I want it to be a struggle
- Jack White
Oh Jack, it’s always about the struggle with you, isn’t it? Despite the playful colors, and ‘child-like’ innocence there’s something very dark and depressed about The White Stripes at their core. Why shouldn’t they be? Jack and Meg sought to express themselves through the ultimate form of musically destitute darkness, the blues. And lest we not forget that aside from the guitar scales and 12-bars the blues is primarily about one thing: pain. But it’s unfair to categorize the blues as some kind of Afro-American proto-emo, it was never all about reminding people of their problems, or even sharing them, it was true escapism. These stories that grew out of the cotton-fields of the south may have drawn on destitution to stay relatable but this music was still, to it’s listeners, entertainment, a release and a distraction rather than a consolidation of their woes.
The White Stripes in many ways get this more than anyone else trying to recreate the blues today. They don’t use the pain and the struggle as the draw card, it keeps you interested but it’s not the source of the actual enjoyment. Because when Jack White sings ‘there can’t be love, because there is no true love’ he’s singing it under the guise of the red and white clad brother to Meg White, a character more than a person. So is the man a fraud? ‘Who gives a fuck’ is the most reasonable answer to that question. Last year Jack got into some pretty hyperbole-fueled hot water when he described Bob Dylan as inauthentic compared to, wait for it, Britney Spears and while I’m sure everyone here doesn’t like to think of those two compared seriously it’s a perfectly valid and very relevant point, particularly in regards to Jack himself. People like Dylan and Jack are all about playing with the emotions and thoughts that are going to get at their audience, drawing from the tradition that they like, not the on that they’re ‘from’. The pain, love and other feelings might, and probably are in some way, still there but they’re channeled through a fictitious stage persona to create something appealing and that connects. If you’re still annoyed at John Gillis calling Robert Zimmerman a fraud then you can stop reading.
But perhaps I Fought Piranhas is the peeling away of these layers to reveal a truly exposed singer but then again this could easily be another character. Let’s remember that taking the White Stripes’ first album as a cohesive whole, Jack is not in a good frame of mind. The entire album is based around an endless struggle with a society that’s cold and unforgiving, as well as himself. As the album comes to a close we're seeing a broken man in both the music and the lyrics. That tortured slide playing stutters over his cheap guitar, occasionally breaking into sporadic bursts of energy that evoke someone bashing their head against the wall. Towards the end Jack (or possibly Johnny Walker) stops actually soloing and begins to just climb up the fret board slowly climaxing as the staccato banging plays out in the background. Just when it seems like some kind of cathartic release will come, the guitar just burns out with a gentle strum of a chord and then the album is over.
It’s almost as if after fighting for so long throughout the album Jack has resigned himself to reality, content to stop being the angry young man. The Big Three killed his baby; he doesn’t know if he loves Suzy Lee anymore and he's dreaming of guns, tanks and cannons as John The Revelator looms on the horizon; he’s wasting his time while everyone else just hides their secrets, doing the astro; the bricks are broken; he doesn’t know what to do when he hears his name but then again: he’s got a little feeling going. But it’s not wallowing, it’s not aimless rebellion, despite the angry emotions of Detroit that color this album Jack White is too sophisticated to boil emotions down so simply. In the end ‘you know what it’s like, [he] don’t gotta tell you’.
Jack White is capable and interested in exploring his emotions and letting them out but in the end he is a man of his craft, first and foremost. After the seismic blur of noise and anger that is The White Stripes’ debut it’s clear that a new much more sophisticated direction is in the works..
But that is another story.