In 1973 the critically hated band Grand Funk Railroad claimed themselves to be “An American Band”. But few bands are as strictly American as The White Stripes. The ghosts of Son House, Robert Johnson, and Blind Willie McTell live in Jack White’s basement. Using old blues records and folk songs as a template, The White Stripes created some of the most authentic and engaging music to come out in decades. Add to that they came from Detroit, perhaps popular music’s most important city. It’s a city known for its blues artists in the 50s and 60s, and helped popularize Black Music with Motown in the 1960s, and conceived punk-rock with The Stooges and The MC5. The White Stripes have almost exclusively ignored musical trends since the end of the 1960s, an era when Detroit seemed to fall out of favor with the music public.
Even as they’ve dug up the past, The White Stripes live in a world that very few artists have. It’s a world that isn’t defined by time. While Elephant and White Blood Cells they could easily exist in the 50s just as they do in our age. Just like The Basement Tapes, The White Stripes looked to Americana for inspiration, but in the process created their own version.
Crucial to their own version of Americana, is The White Stripes’ own myth-making. It may seem silly in the age of information for Jack and Meg to insist on being siblings when in fact they were really married at one point. But like their heroes, they created personas of themselves directly linking themselves to the past, even going so far as to change their names. Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil to play guitar. In In the early stages of his career Bob Dylan (another of White’s heroes) created the illusion that he was actually a ho-bo to make himself seem more authentic in the burgeoning folk-scene. In “Ball and Biscuit”, White refers himself to “the 7th son” – a folklore concept in which the 7th son is given special powers due to his birth order. It’s no coincidence that White makes this declaration in a seven minute showcase for his fiery guitar freak-outs. By making such claims, The White Stripes are securing their place in American culture, right alongside other legendary artists.
But it’s really the music where The Stripes establish their credibility. It’s a primitive and primal crunch, that has to be made two people. Adding another instrument of person would take away from the rawness that harkens back to the blues records. There’s a reason why they only recorded with vintage guitars and equipment. It’s not just because they prefer that particular sound. Anything else, would make them just another blues band, instead of blues purists.
That sound, while if not wholly original, must have been a shock to casual radio fans who weren’t familiar with the likes of Son House and others. In era where everything on rock radio seemed homogenized, “Fell in Love With a Girl” was a blast of fresh air. Not since “Blitzkrieg Bop” have two minutes sounded so exciting and fresh. “Fell In Love With a Girl” helped established The White Stripes as a new voice in rock and roll to the mainstream (even though they had been receiving critical attention for a while), but it was really “Seven Nation Army” and Elephant that saw them conquer the world.
With that famous “bass riff”, Seven Nation Army”, has got to be one of the weirdest songs to grace radio in years. The whole song is built around a variation of the same chord, and there’s no chorus. While some detractors have claimed that Meg White as a terrible drummer, no other drummer would have sounded right for this song. White has claimed the title came from a childhood mispronunciation of “salvation army”, but the magic number 7 pops up again.
The White Stripes’ popularity suddenly make it possible for younger bands to realize that they didn’t have to be pigeon-holed by a particular sound. Over the last decade, there has been a surplus in bands that just contains two members, or omit a bass player – The Black Keys and The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, being the most prominent. Numerous unsigned and local bands have also taking the cue as well. But trying to be authentic, The White Stripes have helped create a rock revolution not seen since the punk-era or grunge.
As significant as their influence on younger bands is, The White Stripes remain legendary because they’ve established themselves as part of American culture in a way that few artists have. The White Stripes could never keep going, because Jack White is always on the move – always between two places, never staying in the same place once. Since their break-up they’ve truly managed to become what they’ve always wanted – artists that existed for a time, but never part of a particular time.