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Capturing Lightning in a Bottle Through Spontaneity: The Tale of the White Stripes
Let me paint a picture for you... It's 2002, late one night around 3 AM and you're watching one of the backwater television stations that turns into MTV2 somewhere around midnight. A song comes on with a straight forward proto punk rock and roll riff with a video of little red and white lego blocks dancing around in various combinations. It's a short catchy song and video but nothing that completely blows you away... you're more interested in mainstream alternative at the moment...
That was my first experience with the White Stripes and I share it with you because looking back now after being thrilled with their 6th album release and how huge of a fan of this duo I have become, it seems almost criminal how uninterested I was when I first heard them. There was a turning point though, and I remember that moment as well...
It was during my downloading days under a year later and I had downloaded most of their earlier works including the then new single "Seven Nation Army" and had heard that they would be spending a week as musical guest on Late Night with Conan O'Brien and so I decided to watch and check out their live act. I can't remember every song they played that week but I do remember the performance that changed everything for me.
They played their screeching cover of Dolly Parton's "Jolene".
It blew my mind... and suddenly the alternative bands, with their all their computer created, electronic bleeps and bloops that had been so in vogue at the time, seemed far less interesting.
There is a certain feel to the White Stripes songs whether it's the simple folksy "I'm Bound to Pack it Up", the minimal blues stomp version of Robert Johnson's "Stop Breakin' Down", the epic Zeppelin-esque "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground", the marimba and noise rock "The Nurse", or even the country meets punk "You Don't Know What Love is, You Just Do What You're Told". They seem to take a moment in time and create it in musical form. It's not a polished movie drama type of moment... or even the polished niceties some people claim is reality... no no... it's an authentic real life moment. Some musicians can capture these kind of moments through carefully planned parts and execution, like a symphony, but with the White Stripes, it seems to come more from spontaneity than precision, with all faults intact as part of it's charm and what makes it so emotionally powerful.
Emotion is a complicated thing that is inherently linked to music. Music is born out of emotion and the best songs speak to us on a deep emotional level, connecting with us in some way. This has often been the goal of songwriters, to try and connect with and make their audience feel something. I often use the term authenticity to describe the emotional content of music because I find the more authentic the individual sounds, the more likely I am to relate to their music and get something out of listening to it. I think authenticity in general comes from honesty and there is nothing more honest than spontaneous initial reactions... that instantaneous gut reaction to any situation.
I see the music of the White Stripes as almost capturing this gut reaction in an musical snapshot, like trying to capture lightening in a bottle. I find that aspect of their music extremely compelling and this is what struck me so much about that performance of "Jolene" that night and why suddenly I could see it in all their studio tracks as well. I've heard the original version of "Jolene" and it's good as well, but the Stripes was like an outpouring of raw emotion, not dressed up, not polished image, not some perfectly crafted art piece, just honest raw emotion channeled through drums, screeching electric guitar, and vocals. The looseness of their performance struck such a chord with me that it partially changed the way I look at music. It was spontaneous and straight forward... one fuzzed out guitar riff, played loud, contained more honesty and authenticity in all it's rough edged glory than the most confessional, perfectly crafted ballad and more power and intensity than the hardest death metal.
The duo just have such authenticity in their music yet at the same time they also have a more minimal feel to their sound, without a huge amount on production. Even on their more psychedelic tracks, everything seems there for a reason, not extraneous production for productions sake (like I seem to find is the case with some other artists, both on album and on stage), but is allowed to happen naturally, not necessarily crafted to perfection. This has led to their albums having a very rough and raw feel, even at their most produced they retain a bit of their spontaneous feel.
Of course, the real way to experience this feel of spontaneity is to see the duo in concert as they often perform nix the set list, more or less spontaneously, and are about as raw and authentic as a live performance can get. Played off the cuff, completely in the moment, they exude so much excitement, emotion and authenticity because it's happening right there on stage, it's not some overly rehearsed number done exactly the same night to night, but a true in the moment expression of music, faults, wrong notes, screeches, feedback and all those subtle nuances that occur when playing music in the moment included, expected and cherished. This creates a depth and complexity to their music without really trying. It adds so much character to the performances and gives them a true snapshot of a moment character where each one is completely unique just like moments in real life, full of nuances, faults and more.
Don't think the band is playing full on noise rock avant garde experimentalism in its spontaneousness though, as there is some amazing songwriting at the core of all the White Stripes music. In fact, I think their songwriting is where all the authenticity and the spontaneous feel starts and it is just enhanced by their rough and raw exterior, as there are many fantastically simply bits of word play that are extremely honest. Still, with anything that is starkly honest and raw like this, it can be somewhat hard to palate, depending on what you're used to and so not everyone is going to be able to appreciate such rough edged performances or albums like those by the White Stripes.
I can respect that because not everyone is going to like the same thing, but personally I'll go with honesty and authenticity in music any day over glossy production as this rough and raw feel seems more what rock and roll was and is all about.
I guess the point of all of this is that I think that something raw, real and in the moment can be far more honest, authentic and powerful than anything crafted and polished to perfection... AND I think that the White Stripes, both live and in the studio are a perfect example of this idea in musical form. I've been a fan since back in 2002-2003, and I'm a fan for life. Not only did I get turned on to their music that day watching them live on late night television, but in a way this band opened the door for me to seek out all the bands out their that have made some powerful music, but were "too rough" for radio or the mainstream and appreciate some of the artists I was already a fan of in new ways.
I hope they keep up the good work, and keep striving to capture that rock and roll lightning in a on record, on stage or in a bottle.
If you've never been interested in the White Stripes before, but find some of the ideas about their music that I've described in this piece interesting, I highly recommend you check them out as I think they're eclectic bluesy rough rock and roll at it's best. If you're already a fan of Jack and Meg (aka the White Stripes) then maybe this will give you a little insight into why someone else thinks they're so great, and see them in a new light.
If you haven't already, check out the White Stripes website here: www.whitestripes.com
There is also a fantastic fansite here: www.whitestripes.net
And of course in the Myspace age, they have a myspace page here: http://www.myspace.com/thewhitestripes
Also, I'm a fan of all the White Stripes albums equally, so don't want to recommend any of the 6 over any of the others, but you can pick up their impressive and hard rocking most recent release directly from Amazon here (and pick up the other 5 while you're at it): Icky Thump