beck, Alicia Keys, and even the legendary Bob Dylan. In 2004, White produced Loretta Lynn’s Grammy winning Van Lear Rose, and later in 2011, revived the career of the “Queen of Rockabilly” Wanda Jackson who enjoyed her first ever charting on the Billboard Hot 200 with The Party Ain’t Over after a near 60 year career in music. He even found time to produce a live comedy album for Conan O’Brien in 210.
Florida and Jackson (2010) investigated the economic geography of music, why certain places produced certain kinds of musics and what cultural and economic factors played a role in those creations. “Detroit has one of the most legendary rock music scenes around because of its status as the home of innovative and highly influential rock bands like The MC5 and The Stooges, as well as Motown, techno, and other musical styles—a robust pool of musical and business talent. White himself hails from Detroit and built the White Stripes’ sound and brand on that city’s musical legacy. The three other musicians in The Raconteurs are all originally from the Rustbelt— singer, guitarist, and songwriter Brendan Benson is White’s long-time associate from Detroit, while drummer Patrick Keeler and bass player Jack Lawrence are from a Cincinnati band, The Greenhornes. The question this article asks is: what factors and forces underpin this kind of relocation? Students of business location might say costs—perhaps Nashville offers a less expensive place to produce and distribute music” (Florida & Jackson, 2010, p. 310).
White left the confines of the Motor City for Nashville in 2005. Of the move, he said, “(Detroit) was so super-negative. It was draining me, I had to get somewhere where I could breathe again” (Associated Press, 2006). Florida and Jackson (2010) suggest “… the Detroit scene, which had fueled the emergence of the White Stripes signature stripped-down rock sound, had become too one-dimensional and constraining. It did not offer the broad range of sounds, genres, and mix of talent available to White in Nashville” (p. 319). The move did not predicate a complete overhaul of style or a complete country/bluegrass/folk buy-in. “The band dedicated an album to bluesman Blind Willie McTell and covered Son House’s classic “Death Letter” blues, but the two live in fear of having their authenticity evaluated. Says singer Jack White, “We’re white people who play the blues, and our problem was how do we do that and not be fake” (Filene, 2004, p.64).
It’s not just that White’s talent is so prodigious or prolific, with The White Stripes I witnessed him individually play five different guitars, a piano, the mandolin, marimba, tambourine and a set of bongos. It is the fluidity of White as an artists to float seamlessly through disparate genres, styles, and sounds that will always stick with me. Just look at the first three tracks on 2005’s Get Behind Me Satan which starts with “Blue Orchid” whose unique sound is produced by playing a guitar into “a Digitech Whammy WH-4 with an octave-up setting, and an early Electro-Harmonix POG” (Rae, 2010). “The Nurse”, next, “combines marimba, lyrics evoking Dylan at his trippiest, and occasional bursts of drum wallop from Meg” (Walsh, 2005). The third track, “My Doorbell” was nominated for a Grammy, and can best be described as “a strutting piano soul number” (Murphy, 2005) and how it “marries the fizziest of pop melodies to a soulful ’60s Motown shuffle” (Walsh, 2005). Amazingly, that’s just the first three tracks.
In conclusion, White can best be described as a modern day Nikola Tesla, whom he mentions in the 2003 film Coffee and Cigarettes. In chapter nine, “Jack Shows Meg his Tesla Coil,” while relating the importance of Tesla’s discoveries, Jack states “He perceived the Earth as a conductor of acoustical resonance” (Jarmush, 2005).
Since I couldn’t decide which to show, I put two of my favorite videos from “Blunderbuss” below. Enjoy.
Jack White – Freedom At 21
Jack White – Sixteen Saltines
Associated Press. Jack White leaves “super-negative.” (2006, May 25). USA Today. Retrieved from http://www.usatoday.com/life/people/2006-05-25-jack-white_x.htm
Aizlewood, J. (2010, June 29). Jack White bangs the drum for mighty, meaty rock in Dead Weather. The Evening Standard. Retrieved from http://www.standard.co.uk/goingout/music/jack-white-bangs-the-drum-for-mighty-meaty-rock-in-dead-weather-7420496.html
Florida, R., & Jackson, S. (2010). Sonic city: The evolving economic geography of the music industry. Journal of Planning Education and Research, 29(3), 310-321.
Filene, B. (2004). O Brother, What Next?: Making Sense of the Folk Fad. Southern Cultures, 10(2), 50–69. doi:10.1353/scu.2004.0025
Greene, A. (2011, Feb 2). The White Stripes announce their break-up. Rolling Stone. Retrieved from http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/the-white-stripes-announce-their-break-up-20110202
Handyside, C. (n.d.). The White Stripes: Biography. AllMusic.com. Retrieved from http://www.allmusic.com/artist/the-white-stripes-mn0000921710
Handyside, C. (n.d.)a. Review: The White Stripes. AllMusic.com. Retrieved from http://www.allmusic.com/album/the-white-stripes-mw0000246565
Jarmush, J. (2005). Coffee and Cigarettes [DVD]. Espanya: Araba Films.
Jurgensen, J. (2011, Jan 21). The queen of rockabilly returns. The Wall Street Journal, D8.
Murphy, M. (2005, June 5). The White Stripes: Get Behind Me Satan. Pitchfork Media. Retrieved from http://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/8653-get-behind-me-satan
NME. (2010, March 18). Jack White defends Meg’s drumming skills. NME. Retrieved from http://www.nme.com/news/the-white-stripes/50279
Rae, K. (2010). JACK WHITE of The White Stripes, Raconteurs, and Dead Weather. The Big Muff π Page. Retrieved from http://www.kitrae.net/music/big_muff_users.html
Rolling Stone. (2013, Dec 7). 100 greatest guitarists: Jack White. Rolling Stone. Retrieved from http://www.rollingstone.com/music/lists/100-greatest-guitarists-20111123/jack-white-20111122
Scaggs, A. 2008. Murder ballads and southern grooves: The Racon- teurs are back. Rolling Stone. June 12. http://www.rollingstone .com/news/story/20980717/
Walsh, B. (2005, June 11). The White Stripes: Get Behind Me Satan. Slant. Retrieved from http://www.slantmagazine.com/music/review/the-white-stripes-get-behind-me-satan