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Jack White: Not Your Dad’s Rock Star

Always unpredictable and never less than interesting, Jack White has cut a unique swath through modern rock. Here’s how:

1. He’s Willing to Take a Back Seat, LiterallyIn his new band Dead Weather, Jack White is the drummer. He’s leaving the spotlight to singer Alison Mosshart (of the Kills). Rock history is full of famous frontmen who temporarily left their regular gigs to do solo work — e.g., Mick Jagger, Thom Yorke — but that move is almost always about setting oneself apart from the band, a way of saying this is my thing, here’s what I can do. But by installing himself behind the drums and teaming up with a spitfire lead singer, White is making it clear that his time away from the White Stripes is no ego trip. (White’s other other band, the Raconteurs, is similarly democratic.) I’m sure White has a healthy self-regard, but his willingness to take his name off the marquee and subsume his identity and talent within a group is a refreshing reversal of what we expect from folks of his stature.

2. He Sweats the Small StuffWhen we think of rock star activism, what comes to mind? Sting entreating us to save the rain forest? Bono campaigning against Third World debt? Unlike those lofty thinkers, Jack White opts for the local. He has joined Nashville’s “Music Business Council,” a panel expected to advise the city’s Mayor on music-related projects in White’s adopted hometown. This isn’t pie in the sky stuff either. The council will tackle grassroots issues like music education and advise on the construction of an amphitheatre in downtown Music City. Bono talks with Popes and Presidents. White deals with the Mayor.

3. He’s a MythmakerJack White’s real name is John Gillis. For years, he pretended that his ex-wife was his sister. He claims he was married by a shaman on a canoe in the Amazon River. His bands are as much conceptual art projects as they are musical entities. The dude has no shortage of imagination. Compared to his thirtysomething contemporaries like Chris Martin or Billie Joe Armstrong — all of whom cultivate the notion that they either speak for, or to, us, mere mortal fans — White appears otherworldly and mysterious. He doesn’t care about coming across as “regular.”

4. He’s Become a Modern Rock Star While Pretending the Modern World Doesn’t ExistWhite’s music is rooted in styles — rockabilly, blues, garage rock — that were already looking dusty when he was born in 1975. Of course, there are precedents for young musicians reworking older styles. Beck, for one, relied heavily on folk and blues before stepping into the future with Odelay. By contrast, the closest White has come to ‘updating’ his sound was with the hard rock riffola of the Raconteurs — which basically sounds like Nazareth. Early Nazareth. What’s more, he’s fond of old equipment. He uses analog recording; the White Stripes’ breakthrough album, Elephant, was laid down at London’s Toe Rag studio, which is outfitted with pre-1960s gear. White’s not exactly an Auto-Tune kinda guy.

5. He married a modelActually, that’s pretty much rock star status quo, isn’t it? Ah, well. Give him a break. He’s earned it.