Sunday, July 26, 2009

Calling For the Head of John Anthony Gillis

Who is John Anthony Gillis exactly? Well, I'd say he's the one above with the studied pout and vacant stare, but that wouldn't really help, would it?

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:
See that? These days, "dead-horse devices" reminiscent of records from almost 50 years ago can still somehow be "exciting", while "done to death" merits a solid B; that's some No Child Left Behind grade-curving shit. How, how, how can such under-achieving retro-conservatism still be so gleefully consumed? Where is the otherwise-inescapable post-post-post-ironic backlash? Is everyone too scared to admit that this pallid caveman, once a compelling herald from leftfield, is actually not the fuzzbox messiah we wished? Or is everyone just THAT FUCKING BORING?

Non-Sequitorial Postscript: Separated at birth?

Son of Non-Sequitorial Postscript: Ah, Buddyhead... it's good to have you back, lads!


Anonymous said...

Wow, very insightful commentary about Jack White. Just came across your blog. I don't usually comment across the web, but you are dead-nail on target with this article.

I have to say that I am infatuated with Jack White, for many of the reasons you mention. I look at his career in awe in how is able to manipulate his image and seems to have a hyper-awareness of what will work. He often describes what he does as "tricks", and I think this is more revealing of his approach than anything. He is a trickster, and a salesman. I have to give him credit for being able to put his tricks into action. If only I could learn these tricks too, and apply it to my career.


Anonymous said...

What?? People like music. I don't feel tricked or hoodwinked by any band I enjoy. This rant doesn't seem to have anything to do with Music.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the insight. I feel like a lot of the early work was pretty brilliant. Not original necessarily, but great stuff nonetheless. First time I heard his music I thought it was like bringing classic rock back. But i definitely agree that people give him way too much credit and, worst of all, they're starting to throw the "god of rock" words around too hastily.

Anonymous said...

You are the worst. Jack White is AH-may-zing

Aj22 said...

Who ever wrote this is wrong and jack is as you said a trickster but the one who stays from the path the most goes the farthest.