Sunday, July 19, 2009

#6 The Big Three Killed My Baby

Only in Detroit....

For a band of two people, The White Stripes have many sides so it would be unfair to boil down their music to one uniting concept but one of the most prominent aspects of their mythology would have to be their home town of Detroit. While they moved beyond their garage scene origins in later recordings, the band were very much the children of Detroit's underground venues in their formative years. At this early stage Jack felt passionately about his city and felt he was inseparable from his home (remember how often that word occurs in his lyrics) so when it was time for the creation of their debut LP he wanted to try and make an album that was Detroit, at least what it meant to him. When discussing the album he said something that is definitely true: had the band failed to create a perfect (imperfectly perfect if you know what I mean) soundtrack for their motor city then they would have spent their career constantly reattempting to produce that perfect Detroit album and thus reducing their output to a tired collection of failed love letters. Basically they had one shot at the sound, without it they couldn't move on. But luckily for them, and us, they succeeded in every way imaginable and now that red, white and black sound of their birthplace has been immortalized on wax. The thing is that they didn't need an album to achieve this sound because they nailed it in one song.

It all starts with three (coincidence?) striking of the higher guitar strings and then from there Jack and Meg let loose with a ferocious attack on what the motor industry has done to their home. My knowledge of Detroit isn't exactly expansive but it's common knowledge that it is a once-glorious city left in ruins by Fords 'fantastic concept' of mass production. So here The White Stripes hit back. As a band founded on minimalism and childishness they are the perfect representation of the little guy and with this song they live out the dream of the underdog lashing out against the big bad oppressors. It's a song that reaches anthemic levels and manages to elevate itself beyond mere politics, not Jack's territory, and becomes a song about and for humanity. It's no wonder why Michael Moore, as a director who is concerned with examining the suffering induced by the 'big, bad, evil corporation', uses it as his introduction music .

The content of the song itself is really, in my opinion, complete perfection. It's here that the band stop working in spite of their limitations and start working because of it while Jack really comes into his own as a songwriter. The two chords that dominate most of the song and the drum stomp that can barely warrant the word 'beat' are the key ingredients to making the song what it is. The simplicity is so great that it strips the song of the feeling that this was ever consciously written by two people instead it sounds as if it occupies a timeless place in the universe's song book. It's not something to be used over and over again but here, this kind of musical restraint (restraint in terms of complexity there's no f***in' restraint in the playing) is not only complimentary but entirely necessary. Over a more conventional 1990s rock song the heavy-handed lyrics by Jack would kind of fall in on themselves. If anything more delicate than the guitar/drum stomp and shrill shrieking/chanting combo was used for these word then they would collapse under the songs own weight. And weighty lyrics they are. 

There are some real strong statements made throughout the song. When Jack says "these ideas make me wanna spit!" you feel that the spitting part was never intended as a threat, he got the spitting over and done with when he delivered the line. This incredibly strong and emotive language makes itself known all throughout. The song is overflowing with couplets damning everything and everyone involved with cars. It challenges the listener to make a difference (why don't you take the day off and try to repair) like a standard topical song but at the same time resigns itself to a unforgiving future (don't let 'em tell you the future's electric). Jack builds and builds, promoting the industry's actions from exploitative selfishness to a criminal and violent crime eventually climaxing in the no-holds-barred line "now my hands are turning red and I found at that my baby was dead!". Everything after this line seems just sad and mournful and it's here that, what I consider the most devastating line is dropped: "and creative minds are lazy, that's how the big three kills your baby". It's almost like the punch-line to a really sick joke except Jack sure isn't laughing. As he approaches the end of the song Jack rips off the metaphorical veil and reveals common sense has been the victim the entire time making sure no message is left unclear.

And my baby's my common sense
So don't feed me plain obsolescence

This is a truly special song. I think it's one of The White Stripes' finest moments and certainly the standout of this album. The band obviously saw something in it as it is the first and only single of the album. Live it also occupies a pretty strong spot with Jack revealing he had more words written for what already is a dense song. I was going to end this post on a message about this songs content but I think it speaks for itself instead I'll just say that as great as the previously discussed songs are it's here that I listen and think "thank god for this band".

6 comments:

  1. These are all beautifully written. Keep them coming!

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  2. great blog!! am an avid jack fan so this is heaven

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  3. Fantastic blog. Really interesting post about this song, have never thought about it in this way. Definitely going to be coming back, I look forward to reading more :)

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  4. nice blog. this is still one of a handful of Jacks greatest songs. almost perfect in it's conception and delivery. I've got a slow piano version of this from a Detroit show hanging around somewhere in my collection. will try to drop a sample here.
    one correction: so don't feed me planned obsolescence

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  5. That is a very interesting version, I also have a copy so I might post it here. I'm going to start posting interesting live renditions as I go.

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  6. I am pretty sure it says "planned obsolescence," not "plain obsolescence"

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