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.
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.)
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.