THE WHITE STRIPES — GENIUSES OR ASSCLOWNS?
SAL: Hey Tony, what is it with everyone going so ga-ga over the White Stripes?
TONY: Gee, Sal, I think they're really good. You don't like them?
SAL: My problem with the White Stripes is not The White Stripes. I like them. I own their CDs and they often get shuffled into my iPod playlists. It's the people who like The White Stripes. And why they like The White Stripes.
TONY: Well, who knows how many people would have listened to them if they looked like REO Speedwagon? But if Meg and Jack being cute gets people to listen to their records, and then explore the artists who influenced them, what's so bad about that?
SAL: I have a hard time accepting the fact that some youngster gets to dance to a Son House tune, because The White Stripes made it "hip." If all these kids...wait...it ain't just kids, it's everyone...if everyone ran out and started listening to Son House and Dolly Parton because of The White Stripes then maybe we would have something. But they don't. No one's buying old Delta blues records because of Jack White. And if a handful did, they certainly aren't lining up to see current, living blues masters paying tribute to old, dead blues masters. They're lining up to see The White Stripes. So where's the tribute? And what makes playing "Death Letter" loudly and distorted a good thing?
TONY: Replace "White Stripes" and "Son House" with "Rolling Stones" and "Muddy Waters" and you've got the exact same thing people were saying about the Stones in 1964. Besides, being "hip" is a huge part of what rock n' roll is all about, and always has been. Would Elvis be ELVIS if he looked like Lawrence Welk? Of course not. Elvis has always been as much about his sneer and greasy hair and, later on, the jumpsuits, as the music. The Beatles' first couple of records flopped in the States, before Capitol Records poured $50,000 into a publicity campaign that showcased the collarless suits, wacky haircuts and good looks as much as the music. And glam rock, which you cut your teeth on, was as much about looking outrageous as about making rocking records -- Bowie didn't spend all that time in the "Ziggy Stardust" era putting on the platform heels and shaving his eyebrows for nothing, you know! It's impossible to separate musicians' images from their music, because they're so inextricably tied together.
SAL: I am well aware of how important an "image" can be. But everyone I grew up with listened to Bowie and Mott The Hoople and T.Rex because of the songs. Ralphie Castigliano from "the neighborhood" wasn't wearing a pink boa and eyeliner when scarfing down his roast pork hero, while listening to "The Slider." And what about bands like Mud and Showaddywaddy? They talked the talk, but they certainly didn't walk the walk. Musically, they were lousy. And what about the hippies who shunned Bowie because of his androgyny? It was later that these kids discovered the artist in Bowie, despite the pink hair and shaved eyebrows. Artists like David Bowie, Mick Ronson, Ian Hunter, Freddie Mercury, and Marc Bolan had so much more than just a wardrobe and charisma. Sure, wardrobe and charisma helped. But, Bowie's "Hunky Dory" is arguably one of his masterworks, and this is before he transformed into "Ziggy Stardust."
TONY: I think image is why people, especially the young'uns, give artists a chance. Wow, this band wears crazy clothes, or they've got cool haircuts, or the video is weird, or whatever. But in the end, I agree, a band has to make it on its musical talent. That's why, ten years after the Britpop boom, people still listen to Blur records while Menswear records (remember them?) are going for 13 cents on Amazon. They both had the image, but Blur was the better band. Same with Bowie vs. Showaddywaddy or Nirvana vs. Collective Soul or whatever. Image is a way to get your foot in the door, but to stay popular, you have to be good. At this point, Jack White could start to dress like Lawrence Welk, and because people like him already, the White Stripes would still be popular.
SAL: I would just like to see the same people who think the White Stripes are rock saviours, get just as excited about, and not dismiss so many other acts who are better musically, but may "look like Lawrence Welk." It's not always "cool" to not have a bass player. It's not always "cool" to not accept Cheap Trick or the Pet Shop Boys or the Dirty Dozen Brass Band or Motorhead or Esquivel as "essential." And it's certainly not "hip" to somehow forget that a lot of The White Stripes' success has more to do with their image and not necessarily because they're good.
TONY: Well, first of all, I don't think you give the White Stripes enough credit. They take the Delta blues, mix it up with some classic rock, and give it an indie-rock edge in a way that no band in my memory has ever done. Jack White doesn't always hit the mark as a songwriter, but when he's on, he makes some of the most exciting rock n' roll out there. And yes, he does have charisma. In spades. Not to mention enough energy to make it hard to believe that it's just him and Meg onstage and on their records. He's an accomplished guitarist, a good singer (for the most part -- he can be annoying at times) a passable pianist, and not half bad on the marimba, either. In my mind, that justifies the mania that surrounds them.
Pop music is and always has been, to a great extent, about looking for an identity -- wanting to point to the music you like and say "This is who I am." Especially when you're a kid and learning about music based on what's on MTV or the radio. If you can take yourself back to your 10-year-old frame of mind, you can remember how much of a life-or-death issue it is. Gee, I like Van Halen, but do I want to be part of the metalhead crowd? Or should I be a punk and wear ripped Clash t-shirts? I dig the Pet Shop Boys, should I be a club kid? Eventually, of course, most of us grow out of that mindset, and realize it's OK to listen to Van Halen AND the Clash AND Pet Shop Boys. But I don't think we ever grow out of it fully.
SAL: It just sickens me, (ok "sickens" may be harsh, but...) that people can't/don't/won't get as excited over a solid Cheap Trick album, or Rhett Miller, or Sparks or Maurice Brown or whatever. These are musicians who put out fantastic records, some of which may even be thought of as "better" than The White Stripes "White Blood Cells" or "Elephant" by the same people who are going nuts over The White Stripes. Just straight solid work that gets less attention for whatever reason. It's almost as if there is an involuntary action that makes a person dislike Cheap Trick, even if they've never listened to anything but "I Want You To Want Me."
TONY: Straight and solid doesn't mean "good" anymore than hyped and gimmicky means "bad." There are lots of times when I'd rather listen to an interesting failed experiment than a "solid" but predictable effort that doesn't break any new ground. And not having an image is an image in itself, you know. Hey, Cheap Trick were a very gimmicky band in their day! With crazy Rick Nielsen and his crazy guitars, and Bun E. Carlos who looked like a surly CPA... that quite appealed to my 9-year-old self.
SAL: An "interesting, faiIed experiment" is just that. Try telling Frank Sinatra you'd prefer listening to "Barry Manilow Sings Sinatra" than "Only The Lonely." I, personally, have never noticed a band because of the look. It was always the music. The thought that Cheap Trick was gimmicky because of Rick's guitar's or Bun E's weight never crossed my mind. I listened to the radio. I loved "Alison" when I first heard it. I had no idea Elvis Costello looked like a doofus with glasses. And actually, I do think "solid" means "good." No holes or excuses (red & black clothing, no bassist, brother/sister, man/wife?, etc.).
TONY: "Solid" to me means "workmanlike," which often can be boring. And "Manilow Sings Sinatra" isn't an interesting, failed experiment. It's a crime against music.
SAL: Spyro Gyra is workmanlike, to me. But their records suck doody.
TONY: This is very true. But to get back to the White Stripes, I think we can agree that at the end of the day, no matter what kind of shirt you wear or haircut you have, we, the listeners, are left with a piece of music to listen to, and we must judge the artists based on the music, no matter what they look like or how big the drummer's boobs are. And on that basis, I still think the White Stripes are an excellent band.
SAL: And once again, for the record, I like the White Stripes...but only as a friend.
TONY: And I like Joe Lovano, who to me epitomizes "straight and solid," even though the man has no taste in clothing and should shave his beard.