If you’ve been to a sporting event in the last ten years or so, seen a movie trailer, or just possess a set of ears, you almost definitely have heard the opening riff to “Seven Nation Army”. The real irony is that Jack White, writer of the most famous chord progression in music is a name unknown to many people.
White is a guitarist with a distinct sense of style. The problems come, not when he plays music, but when he opens his mouth otherwise. He simply feels like a remarkably inauthentic person. In It Might Get Loud he expands upon a number of suspicious sounding events from his childhood. He talks about his seven brothers and sisters, but the only one he really mentions by name is Meg White, who we now know to be his ex-wife. He also discusses his living situation as a kid — sleeping on a mat so he had room for all of his instruments.
In a New Yorker article by Alec Wilkinson, published in March, White claims to have almost become a priest.
White was an altar boy, and during high school he was accepted at a seminary in Wisconsin. “I was thinking I might become a priest,” he said. “At the last moment, I learned I couldn’t bring my guitar.”
Check out this tidbit of insanity from the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.
Yeah, because that’s definitely how a stewardess would talk.
If indeed White’s backstories are a giant web of fabrications (a fact of which I have little doubt) he probably isn’t the first musician that this is true of. However, he is without a doubt the most painfully obvious. By the way, did I mention his real name isn’t even Jack White?
These are just personal details though, and they are of minimal importance to the music. When it really becomes bothersome is when Jack’s inconsistencies relate to his music. In It Might Get Loud he explains his choice in instruments. He plays an Airline — a plexiglass guitar that supposedly came from a department store — and stresses a minimalistic approach to rock. His influence is Son House, specifically his song “Grinnin’ in Your Face”, which consists simply of clapping and singing. It is while listening to this record in the film that he talks through technology, and its role in making music.
“Technology is a big destroyer of emotion and truth. Auto-tuning doesn’t do anything for creativity. Yeah, it makes it easier and you can get home sooner; but it doesn’t make you a more creative person. That’s the disease we have to fight in any creative field: ease of use.”
This standpoint could be rebellion against The Edge, whose style relies almost entirely on technology — or simply his grab at anotherness. What I do know is less than an hour of film later, White shows the camera a custom-made guitar that has a green bullet microphone installed into its body. Don’t get me wrong, this is awesome; but you know what else it is? Ease of use. Rather than interest, White’s statements only confuse. What exactly is classified as ease of use? The octave pedal that He uses to create the low bass sound in “Seven Nation Army” certainly wasn’t around during Son House’s time. Technically, if one were to completely shun everything that was considered to propagate “ease of use” they should be slicing their speakers with razor blades to create distortion, or — jumping even further backwards — playing resophonic guitars, electrics are too accessible.
In the film, white takes his cheap guitar, and drops it on the floor. He begins stomping on it, running his foot up and down the frets almost as if he is finishing off a vanquished enemy. An ear grating sound comes from the amp. He looks like he’s in a fight, because, well, he is. In an interview with Guitar Player, he said “I always look at playing guitar as an attack. It has to be a fight. Every song, every guitar solo, every note that’s played or written has to be a struggle.” This is not idle talk. the violence of his M.O. comes across in his playing. “The Switch and the Spur” by the Raconteurs is a prime example. When White plays his solo, his solo has the feel of a near finished struggle; of choking the life out of something. Watching him play this song, you can even see the aggression in his movements on the fret board. Pay attention to just how high he bends the string at 2:45.
What White lacks in profundity of speech he makes up for with great, and well varied music. White has made himself a part of a great many groups and projects over the years. The White Stripes, of course, but also the lesser known Raconteurs, and Dead Weather, as well as his own solo material. His multifariousness is clearest on “Yellow Sun” a Raconteurs song that features springy keyboards and acoustic strumming. The chorus is sung in harmony, with what seem to be three voices, one of which is ridiculously high.
Another great song is “Steady as She Goes”. The song opens with a bass riff that sounds like a slower more subdued take on “Superfreak” by Rick James, followed by a chilling tremolo riff on the guitar. This song goes to show how well Jack White’s playing can work with other people. The Raconteurs are really the first time White has worked with a group of more than two for an extended period of time, and I’ll always argue that its the best music he’s ever produced. Something about creative control being divided must bring out the best in him.
White’s forays into electronic music are not remotely displeasureable either. The Dead Weather’s “Bone House” is rife with artificial drum sounds and buzzing synthesized chord progressions. This music violates the very principles Jack White claims to stand behind, but it is great stuff nonetheless.
The thing about Jack White that I hate is not necessarily his eschewing technology, but the fact that he claims to, but doesn’t. If he were to abandon this bizarre and falsified musical code, I would be very grateful, but White is a man of showmanship, and his propensity for charade will likely never cease. My resolution, is to ignore his theatrics, and simply enjoy the great music he produces.
As for anyone looking to delve into White’s vast musical catalogue, I recommend Consolers of the Lonely, by the Raconteurs as a starting point.