Recalling when Jack White and his big sister Meg White were the new kids on the block
When Detroit legends The White Stripes debuted with their bluesy eponymous debut in 1999, it’s possible that only the eccentric, brilliant mind of Jack White had any idea that he and then-wife/fake-sister and collaborator, Meg White, would not only nearly singlehandedly revive blues-rock music but reposition the Detroit music scene at the epicenter of the rock universe for the first time since the creation of techno.
Comprised of seventeen tracks and lasting a surprisingly brief forty-three minutes, The White Stripes is both the introduction and the final amen to The White Stripes’ iconic sound. It’s gritty and pounding, imperfect, nodding respectfully at the blues ethos while ripping it to shreds and injecting it with a caustic mixture of gasoline and down-and-dirty rock ’n roll. Jack White’s voice is strained and quavering, more a series of strangled yelps than a melody, set to a backdrop of Meg White’s heavy-handed, childlike drumming. On top of it all, Jack plays the guitar as if it were strung with barbed wire, forcing out screams and groans from the six strings. It’s ugly and it burns going down, but when the volume’s up and the world’s tuned out, it makes you feel indomitable.
The raucous bastard of blues and garage-punk opens up with “Jimmy The Exploder,” a rapid-fire introduction to The White Stripes — and, for the most part, the only one you’d ever need before joining the ranks of their legions of “hog-tied soldiers,” as William Bowers wrote for Pitchfork. Pounding drums? Check. Wailing vocals? Check. A guitar that sounds like it’s being tortured rather than played? Check. A record packed with the kind of songwriting that would make Robert Johnson crawl out of his grave, not to mention a song by Robert Johnson (and Son House and Bob Dylan) thrown in the mix? Check, check, and check, thanks to “Stop Breaking Down,” “Cannon,” and “One More Cup of Coffee.” To be entirely honest, The White Stripes gave listeners no option not to like it, or at least find themselves entirely captivated by a record completely unlike anything Mariah Carey, Ricky Martin, or The Backstreet Boys — at the height of their “I Want It That Way” fame — were recording.
Even more astounding than their wild, unpolished sound, though, was the idea that the pair — once married, though they told the press they were siblings, then divorced — introduced an entire generation to a sound that had, for the most part, faded away with the 80s and the swelling popularity of techno and pop. A quick search of 1999’s most popular songs proves the point: it’s a list populated by syrupy-sweet soul-pop ballads, boy bands, and Xtina. Pop culture wasn’t looking toward the land of Ford factories and Red Wings hockey for its sound.
But, to be fair, Jack White wasn’t looking to pop culture for approval, either.
VIDEO: The White Stripes live at the Gold Dollar bar in Detroit, 11/27/99
A blues disciple whose world changed when he heard the sounds of Son House and Robert Johnson, Jack White’s path was never pointed to the glitz, glamour, and plastic sheen of commercial viability. “I wanted to be able to talk with people who have trade jobs and make records with them,” he was quoted as saying. “I want to do more records with carpenters, electricians, people who specialize in even more bizarre trades that are off the beaten path.” A true son of Detroit, his approach to music — and industry — is decidedly blue collar. Combining the DIY nature of his records with a mind for business, Jack White has grown from a drummer relegated by necessity to guitar to one of the most impactful players in the music industry, with the start of Third Man Records label and record pressing plant. And Meg White…well, what else is there to say about her? She was the heartbeat of The White Stripes, all gutsy hammering and crippling anxiety drowned out with the thud of a kick drum. She drove the record forward while Jack spun his wheels, spitting fire and burning rubber, creating a chaotic cacophony destined to outlive the smooth melodies and coordinated dance moves of its time.
To choose a standout track is almost impossible. As soon as I’ve made up my mind on one, I listen to another, and my opinion changes: “Astro,” “The Big Three Killed Me Baby,” “Cannon,” and the reimagined traditional “St. James Infirmary Blues.” It’s a far easier task to call The White Stripes a standout album of songs that could stand alone as easily as they play together, crafted by a man whose genius is both hidden behind and exemplified by peppermint motifs, backwoods hollers, and, in the coming years, a single that would be played at sporting vents and — more fittingly — political protests across the world. In the end, Jack White tricked us. He made a generation think they were listening to rock ’n roll while he raised a glass to the blues and mumbled, “Long may you live.”