Entertainment

06.13.14

Is Jack White the Last True Rock Star?

The garage rock singer-guitarist virtuoso’s solo LP, Lazaretto, is impressive, as is his live show. Is the former White Stripes front man the last of a dying breed?

Is Jack White our last true rock star? I mean, he certainly thinks of himself that way—but should we? 

I've been overdosing on White lately, which is why I ask. Earlier this week I got an advance copy of his new LP, Lazaretto; it hasn't left my earbuds since. And on Tuesday night I went to see him live—my first time—at the Fonda Theatre in Los Angeles. 

The show was good. The album is even better. But here's the weird thing: when I write those words it feels like I'm doing more than just praising Jack White. It feels like I'm taking sides in a larger debate about The State of Music Today. That I'm pledging my allegiance to a certain musical ideal. That I am, in short, a rockist.

As you may already know, rockism refers to a common bias among music aficionados: guys, guitars, and solitary genius = good; manufactured pop "product" = bad. For a long time, rockism was the critical establishment's default attitude. (Think of Lester Bangs in Almost Famous—immaculately portrayed by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman—waxing rhapsodic about Iggy Pop and The Guess Who.) But in recent years, rockism has become passé. Now it's cool to be a so-called poptimist instead: to "be in touch with the taste of average music fans, to speak to the rush that comes from hearing a great single on the radio, or YouTube, and to value it no differently from a song with more 'serious' artistic intent." Bruce Springsteen is all well and good, but Beyoncé is really where it's at. 

In response, most big musical acts—even the ones with guys and guitars—have given up on the rock game at this point. That's why Coldplay collaborates with Rihanna; it's also why Maroon 5 no longer sounds like this

But Jack White is different, as he himself never tires of reminding us. The more pop our culture gets, the more rock he strives to be. "I'm almost in an age where I'm sort of a misfit," he told The Nashville Scene earlier this week. "So I find it shocking when anybody pays any attention to the stuff that I do. It's eye-opening to say the least." 

He follows his own muse—he's a world-class weirdo—but at the same time, he's never solely concerned with pleasing himself.

Consider White's bona fides. He hails from Detroit, the gritty home of Iggy Pop and MC5, among many others. He started out (with The White Stripes) in garage rock—the most rockist genre by far—but is also well-versed in the other major strains of rockist music, including authentic country (he produced LPs by Loretta Lynn and Wanda Jackson) and authentic folk (he covered five old Appalachian numbers on the Cold Mountain soundtrack). He plays his own instruments. He produces his own records. He writes his own songs. He prefers analogue equipment to digital. He runs his own label, Third Man, which is so vinyl-centric that it has taken to pressing scented records, glow-in-the-dark records, and clear records filled with rose petals. The guy even refuses to carry a cell phone. 

When Rolling Stone recently asked White about The Black Keys, here's what he had to say: “There are kids at school who dress like everybody else, because they don’t know what to do, and there are musicians like that, too. I’ll hear TV commercials where the music’s ripping off sounds of mine, to the point I think it’s me. Half the time, it’s The Black Keys. There’s a whole world that’s fine with the watered-down version of the original.” By "the original," he meant himself, of course. It is difficult to imagine an artist more in tune with rockism's curmudgeonly ethos—originality trumps mass-production, authenticity trumps slickness—than Jack White.

That sense of self-enforced singularity—the feeling that he's the last of the Mohicans—is a big part of White's appeal. A lot of people still love rock music, a lot of people still want to believe in rock stars, and frankly, White isn't facing much—if any—competition these days. And yet as I listened to Lazaretto this week, and as I replayed the Fonda show in my head, I started to realize that the deeper reason for White's seemingly counterintuitive success—eight Grammys, millions of records sold, multiple Billboard Number One albums—isn't counterintuitive at all. Technically, White should seem out of step with our current pop-centric culture: leaden, irrelevant, dinosauric. And yet he fits right in. 

Don't get me wrong: White's music still sounds pretty damn rockist. Lazaretto is a delightfully exuberant—even indulgent—encyclopedia of Rolling Stone-friendly references: the Hammond organ, pedal steel, and barroom piano bashing into each other on 12-bar blues boast "Three Women"; the fiddle, fingerpicked guitar, and Emmylouesque harmonies on the lovely "Temporary Ground"; the stomping, badass riffage of "High Ball Stepper"; the messy, Mick 'n' Keef country of "Just One Drink." The Fonda show, meanwhile, was even more unapologetic. Dressed all in black (except for a pair of dark grey suspenders), White stalked the stage like some sort of punk Mussolini, forcing his crack band to watch him for the changes—and to try to keep up—as he veered off on extended, near-constant tangents: an ADD guitar solo here, a stutter-step breakdown there. The concert was chaotically virtuosic: an ideal rockist combo. 

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But in the end, White's music doesn't just recycle these tropes—it transcends them. And it transcends them because it's secretly pretty poptimistic itself. You can hear it all over Lazaretto, but especially in the one-two punch of "Temporary Ground" and "Would You Fight for My Love?" The first is a gentle, almost circular tune about floating across the ocean on a giant lily pad; the second is a melodramatic breakup song. Both are indelible. Great pop songs come in every configuration imaginable, but the one thing they all have in common is that they're memorable—and while a rhythm or a vibe or a lyric can sometimes make a song stick, the surest route to the brain's reptilian pleasure nodes is typically a good melody. White never forgets this rule.

You could hear White's innate pop orientation at the Fonda show as well. The first song he played was a White Stripes' classic: "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground." It wasn't the same as the recording on 2001's White Blood Cells; instead it was destabilized, deconstructed, always speeding up or slowing down, never staying still. Yet even in its mixed-up state, the song was still itself. That's another sign of a great pop composition: no matter how you alter it, what you're left with is still a song—something that continues to exist, in all of the most important ways, even when you sing it to yourself in the shower. 

Really, you can hear White's poptimism in everything he does. He follows his own muse—he's a world-class weirdo—but at the same time, he's never solely concerned with pleasing himself. He wants to please us, too. That's why he always has a look: red, white, and black with the White Stripes; all black today, with that pale white skin and that scraggly black hair. He's deliberately iconic—even logo-like. And that's why his gigs are so spontaneous. Most bands these days aspire to reproduce their recordings on stage as faithfully as possible. White rips his songs to shreds. He would rather entertain than echo.

So the more I think about White, the more I think that rockism vs. poptimism is a false choice. Guy-guitar-genius music isn't inherently evil; mass-produced pop isn't inherently virtuous. What matters most is the strange alchemy that occurs when the singer and the song collide and morph into a whole that's greater than the sum of their parts. The result can sound like Katy Perry—or like a dude from Detroit with a Danelectro.

At the end of the Fonda show, White launched, without warning, into the scuzzy sequence of notes that forms the backbone of his biggest hit, "Seven Nation Army": da-duh-duh-duh-duh-dum-dum. The crowd erupted. He played along with the first verse, as per usual, but then the chanting got louder. White had no choice but to let go of his fretboard—to let his Kay Hollowbody go silent. He continued to sing, but now we were "playing" the guitar riff with our voices. Da-duh-duh-duh-duh-dum-dum. The melody is still stuck in my head today, 36 hours later. 

So is Jack White our last true rock star? I don't know. What I do know is that he's one of our finest pop stars—and there's nothing wrong with that.