The Caretaker

Only Jack White Can S(t)ave Rock and Roll from Obscurity

The Caretaker

Courtesy Jack White

JACK WHITE Not the new Bob Dylan.

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When an idea shifts from active to passive, that idea needs a caretaker, or else it will disappear into the past. The Vatican is an entire institution that's been established to ensure the survival of Catholicism, which is a certain branch of Christianity that turned stolid and calcified centuries in the past. DC Comics and Marvel Comics stopped being idea-generating factories three decades ago, and now their sole purpose is maintaining their intellectual properties, Superman and Spider-Man most prominent among them, for Hollywood to farm into cash.

Rock and roll made that shift from an active idea into a passive idea a decade or two ago; this is what most people mean when they say that rock and roll is dead. You can smush rock together with some other regional sound for an explosion of novelty—remember Vampire Weekend?—but every major idea behind rock and roll has been dissected and examined to death. When you're dealing with white guys playing electric guitar, all you can do is maneuver around the different parts of the ceremony to make aspects feel slightly fresher, but it's all ultimately a tribute to some idea that's been leached clean of nutrients by previous generations.

Luckily, rock and roll has a fantastic caretaker. But before we get too effusive about Jack White, let's be clear about what he's not. He is not a songwriting genius. His songs are vibrant, deceptively dense with references, and admirably timeless, but he has a limited range. Much of his new album, Blunderbuss, is slowed-down versions of older Jack White collaborations—the central riff of "Freedom at 21" is a minor, Xanaxed-up version of the same simple blues riff White has been playing with since "Stop Breaking Down" on 1999's The White Stripes. And his lyrics are as simplistic as ever, mostly a series of obvious rhymes cascading one into the other, as with the opening of Blunderbuss's "Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy": "Well I get into the game/But it's always the same/I'm the man with the name." The new Bob Dylan, Jack White is not.

But rock doesn't need a new Bob Dylan. Rock already had one Bob Dylan; his name was Bob Dylan. If any musical genre gets something like a new Bob Dylan, it'll be hip­hop. What rock and roll needs right now is Jack White. Crawling out of Detroit with the White Stripes, White stripped rock down to its most basic, brattiest components—a riff and a semicompetent beat—and made it into something feisty and groovy and almost new again.

The difference between Jack White and a million other acts that launch themselves, with raucous, chart-topping abandon, into obscurity, is his work ethic. He's got one of those prolific careers that makes you wonder if he's missing some sort of essential sleep gland or something: While recording six incredible albums with his ex-wife as the White Stripes, he also cofounded two more excellent bands, the Raconteurs and the Dead Weather, and then he set about making friends.

White wasn't content just to nail the formula once. After he found success with the garagey blues rock formula, he decided to take the formula apart and see how it worked. He broke into the wax museum of rock royalty and humbly offered himself as a collaborator to what's left of the surviving greats (the Rolling Stones, Jeff Beck, Dylan). He pushed out at the boundaries of rock with other artists making vital work (Alicia Keys and Beck).

And he went back to the cradle of rock and roll—years ago, he abandoned Detroit for his beloved adopted home of Nashville—to find two of the most unheralded geniuses from the days when rock was fresh and new. The albums he produced for Loretta Lynn and Wanda Jackson are more than Rick Rubin–style reimaginings of American classics; they're readjustments to a history that was otherwise indelible, knocking Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash down a peg to make room for the women who helped fuse country and rockabilly together into what became rock and roll. (It's interesting that White has made a side career out of polishing the reputations of tarnished musical goddesses, considering that his lyrics are so misogynistic, as pointed out in Jessica Misener's recent essay in the Atlantic, "Jack White's Women Problem." The women, or most commonly "girls," in his lyrics are generally dumb, easily manipulated, or both. This is a topic that cultural critics—or whatever comes after cultural critics—will spend decades parsing once we're all gone.)

After all that, it's shocking that Blunderbuss is White's first solo album. It's not his best work—like almost any rock-and-roll act, White's early, brash songs are his absolute best—but it stands up against his best, acting as a companion piece or a bookend. It's slowed down, rootsier, and more confident. The sounds come from honky-tonks (the jangly "Trash Tongue Talker") and hair metal (the silly, prancing "Sixteen Saltines"). Sometimes, White delivers something more country than rock ("I Guess I Should Go to Sleep") or a song more patient and grandiose than his usual straightforward style ("Weep Themselves to Sleep"). These references to sleep, or to monotony—one song is titled "On and On and On"—don't feel like a mistake; it feels as though White knows he's been entrusted with an important but dull calling—the protective custodian of a sleeping beauty.

Putting all these specimens together into one album, you can see the totality of White's life's work, and it is truly impressive. Blunderbuss is an album that knows where it comes from. White has the scope to understand that Blunderbuss is not providing something new, and he has the singular talent to call on the nuances of a very long tradition. He hasn't invented fire, but he's keeping the flame alive to pass to future generations. recommended


Comments (36) RSS

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biffp 1
Did anyone at the Stranger see Black Keys on May 8?
Posted by biffp on May 23, 2012 at 12:38 PM · Report this
The Black Keys are the absolute nail in the coffin...terrible music made by terrible people
Posted by Chris Jury on May 23, 2012 at 12:48 PM · Report this
If you want me to stop rocking, I hope you're prepared to sand off my face!…
Posted by Spindles on May 23, 2012 at 12:49 PM · Report this
Not sure what you mean by rock n'roll here. There are certainly more dynamic genres of it that are doing far more with it than Jack White. Unless of course you just mean bare-bones, blues-based, commercial guitar rock.
Posted by Jizzlobber on May 23, 2012 at 12:52 PM · Report this
Dougsf 5
@3 - thank you.
Posted by Dougsf on May 23, 2012 at 12:54 PM · Report this
Worst troll ever.
Posted by Jeff on May 23, 2012 at 12:58 PM · Report this
Dougsf 7
Also, no matter what we come up with as to the health of rock music... kids only know what they know, you know? It doesn't really matter how we hear it.
Posted by Dougsf on May 23, 2012 at 1:01 PM · Report this
Will in Seattle 8
Um, no.

On an aside, a friend of mine just got her Justin Bieber badge - Rock and Roll is alive and well and living in Canada.
Posted by Will in Seattle on May 23, 2012 at 1:04 PM · Report this
Supreme Ruler Of The Universe 9
Blunderbuss is as good at it gets for today's rock.

I listened once on Rhapsody.

I will listen again.
Posted by Supreme Ruler Of The Universe on May 23, 2012 at 1:08 PM · Report this
blip 10
Every music genre is "dead" if you define it entirely by its origins. By this self-limiting definition, it is impossible to make new rock and roll (or any style of music) that remains faithful to its roots because any new adaptations corrupt it or turn it into a new genre altogether. It's a self-defeating premise and a pointless debate.

The problem isn't rock and roll, it's the language we use to talk about it.
Posted by blip on May 23, 2012 at 1:09 PM · Report this
Do you guys in Seattle take Paul Constant seriously?
Posted by QQQQQuestion on May 23, 2012 at 1:10 PM · Report this
Was there ever an "active" golden age for Adult Contemporary?
Posted by longball on May 23, 2012 at 1:12 PM · Report this
Three-chord songs will never die. They will also never really be all that new and innovative except perhaps for listeners too young to have heard it all before.

The need for popular music to constantly re-invent itself has more to do with marketing than any honest assessment of musical innovation. Most "revolutions" in pop music amount to new curtains on a hundred-year-old house.
Posted by Keep On Rocking In the Free World on May 23, 2012 at 1:22 PM · Report this
Every pop writer has to declare rock mostly dead every year or so because they always believe they lived through the pinnacle.
Posted by Jizzlobber on May 23, 2012 at 1:27 PM · Report this
Everything is dead. Where is my instant gratification?
Posted by Foonken2 on May 23, 2012 at 1:36 PM · Report this
If there is anything I have learned from years in the music industry it is this: The moment you say something is dead, it comes raging back like a trend zombie. Trend Zombies can be seen in many shapes and forms. Have you considered the idea of a Libyan Riot Girl Three Piece? Maybe the US won't lead the march on Rock anymore (after all, we have decided that since we all can't be rockstars, we must destroy them or turn them into a video game)

The "death" of rock and roll is symmetrically correlated with the death of the rock mentality. We just don't have it here right now.
Posted by Digitocalypse on May 23, 2012 at 1:37 PM · Report this
orino 17
You've just now noticed? Rock & Roll has been dead for a good three decades, at least. That 65-year-old Mick Jagger is still doing it even though HE said nobody over 45 should be playing rock & roll speaks volumes...
Posted by orino on May 23, 2012 at 1:39 PM · Report this
So the argument is that because Rock and Roll is white guys playing electric guitars, all rock and roll is somewhat derivative, and therefore bad. However, Jack White (a white guy playing electric guitar) does it a LOT and his most recent album is especially derivative, but somehow this is good?
Posted by jath on May 23, 2012 at 1:41 PM · Report this
seandr 19
@10: No, the problem is exactly as Paul Constant says - rock and roll is no longer a living, growing, developing art form. Everything you can do with guitar, bass, drums, and vocal has more or less been done, leaving few if any possibilities to do something big and original.

Back when the genre was alive, older generations hated what the kids were listening to because they didn't understand it - it sounded like nothing they'd heard before.

Now that rock has hit the wall, older generations hate what the kids are listening to because they understand it all too well, they've heard it thousands of times already, and unless you're just discovering this stuff, it's an obvious cliche.

Sure, people will still play rock, just like they do the blues, chamber music, blue-grass, klezmer music, and other genres of the past.
Posted by seandr on May 23, 2012 at 1:43 PM · Report this
seandr 20
@17: Three decades? No, rock was still alive in the 80's thanks to hardcore punk and thrash metal. Its demise began in 1994 when Kurt Cobain shot himself in the head.

@18: "Derivative" isn't necessary a problem, but "cliche" certainly is.

Posted by seandr on May 23, 2012 at 1:51 PM · Report this
21: No, actually metal killed rock. And the metal subgenres are now the main exponents of rock. Thrash was just a precursor.
Posted by Jizzlobber on May 23, 2012 at 2:39 PM · Report this
blip 22
@20 But that's hardcore punk and thrash metal. That's not rock and roll unless it's defined entirely by what instruments you use rather than what you do with them, and/or you allow the term to be more inclusive of sounds that exist beyond Led Zeppelin or The Stones or Jack White. Otherwise it's something else. Like, say, hardcore punk and thrash metal, and we're back to quibbling over what rock and roll "is" and what words you use to describe a given song or artist's output.
Posted by blip on May 23, 2012 at 3:09 PM · Report this
merry 23
You know, I keep trying and trying to resist the easy idea that 'rock died with Kurt'... I guess because it IS too easy, and certainly folks rocked out after 1994, for sure they're rocking out to this day...

But somehow, I just keep coming back to Kurt, I keep seeing those eyes.. If it's too easy and too large somehow to make the claim that rock died when Kurt did, I still can't seem to escape the idea that actually Kurt was the last true Rock Artist. He was the last one who was sincere about it. There was no artifice with him, and that's probably what killed him: he had no insulating layer between himself and The Fame that Came...

It just feels as if there's been no one since him, certainly no one at that level, who could reach us the way he did.
Posted by merry on May 23, 2012 at 3:51 PM · Report this
I will say, all of the proselytizing & opining like that above seems to be pretty far away from rock, whatever it is. "I know it when I see it."
Posted by UberAlles on May 23, 2012 at 3:57 PM · Report this
seandr 25
@22: Oh come on, man, don't be boring.

It's self-evident that heavy metal, punk, hardcore, thrash, new wave, emo, grunge, psychedelic rock, baroque pop, and everything else on this page are just different types of rock and roll. The fact that you play rock faster with more distortion and an extra bass drum doesn't make it stop being rock.

And yes, like any musical genre, rock is largely defined by the instruments used to produce it.
Posted by seandr on May 23, 2012 at 4:11 PM · Report this
McGee 26
Ugh. If I wanted to read limp writing on rock n roll authored by a sexless wimp I'd read Chuck Klosterman.
Posted by McGee on May 23, 2012 at 4:28 PM · Report this
Dean Fawkes 27
Posted by Dean Fawkes on May 23, 2012 at 5:18 PM · Report this
lambcannon 28
What would the Stranger do without advertising for all of the bland, derivative crap music played in Seattle every night? Let's be realistic.
Posted by lambcannon on May 23, 2012 at 5:21 PM · Report this
blip 29
@25 Why do you keep engaging with me if I bore you? You've replied to my same boring point twice now and you missed it both times. That's partly my fault, but I'm okay with that.
Posted by blip on May 23, 2012 at 5:28 PM · Report this
biffp 30
American literature is dead. Only Jonathan Franzen can save it. I say that with all the authority that Paul Constant commands vis a vis rock and roll.
Posted by biffp on May 24, 2012 at 9:25 AM · Report this
blip 31
@25, PS: If you go to that wiki list you posted and count how many of the various styles of rock music came into existence after Kurt Cobain blew his brains out, you will find there are quite a few of them, because it's a very long list! You will also find that a number of them do not rely on a guitar/bass/drum format, because rock and roll is a lot more than a bunch of white guys shredding guitars.
Posted by blip on May 24, 2012 at 11:54 AM · Report this
If Jack (load) White is the savior of rock, I might as well put my bass down and stick sewing needles into my eardrums. God I hate that guy and any pod scum with opposable digits who kiss his ass.
Posted by fish-is-a-bassist on May 24, 2012 at 3:12 PM · Report this
biffp 33
@32 ftw. You don't know jackshit if you think Jack White is anything but a self promotion machine. This is the same stupid story every self-righteous midlife crisis disaster feels compelled to write as a psa.
Posted by biffp on May 24, 2012 at 3:23 PM · Report this
ShitTimmySez 34
This article sounds like it was written on Jack
Whites chubby.
Posted by ShitTimmySez on May 24, 2012 at 5:53 PM · Report this
The Stranger needs younger writers who aren't so disconnected from the current music scene. Jack White the savior of rock and roll? Okay, Dad.
Posted by Gimmeabreak on May 27, 2012 at 2:34 PM · Report this
i read this article because i just got back from playing at sasquatch festival and caught Jack White's set. i thought he was ok, but definitely not the "caretaker" of rock and roll. His new band was pretty good, but as he introduced them one by one he would play little guitar solos that kinda went nowhere, rather than letting them take solos. That was weird to me, as well as his odd fake southern accent.
Just before he played i stumbled into a set by St. Vincent. i had never heard of her and don't know if she is considered "rock and roll", but she was rocking out in a much more compelling and unique way, combining her heavy vintage guitar sound with the band's precise drum and keyboard work. As i was watching her set i was actually thinking about this being the first time in a long time that i was excited by some new rock and roll. Her set had old elements worked into a new formula, and compared to her Jack White frankly seemed a little bit like a shtick.
Posted by staxofwisdom on May 27, 2012 at 11:00 PM · Report this

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