Anyone who's paid even vague attention to this webpage knows that I am not a fan of Jack White - not of the White Stripes, nor of the Raconteurs, nor of that hammy underwritten track where he & Alicia Keys stand around and shout a lot. Now, bitching about mainstream music is tilting at windmills: no matter how shitty, it ain't gonna change for some crank with an obscure vinyl collection, so sit back and let the harmattan of history sand the chrome off the latest novelty until it's as rusted & useless as all that went before. But Jack White is cannier than your average pop mouthpiece and displays both a stylistic percipience and business acuity to rival that of career(ist) icons Bowie and Reznor. The White Stripes may have reached both the platinum & gold sales thresholds but once in America, yet consider that since "Fell In Love With a Girl" first gatecrashed MTV in 2002, we've been subjected to saturation airplay of Avril Lavigne, Linkin Park, 50 Cent, Norah Jones, Usher, Maroon 5, Kelly Clarkson, the Killers, the Black Eyed Peas, the High School Musical soundtracks, Amy "My Last Name Is an Easy Punchline" Winehouse, and Katy Perry... and through it all, Jack White has remained more consistently credible and popular than any of those acts.
To give credit where it's due, Jack White is a hell of a businessman.
White knows pop begins with (and doesn't go much further than) its facade, and so painstakingly sculpts his acts to look how they sound: the peppermint insouciance of the bratty White Stripes (“the most powerful color combination of all time, from a Coca-Cola can to a Nazi banner”); the tweeds-'n'-jeans bar-band antiglam of the Raconteurs; and most recently, the sallow black leather rebel peacocking of the Dead Weather (as seen above and a million times before).
White has also learned a lesson from the Catholic Church and the Grateful Dead: what good is an image without accompanying merchandise? As far back as the Stripes' major-label debut, White's been keen to go beyond trad T-shirt-and-sticker stock by releasing limited-run collectibles bearing his trichromatic cordon. He may not have gotten his own Lego set, but he did get everything from USB sticks to sewing kits and a signature-edition Lomo camera set.
Perhaps heeding Lego's lost opportunity, the Coca-Cola company came a-knockin' in 2006 to commission an update of their epochal grouphug. The Nagi Noda video accompanying White's sub-Sesame Street singalong was an immaculately executed rip-off of Michel Gondry's fast-fatiguing repeat-o-rama trick (including, of course, the "Hardest Button To Button" video).
But while the fool multitude may be content with wacky-looking guitars and a head-nodding beat, tastemakers, critics, and hipsters are quick to call "foul" on a musician palling around with corporate sponsors. White set about defending his cred even before any worse-than-typical-knee-jerk blacklash kicked up, cranking his Analog-Man-In-A-Digital-World affectation to 11 by slagging off "kids today" and the internet in every interview. Also, when his Bond theme was debuted via another Coca-Cola commercial, he rushed out a press release disavowing any involvement in the marketing scheme, claiming to be "disappointed that you first heard the song in a co-promotion for Coke Zero, rather than in its entirety."
But who other than the densest, most irony-deficient dolt would accept this blatant cant? (Though such blatant about-faces often seem to work for scandalised evangelicals...) Clearly White's not shy about shilling for a megacorp of questionable scruples - he just wants total control over his product. After all, he 86'd that collaboration with Lego because, in his words, "You had your chance." True, White could avoid tangling with tie-ins and licensing altogether by forsaking merchandise a la Fugazi, but then Ian MacKaye ain't got a net worth $37 million, does he?
White's technophobia & analog asceticism also rings false. The band does in fact use digital trickery to enhance their sound, and White's label's much-vaunted subscription service is - surprise! - built upon the online platform. It's this false piousness and deliberate luddism regarding the internet that is most maddening. "Do I really need a MySpace page for this fucking music?" White recently asked, and obviously no, he doesn't - but only because the Stripes (and thus all his subsequent endeavors) were one of the last acts truly to benefit from the full support of the now-shuddering machinery of the music industry. Shit, if I had V2 funding music videos and paying for airplay, I wouldn't need a MySpace page either!
If there is any other contemporary icon I consider a kindred spirit of Jack White, it's Beyoncé Knowles - which isn't to say I'll sit through a Raconteurs video just for the hip-shaking. There are other musicians who parlayed their "pop outsider" status into a self-sustained cottage industry, with numerous side-projects and forays into other mediums: Frank Zappa, Ani DiFranco, Mike Patton, and fellow Americana afficionado Nick Cave have all done this. But whereas they all regard(ed) the industry at large with enormous contempt & suspicion, White seems unnaturally at ease navigating the corporate landscape - as graceful a glad-hander as Beyoncé. Additionally, both White and Beyoncé's extra-curricular excursions seem less like creative exploration than a rapacious quest for ubiquity, that we should all die with their frizzy hair and unblinking stares seared onto our retinas, the last incandescent image we should ever see as we slump lifeless in our Laz-E-Boys in front of MTV's analgesic strobe.
But, in the end, it's all about the music, right? So yes, let's make it about the fucking music: Jack White enjoys the obscene fortune of being the most widely-admired musical half-wit in history, with a three-chord vocabulary and as great a gift for nuance as Michael Bay. As refreshingly raw as White Blood Cells may have been after a half-decade of ProTool-lacquered pop & nu-metal, White's musical aesthetic is stuck solidly forty years in the past. He's contributed as much to music's progress as these shuck-'n'-jiving charlatans.
What baffles me is that I'm far from alone in acknowledging how starkly unoriginal White's work has been, yet I am desperately alone in not forgiving his shopworn adequation. Clippings from recent Dead Weather reviews include:
- ...having refashioned such dead-horse devices as slide-geetar riffs and Bonham-style boogies into something both exciting and exceedingly profitable. (7.5/10)
- ...a swampy and distinctive, if not wholly original, take on the age-old rock melting pot of dirt, sex, danger, God, and the Devil.
- But about half of Horehound is very much in the same spook-boogie mode that’s been done to death by thousands of Allmans/Winters/Hendrix/Zeppelin-worshipping bar bands. (B)
Non-Sequitorial Postscript: Separated at birth?
Son of Non-Sequitorial Postscript: Ah, Buddyhead... it's good to have you back, lads!