Wayne McGregor’s Chroma, part of our Volt program, features arrangements of music by The White Stripes. Marcel Dorney has one or two things to say about them.
1. They were a rock band.
The White Stripes were, in fact, a great American rock band. This is nowhere near as simple a thing to be as it sounds. In some ways, their music is simple. Their most identifiable songs are, in classical terms, no more than themes, and – on their recordings – subject to only the most basic variation. What is it, then, that sets this duo from Detroit apart from thousands of other would-be primitives? What is it about these themes that drove Joby Talbot and Wayne McGregor to give them new arrangements for Chroma? Is it simply that The White Stripes are rock stars?
2. They kept it simple.
The first White Stripes album, The White Stripes, was released in 1999. The cover – like their onstage costumes and equipment – was strictly red, white and black, as it would be for many years afterwards. The sound within is similarly distilled – just two band members: a drummer and a vocalist/guitarist. Looking at it now, it’s surprising to think that in the history of American popular music, no one had ever thought of doing this before.
[White Stripes backstage in Shinjuku, Japan, 1999.]
They had, of course, and Jack White knew it. The form in which he and Meg White practised their craft – that of American popular music – was, and is, among the most successful and sprawling cultural forces in human history. Its legacy is enormous, incredibly profitable, and fiercely contested. Not to mention criticised; at length, from many quarters. “Is Mr White, a 25-year-old former upholsterer from southwest Detroit, concocting this stuff with a wink? Or are The White Stripes simply naïve?” – Joe Hagan in The New York Times, 2001 To Hagan’s credit, he knew that the deliberate ambivalence towards this question was part of The White Stripes’ project, as it had been for many popular musicians before them.
3. They knew what they were doing.
Even before the advent of recording, American musicians have played the sly game that pits authenticity – naïvete – against craft. In the case of the African-American musicians whom both Jack White and his influences acknowledge as pioneers and masters of the many genres between which The White Stripes skip, this game was often an attempt by extraordinary individuals to deal with the agonising quandary of expressing oneself before an audience who couldn’t seem to help seeing you as a 'representative', a mere vehicle of an authentic, unsullied tradition.
4. They knew their history.
Jack White is, most definitely, not Son House. To his credit, even as he quotes House’s version of 'John the Revelator' on The White Stripes’ Cannon, he knows that; he’s not expecting anyone to think he pulled this music out of thin air, or even from Led Zeppelin (who often behaved as if they had). It’s a difficult act, though, and though his considerable skill doesn’t flag on this track, he sounds hesitant. On the chorus of album opener 'Jimmy The Exploder', however, White unleashes nine successive hollers that are both eerily precise and undeniably spine-tingling. Whatever it is he means, he means it. And while the album as a whole gets filed under 'garage rock' – and, indeed, credited with its revival – and garage rock wouldn’t exist without (among others) Son House, most garage rock never gets near this level of precision or self-awareness. (Meg White’s drumming, as a case in point, is utterly remarkable for being utterly unremarkable as drumming. Removed from its context, it’s as bare as a handclap. Matched to Jack’s singing and playing, it’s exquisite.) So what legacy is it, really, to which this album – one White claims they’ve never equalled – can lay claim? The clearest one may be Robert Zimmerman, late of Duluth, Minnesota.
5. They kept you guessing.
Robert Zimmerman (pictured above), or Bob Dylan, as he became known in the 1960s, remade himself several times – first in the image of his hero Woody Guthrie, and then – most infamously – by turning away from the purist folk tradition which had made him a household name, and playing the kind of electric white blues which became known as rock. His most direct connection to Jack White – who calls Dylan his "third father", after 1) his Dad and 2) God – is not so much musical as metamorphic. He showed The White Stripes how pale Midwesterners, too, might play this game of authenticity vs craft, in the full knowledge that it’s a quintessentially American hustle. If you play this game with conviction, Dylan seems to say by his reinventions, you may find that unique point at which authenticity and craft – those old antagonists – can be brought together in plain sight. From their first public appearance, the White Stripes played it to the hilt. They presented themselves in the press as brother and sister rather than the (briefly) married couple they were, for the same reason as they only ever wore three colours, or recorded live to tape without overdubs; because it was more interesting – or, more precisely, because you were more interested that way. Those who dismissed the band’s 'lack of authenticity' – and they were numerous – because of the unmistakeable craft at work in the composition and lyrics (“They’re just playing at being primitive!”) were unable to prevent more and more people liking the band for that very reason. Like Dylan, The White Stripes forced a re-examination of the critical concepts 'authentic' and 'fake'.
6. They kept their nerve.
If people keep wanting to hear you play, you’ll get better, and at some point, in pop parlance, you get a shot at the big time. If you do it, as The White Stripes did, by sticking to your guns, you have to confront the full manifestation of this persona you’ve been nurturing. This convergence of authenticity and craft – which is, necessarily, a point of revelation – means you’ll begin to make things that are instantly recognisable as yours. If you happen to be skilful and lucky, no one will be able to believe that these things did not already exist.
[Mark Rothko, Light Red over Black, 1957.]
The difficulty with doing this within one of the most profitable cultural forms on the planet is that simplicity, within that form, is still the guiding principle of greatness, and many, many people still mistake this simplicity for ease. It has this in common with certain branches of modern art, among them the movement known as De Stijl. (Jack White was – and still is – an upholsterer and restorer of furniture.)
[Gerrit Rietveld, Red and Blue Chair, 1917.]
De Stijl is also the title of The White Stripes’ second album, released in 2000. At the time, critics argued whether such a reference was pretentious, naïve, or deliberate. The White Stripes offered no comment, preferring to talk about recording techniques. (They offered a preference for older, pre-digital methods.) In contrast to the self-conscious projection of hedonism by many pop artists, the White Stripes pursued – in behaviour as in composition and recording – the kind of strict self-limitation that characterises the thinking of great designers and architects. This lends their commercial success – culminating with their fourth album, Elephant, and its archetypal White Stripes lead single, 'Seven Nation Army' – a rare quality of seeming both inevitable and incredibly unlikely.
“You couldn’t play a chess match better than this band has unfolded.” – Jack White, interviewed in GQ, 2007.
1. Wayne McGregor also knows what he’s doing. Looking at the stark white set for Wayne McGregor’s Chroma, a canvas from which everything but the dancers’ bodies have been deliberately “subtracted”, it is surprising to think that in the history of dance, no-one has ever thought of doing this before. They have, of course.
[Einstein on the Beach, choreographed by Lucinda Childs, directed by Robert Wilson]
Wayne McGregor doesn’t expect the world to forget about Lucinda Childs and Robert Wilson, or their debt (in turn) to Merce Cunningham, and so on. When his dancers subject his choreography to the pitiless gaze of this white set, they demonstrate the power and complexity enabled by simplification – and the nerve to follow it through. In Joby Talbot’s orchestration for McGregor’s Chroma, those themes from The White Stripes are subject to many variations. Like many classic themes, though, they keep their shape and weight; so much so, you might be forgiven for not even noticing the craft with which they were put together.