Friday, April 30, 2010

The Way It Should Be -- Reflections on "The White Stripes: Under the Great Northern Lights"

Near the beginning of "Under the Great Northern Lights," a documentary about the White Stripes tour of every province of Canada, Jack White addresses critics who have accused the two-person band of being completely "premeditated." It's an interesting moment because you're not quite sure whether the mercurial frontman is flattered or annoyed. White plays his emotions like he's holding a hand at the World Series of Poker: he could be holding the flush or the pair of deuces.

And that's just the way it should be.

Since the White Stripes hit the music scene in 1997, they've been defined by mystery and mystique. Of course, the biggest mystery was whether Jack and Meg were brother/sister or ex-husband/wife, or both in some weird incestuous thing. For me, the biggest mystery was how they were able to maintain the illusion of a larger band while being basically a guitar and set of drums. It didn't make sense. And, after watching this illuminating/confounding documentary, it still doesn't.

And that's the way it should be.

Rock music has always been about dualities. Saint/sinner. Soldier/rebel. Confessor/mystic. Lover/fighter. Introvert/politician. The best rock bands are not so easy to pin down. Elvis sang gospel, but also made girls cream their jeans with his hip shake. The Beatles seemed like the boys next door with their suits and mop-tops, but gradually became the leaders of the counterculture revolution. The Stones were the bad boy rebels, but have art degrees. U2 seems like a Christian rock band, but are not afraid to dress as the devil. Bob Dylan has recreated himself at every turn in his career, going from folkie to rocker to cowboy to bluesman. 

This is the avenue of rock music the White Stripes inhabit. White is a bluesman, yet he's also a punker. He's a singer-songwriter, but he screams like he's still trying to get out of the garage. His lyrics range from the hokey ("Little Ghost") to sincere ("I Want to Be the Boy to Warm Your Mother's Heart") to confounding ("White Moon"). You can't peg him down, so don't even try. At one point during the film, the band is looking to celebrate its 10th anniversary, to which White remarks that no one thought they'd last more than a couple albums with their sound. He scoffs at his critics, as all great rockers have to at some point.

And that's how it should be.

This documentary is fun, enlightening, yet leaves us wondering who these two artists are. We follow Jack and Meg on their tour of Canada as they play big venues, art centers, bowling alleys, city busses, restaurants, and Indian reservation rest homes. They approach the trip like a extemporaneous jam session, with no set lists, and no significant plans, just a lot of mirth and mayhem. We get to see them behind the scenes, interacting with each other and with the communities they visit. Especially fun is the scene at a Native American lodge in which Jack offers to play the tribe elders a song in exchange for a song of their own on the accordion.

Along the way we learn that White is easily bored and is constantly striving to push himself by setting deadlines, and making himself uncomfortable on stage. He doesn't keep picks on his mic stand so he has to be careful not to lose the one he has. He keeps the keyboards at a distance so he has to work extra hard to switch between guitar and keyboards during a song. And he plays guitars he knows won't hold their tune long. Imagine Kobe Bryant or LeBron James intentionally playing basketball with weights on their ankles so they couldn't jump or run as fast -- insane.

Yet, despite all this, we still don't know what makes the man tick. He's a hard worker, sure, a great performer, a perfectionist, a craftsman, but...why? What does he have to prove? Why did the Stripes embark on this tour of Canada's wilderness territories anyway? We'll never know for sure.

And that's how it should be.

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