Empty Nostalgia: Jack White Denounced

The follow-up track to the White Stripes' "Icky Thump" (the most exciting single in recent years) has arrived. "You Don't Know What Love Is (You Just Do As You're Told)" comes from the same category of boring, derivative rock that has dominated every one of the White Stripes albums. Over lifeless power chords and belabored drumbeats, Jack White lobbies for the Nobel Love Prize as he self-righteously scolds his dependent friend for not knowing what "Love" is. Again White is preaching Love while expounding the importance of the independent woman. Again we understand that his over-concern on this matter comes from himself being substantially female. In body he is man but in music he is woman. In lyrics, he is nun. In music he becomes his true female self. In the hormonal turmoil post-sex-change the identity is in crisis, much mothering is needed. Man is absorbed into woman. Man becomes woman. I find evidence for all this in the lyrics, where every line has at least three unnecessary words. Female padding, verbal wide hips. The unnecessariness of a grandmother's wet kiss. White's comp class duncery invades his rock chants, which are all undermined by klutzy wording. Mentally Jack White squats, so he can't see what's really going on, just the spreading aftermath. Therefore he can never be certain: he thinks he smells a rat. He'd always "like to think." He never just thinks. He'd always "like to say." All action must be hesitant, all speech passive, mired by clumsy excess. Look at a line like:

"Each simple gesture done by me is counteracted."

Could this be condensed? Seems like it. Do you need the "done by me"? Couldn't you say "each of my simple gestures is counteracted"? You could, but it still sounds just as stupid and vague. On one side a gesture, on the other a counteraction. But a gesture isn't really an action, more of a pre-action, so the word counteracted doesn't really make sense. "Counter-pre-acted"? Why not be more specific, draw a picture, decide on a gesture. For instance, "I showed you my hurt finger and you laughed." From the abyss of White's wordy abstractions we move to specific images and specific ideas, and it was easy. Why can't White be more succinct, specific? First, because he always has to rhyme. Jack White, I say to you, you do not have to rhyme. Your compulsion to rhyme ruins your lyrics. They can never say anything. Whatever interesting things you might be saying in there are automatically buried under the excess caused by the requirements of your rhyme scheme. Second, as mentioned White is a man who femininely looks away at any moment of impact. This keeps him perpetually uncertain. You can rely on him only for after-the-fact narration. He blinds himself as he figuratively castrates himself. He must always be guessing when it comes to immediate realities.

Jack White may think of himself as creative because he writes a lot of songs, but I like to think of him as a busybody who stumbles or lucks into creativity. Once in a while he gets tired of strumming G C D combinations on maximum overdrive and finds a great riff. Months later it happens again. So now he has two riffs. He puts them together ("Icky Thump"). But that's one song, in a year. The rest of the album has to be this cycle of handbook inert chord rock, patently uninteresting. "You Don't Know What Love is" is a prime example of this. The song is inept on all sides -- the guitar soloing (we've heard the same one 20 times), the drumming (of course), the singing (thin, unconvincing). This is some of the hollowest music imaginable, the deadest. Jack White's hokey vision of premodern "Love" is painfully trite at this point. There is this compulsion among the uncreative who are "artists" to honor the cliche of Love and lost Love, this spirited conformation to the vagueries of our misplaced admirations, mistaken heroes. Songs are mere motions in a self-obligation. In stagnancy lyrics must be re-used. These cliches are the life-rafts of the uncreative artist.

From the beginning, White has cultivated a style of "naive" art (adults pretending to be children), which he strives to meld with imagery of a bi-chronic "abstract" style a la Rothko, who I only respect for committing suicide. This "naive" style can only work when it comes from someone like Henry Darger, the recluse who created in secret. But in the hands of an ambitious climber like Jack White, it becomes all borrowing and no having. White's wordy longing for pastoral innocence is a settled-for pose as unconvincing as it is ill-conceived. We are transported to another time, but it's a boringly fake time. White's scenes of teenage romance, such as in "Martyr for my Love for You" are forced expressions of naivete. Empty Nostalgia. White so wants to glorify his pastoral vision in his songs but in musical reality he continues to create only anti-spaces, worlds of bogus simplicity. None of his intentions make it through the music stage, explaining his idea to drop music altogether ("Little Room"). Lacking talent, he can't use music to create emotional effects. He must rely on a voice unfit for such a challenge. And no lyrics arrive to make it all work. 

White Stripes music (Icky Thump excepted) is intentionally colorless. The melodies are monochrome but tinted -- by power of suggestion -- toward red. The limit is one color upon a background. Typical open chording, especially on a loud guitar, is the black hole plaguing modern music. It ruins with its inherent predictability. We're trapped in the realm of properly keyed guitar chords. Just as we know, because of the predictability of the rhyme scheme, what word is coming next, we also know what chord is coming next. "You Don't Know What Love Is" is a death sentence of predictability. It doesn't get much worse. If White has a talent, it is as a refiner of a look, not as a creator of music. I place Jack White in the category of Lenny Kravitz -- a model who uses music as a means to purvey a look, a style. Music becomes the nagging obligation to these "artists." Lacking personality, they cannot make the move into film so they're left with music, which with its chord handbooks and rhyming dictionaries, can be a lot less personality-intensive. The highlight for these guys is the album cover shoots, the videos, the shows, some of which are tackled with great creative energy and persistence. The music, though, comes straight from the catalog with extra for pre-assembly. Guys in cool clothes with guitar props, Jack White and Lenny Kravitz are models for their line of style. Maybe they could be decent entertainers if they had the smarts to hire professional songwriters, but today we force our models to be artists, and some of us cheer when they show us the garbage they come up with. Kravitz gets the thumbs-down's but look at the raves Jack White gets with his credibility-through-underproduction scam. We need professional songwriters, Burt Bacharach types, to return to prominence in the music industry.
Copyright 2008, by Christopher Duckett
10 January, 2008