Here’s the main reason you shouldn’t spend too much time mourning the demise of the White Stripes: They were already gone.
If last week’s official announcement was jarring for any reason, it wasn’t because the news itself was surprising, like some sort of bottom had just dropped out, but because we hadn’t heard the name or really thought much about the White Stripes in years.This is hardly a reflection on the band’s legacy — if anything, the graceful early exit cements their greatness. But even beyond Jack and Meg White ceasing some time ago to be an active, prolific musical entity, they stopped being the White Stripes, as defined by a singular vision unlike that of any band in contemporary music, long before that.
The White Stripes’ final, it would now seem, studio album was 2007’s Icky Thump, the first since White formed the Raconteurs as a brush with which to scratch those spots the Stripes’ devout minimalism couldn’t reach. That was followed by a few shows, then subsequent tour plans were scrapped due to Meg’s “anxiety.” (In quotes because that was the official explanation, not because we are in any way calling out the fuzziness of the term. Although that’s what we just wound up doing anyway.)
Then, back to the Raconteurs and two Dead Weather albums, with stops in between to build a studio, start a label, raise a family, and rescue a few of his heroes’ languishing careers, all with increasing autonomy, broadening the Stripes’ orthodoxy concerning sartorial and genealogical matters to include a combative anti-modernity streak. With each of these moves, the White Stripes as we came to know them faded further into the ether.
The message with the Raconteurs, and later the Dead Weather, was that there was no message. Jack was just one of the boys in the band, come as you are. And even during the truncated Icky Thump return, the familiar white and red gave way almost entirely to more black-and-white gaucho drag. Yes, we’re talking about art direction and not music, but what were the White Stripes if not an exercise in art direction? De Stijl, anyone?
Once the dress code was relaxed, literally and figuratively, and audiences became more accustomed to seeing White play with an array of musicians who could keep up with him, his devotion to and defense of Meg’s…let’s say, “limitations,” felt more and more like an exercise, albeit a great one. (Icky Thump may not be anyone’s favorite Stripes album, but which of White’s subsequent releases has been as consistently gratifying?) The album was warmly received, but White was put in the odd position of having to justify the band’s existence and explain what Meg provided that his other collaborators couldn’t. That was new.
What last week’s announcement ultimately boiled down to was mainly this: Jack White would no longer be playing in one of his three primary bands, but it only stands to reason that he’d wind up in some other one pretty soon anyway. This is both a testament to what White has built for himself over the past decade, but also a fairly shocking reminder that one of the most innovative and arresting musical acts in recent history had become just another line item on an ever-lengthening CV.
Certainly there are complex reasons for the band’s dissolution that may never come to light — they are, after all, ex-spouses each with new families, as if creative and business partnerships weren’t tricky enough — and a tempered joint statement on an otherwise slow news day is a more preferable exit strategy than a lot of the other options available to a semi-dormant band in its second decade. They are frozen in amber, quit before they got fired. The fact that there was some expectation that White would return to the Stripes once or twice every Olympiad seems like the part he’d find most constricting — take away that burden and he’s free again.
And if we were to learn in a year’s time that a new White Stripes album was forthcoming, we’d all be thrilled and surprised. But once the news sank in for a minute, we wouldn’t be surprised in the slightest. You gonna believe a guy who lied about his own sister?
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