The sepia-toned soundtrack for the Coen brothers’ film O Brother, Where Art Thou? helped elevate American roots artists to the status of rock stars and turned the soundtrack’s producer, T-Bone Burnett, into a go-to man for A-list directors looking to re-create bits of the American landscape in song. And so, when Anthony Minghella set his Civil War epic, Cold Mountain, to music, he did the obvious thing and drafted Burnett to write and arrange new and traditional material for Allison Krauss, Cassie Franklin, and other roots musicians to perform. Less obvious was Burnett’s simultaneous attempt to transform a bona-fide rock star—White Stripes’ frontman Jack White, who contributes five songs to the Cold Mountain soundtrack and has an on-screen role as Renée Zellweger’s love interest—into something like an old-timey roots artist.
If that transformation succeeds, it’s because Burnett’s agenda feeds beautifully into White’s own musical impulses, which are so fetishistic that his cuts on the soundtrack—the old Appalachian ballad “Wayfaring Stranger” or the Cold Mountain-inspired original, “Never Far Away“—sound less like departures from than distillations of the White Stripes’ overall aesthetic. For better or for worse, that aesthetic—which turns artists into musical curators repackaging the past—is coming to dominate huge swaths of the musical spectrum.
As a result, the White Stripes’ liner notes sometimes read like gallery text. “Even if the goal of achieving beauty from simplicity is aesthetically less exciting, it may force the mind to acknowledge the simple components that make the complicated beautiful,” White explained in the liner notes to the White Stripes’ second album (named, pretentiously, for the Dutch De Stijl movement associated with Theo van Doesburg and Gerrit Rietveld). This philosophy has led the Stripes to perform as a stripped-down two-piece band (White’s ex-wife, Meg, plays drums); stick to a stripped-down tri-color dress code (which makes them look like they’ve stepped straight out of a Mondrian painting); play stripped-down vintage instruments; and record on stripped-down vintage equipment. (“Why don’t the White Stripes go the whole hog and record by candlelight using wooden microphones?” a British critic asked upon hearing the band’s fourth album, Elephant. “Why not play lutes and mandolin?”)
As shticks go, this is a good one, and not without precedent: Like the Gun Club and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion before them, the Stripes have sought to boil American music down to its basic ingredients. Thanks to talent and timing, the Stripes have grown rich and famous in the process and have found themselves spearheading a garage-rock revival that also includes the Black Keys, the Hives, the Thrills, the Stills, the Vines, the Strokes, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. But for a man of the moment, White seems remarkably uncomfortable with his time and place: His best songs look back to other older compositions. His sound bites are streaked with nostalgia, so much so that no one was surprised when White—a 28-year-old former upholsterer from Detroit—began dressing up like a Kansas City bootlegger, complete with white suits and wide-brimmed bowler hats. “I wish I could be a blues musician back in the ‘20s and ‘30s, just playing jukejoints by myself” he told Entertainment Weekly last year. “But I’m white and I was born in Detroit in the ‘70s, so I guess I’ll have to settle for this.”
But what, exactly, has White settled for? The truth is that while the White Stripes might dedicate their records to Son House and Blind Willie McTell and cover Robert Johnson and Leadbelly songs in concert, they’re equally indebted to a Michigan garage-band tradition which stretches back to ?and the Mysterians, the MC5, and the Gories—groups that may have started out as cover bands but eventually sought to transcend the limitations of their medium. The White Stripes, on the other hand, belong to a generation that seems to value taste over transcendence, mixing and matching a dizzying array of influences without getting their own experience of the world down on tape. These musical curators don’t shock us with the new—they comfort us with the familiar; as the singer for a New York band called the Mooney Suzuki told the Boston Globe, “We’re not trying to overcome our source material! I intentionally won’t use something I haven’t heard before.”
This is becoming a typical sentiment, and backward-looking baby boomer magazines like Rolling Stone have been quick to embrace it. Still, you can’t help feeling that younger fans—the ones missing a music of their own—sense a good deal of cynicism behind the pose.
Take, for instance, a random sampling of reviews from the twentysomething critics at Pitchforkmedia.com:
The Thrills could have thought a bit harder about finding a bright new sound to go with their suddenly sunny locale. This one’s taken.
And compare these bands’ ambitions—which amount to getting their references straight and playing them straight-facedly—to the Michigan band Jack White never fails to cite as his greatest influence: the recently reunited Stooges.
Like Jack White, the Stooges’ frontman, Iggy Pop, began his musical career as a drummer for a series of Detroit-area garage bands. Unlike White, Pop was old enough to sit in with his heroes, traveling to Chicago in the late 1960s, palling around with Howlin’ Wolf sideman Sam Lay and sitting in with a series of black session men. “Music was like honey off their fingers,” Pop recalled. “Real childlike and charming in its simplicity.” But Pop soon saw that this simplicity was deceptive. “I realized that these guys were way over my head, and that what they were doing was so natural to them that it was ridiculous for me to make a studious copy of it, which is what most white blues bands did. Then, one night, I smoked a joint … and then it hit me. I thought, what you gotta do is play your own simple blues. I could describe my experience based on the way those guys are describing theirs … so that’s what I did.”
Despite all the lip service paid to old acoustic bluesmen, White’s own voice and guitar-playing owe more to Iggy Pop, Dave Davies, Robert Plant, and Ozzy Osbourne. In fact, the difference between the White Stripes and the Stooges, the Kinks, Zeppelin, and Sabbath might have less to do with intervening years, or shifting allegiances, than with the shamelessness with which those earlier bands appropriated, and digested, the same set of influences—a swagger that left room for accident and innovation and consequently pushed the music beyond the limits of those influences.
Their heirs, on the other hand, seem to be shifting into lower gears and scrambling to regain ground that rock ’n’ roll has ceded to other modes and mediums. In that sense, bands like the White Stripes have more in common with neorepresentational painters like John Currin or neorealist writers like Jonathan Franzen. But popular music differs from art or literature in that it involves performance—and if today’s performers have the taste and technique to ape every aspect of their music’s history, this curatorial impulse has also led them into a cul-de-sac of empty gestures and shallow, self-reflexive clichés. Recently, White himself has begun to strain against the structures he’s built for his music: “The band is so special and so boxed in and there are so many limitations on us,” he told the OttawaCitizen. “It’s such an art project.”
If he’s ready to look beyond that box, White might do well to remember that, when the Coen brothers asked T-Bone Burnett to assemble the O Brother soundtrack, Burnett recruited a young Louisiana bluesman named Chris Thomas King to cover Skip James’ Depression-era recording of “Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues.” King, who also played bluesman Tommy Johnson in the film itself, proved to be such a good study that he made a career out of impersonating his elders (most recently Blind Willie Johnson, whom he played in Wim Wenders’ flawed but fascinating installment of PBS’The Blues series last fall). But having portrayed an older bluesman on the big screen, Chris Thomas King told his fans that “If you really want to be like Tommy Johnson, I think you have to live in your time and be true to your experience. That’s what he did.” Therein lies the difference between a musician and a museum guard, and that’s a distinction White, for all of his obvious talents, has yet to overcome.