Thursday, February 03, 2011

I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself

The White Stripes officially broke up this week. It's not surprising, and they had painted themselves into a corner, but I'm still a little sad. They haven't put out a new studio album since 2007's Icky Thump, and their last tour was canceled when their drummer Meg had a nervous breakdown. Jack White has been doing his own thing for a while now, both as a musician with the Dead Weather and Raconteurs, as a producer with Wanda Jackson, and as a label owner.

Realistically, there was nothing left for the White Stripes to do BUT break up. They formed in 1997 under a very different musical climate. The guiding philosophy was "more is more." The charts were dominated by manufactured pop and aspirational hip-hop. The rock world had deteriorated from the grunge days of the early 90s into self-indulgent emo and watered down alt rock like Nickelback. Advances in studio production and home recording capabilities meant that music was more synthesized and embellished. MTV was trying to convince us that electronica was the new rock.

Into that storm rode the White Stripes. Simply put, they peeled it the fuck down. Guitar and a not-very-good drummer. That's it. They developed a color scheme gimmick to match their stripped down sound - the band was only photographed wearing red, white, and black. Their first singles and album was noisy blues rock that hadn't quite found its way, but 2000's De Stijl, named after a Dutch minimalist art movement, hit home. The chaos and noisiness of their earlier work was gone, replaced by raw blues, Led Zepplin channeling Robert Johnson without the gongs and violin bows. Interspersed were Brit pop songs like "You're Pretty Good Looking (For A Girl)," that showed there was more to the band than Page licks and Plant yowls.

They perfected their pop licks on 2001's White Blood Cells, which contains their most perfect song, "Fell In Love With A Girl." The song, like much of the White Stripe's work, was deceptively simple, so dumb it was smart, pop music pared down to its bare essence.

In 2003 they released their most successful album, Elephant. From opening single "Seven Nation Army" it was evident that the band was reaching the end of what it could do under its original model of guitar-drums. "Seven Nation Army" featured a bass guitar, adding a new element into their mix. The album hit #6 on the Billboard charts, and went on to sell over four million copies worldwide. It also contained an amazing cover of Burt Bacharach's "I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself." Jack White was evidently irritated with the video, directed by Sofia Coppola, in which Kate Moss writhed on a stripper's pole. He didn't see the connection. (I didn't mind.)

Something else had happened in that time period. Stripped-down indie rock had hit big. The Strokes had a hit record doing pared down Lower-East-Side junkie rock. The Shins were doing pared down West Coast rock. In the wake of the economic crash of 2000 and September 11, 2001, big dumb blingy music seemed gauche and outre. Garage rock was in.

The follow up, 2005's Get Behind Me Satan, showed that the band was getting tired of its own schtick. They continued to experiment with new sounds, and the production was fuller. Notice they've expanded their wardrobe colors as well.

2007's Icky Thump, went even further in the more is more direction. Both albums offered diminishingn returns, and the Stripes were starting to seem anachronistic. The machine they were raging against no longer existed. They had conquered the record industry, won a Grammy, and recorded about all the guitar-drum songs they could.

White started the Raconteurs, and then started the Dead Weather. Meg had a nervous breakdown and avoided the press. The record industry went down in flames. Arcade Fire, in a reaction against the navel gazing of early 2000s indie rock, went for a bigger, more ambitious sound. They won a Grammy.

I still love the early White Stripes, but I'm glad they called it quits. One thing I'm learning in my Nonprofit Administration program is you have to know when to abandon or shift your mission. Just because something was a good idea 13 years ago doesn't mean you have to keep doing it. Cheers to Meg and Jack for putting an end to it in style.

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