Saturday, July 7, 2012

#23 You're Pretty Good Looking (For A Girl)

Within the White Stripes' fan base, just like any other artist, opinions are divided. Considering that the band never made a definite misstep in their catalogue of LPs its hard to find a very definitive consensus on what the 'best' White Stripes album is. Fans who were swept in with the wave of White Blood Cells or Elephant often stick to those albums, as do critics; the Detroit garage-rock loyalists will always maintain that the band's peak was during their first album; there are some, myself included, who view the dark and difficult Get Behind Me Satan as the true masterpiece; and there are many who would consider their grand finale Icky Thump to be the culmination of all the various pieces that made up the band previously and they would have Ben Blackwell to back them up. However I tend to think that if a White Stripes fan convention was held, when the time came to decide on the music, the one album that would appease everybody would be the cult favourite De Stijl. You like the no-frills garage rock? It's got it. You like the face-melting riffs that would make Jimmy Page proud? It's got it. You like the tender and well constructed pop that landed Jack at the White House to pay tribute to Paul McCartney? It's got it. You like rough and tumble motor-city translations of the delta blues? Hell yeah. What about all those other weird little musical forays that are unclassifiable yet distinctly White Stripes? Oh you betcha! So here is my pretty ballsy opening statement: De Stijl may be the perfect White Stripes album.

So why was White Blood Cells the breakout and not this album? I honestly have no idea. Context may have played a key role but when I listen to De Stijl with the benefit of hindsight I hear a band fully poised to take on the world. In fact I can easily imagine an alternate universe where You're Pretty Good Looking sent the band hurtling into the top 40. You see, this was, I believe, the first White Stripes song I ever heard. I obviously didn't see it as a masterpiece of composition, musicianship or production but it eventually drilled its way into my head until it was raking up plays on my iPod and pushing me to explore more of the red, white and black albums lying around. I've always thought that this experience could have been universal, this song always had the potential to be pissing us off at 00s themed parties for the rest of our lives. In this alternate universe The White Stripes would be cast off as one hit wonders and would spend the rest of their careers desperately trying to escape the image of 'that You're Pretty Good Looking band'. Let's all pause to be thankful this bleak alternate reality never occurred.

But I indulge in this flight of fancy for a reason. You're Pretty Good Looking is the first and best example of a very curious style: a White Stripes pop song. It's easy to forget that while the debut album and various singles occasionally took time out of the garage thrashers for an oddball parlour piano number, this was an extremely radical departure for the band at this point. As a Detroit garage two-piece that were recording in the living room, the Stripes were hardly the most obvious people to be pulling delicious pop songs out of nowhere but they did it anyway. The results are sweet and fun, playing the peppermint logo out beyond simple aesthetics. Of course garage pop is far from a contradiction, as Jack White will happily tell you. Them, The Kingsmen, The Sonics and many others were merely pop bands (their brand of rock n roll was the pop of the day) who played too fast and sloppy for the Ed Sullivan show. So while this track may be a big step away from their early material it certainly has precedent in the artists the band call their influences. The simplicity of the genre their playing, whether you call it garage rock or rock n roll, is really based on evoking a fairly primal reaction from the audience and often the best way to achieve that is light and infectious music that drags you and your favourite gal to the dance floor.

However there's something else going on here that needs to be addressed. The lyrics are fucking bizarre. The title itself is clever and catchy enough, the bracketed subtitle adds a petulant innocence that meshes well with the whole childlike nature of the bands images. But you hit roadblocks when you get to complete non-sequiters like 'this feeling's still gonna linger on until the year 2525 now' or 'your back is so broken'. The rhythm and tone of those lines feels perfect when humming along but are really out of place in this type of song when you think about it.

And that's both this song and the band in a nutshell. It's a collection of scattered and often conflicting ideas, sounds and images that mesh together to create something that makes perfect sense even though it doesn't. While it predates their true break into the mainstream, this song gives you an idea of how the band wormed their way into the public consciousness. They took old and worn out elements of western pop music and haphazardly reconstructed it in a way that was incredibly fresh at the time.

And also, it's a lot of goddamn fun.

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