Jack White’s Oddball Masterpiece: The White Stripes’ last real hurrah
2005 was the last gasp of the early-‘00s rock revival. The post-Y2K zeitgeist created a reflective musical culture that continually looked backwards to forge forwards. We’re still caught in that trap—a sea of new twists on old sounds and revivals of ’90s TV. For rock in the first half of the 2000s, looking to the past meant deifying classic garage rock and adding dashes of punk energy. This helped to create a scene that seemed primed to dominate definitions of “cool”; but just as it went mainstream, the decade shifted into the home stretch, and ’80s pop revivals and electronic dance took over. The New York City scene was in the midst of being overtaken by Brooklyn DJs who would help to shape the sounds of the rest of the 2000s before dominating the early 2010s. Stalwarts like the Strokes and Yeah Yeah Yeahs were beginning to show cracks (or boredom) with their sound and would later strive to reinvent themselves to varying degrees of success.
And over in Detroit, it seemed like Jack White was moving away from everything that made the White Stripes successful.
Early-’00s Jack White was one of the wunderkinds of the recently revitalized rock scene. He was hailed as an actual savior, using his guitar as a weapon and unleashing 1:50 of non-stop hellfire in “Fell In Love With A Girl” to awaken apathetic minds. He and erstwhile partner Meg White were the country’s weirdest popular rock band, inspiring countless boys and girls to pick up strings or sticks. John Peel said they were the most exciting music he’d heard since Hendrix, while The New York Times compared them to Nirvana. To some, they singlehandedly killed nu-metal and stopped post-grunge from being completely overtaken by modern rock. In 2003, with the release of Elephant and more importantly, “Seven Nation Army,” Jack created a riff so iconic, it seemed to be ingrained in the DNA of all people and is, statistically speaking, currently being sung by a couple thousand people at some sporting event. The song was even parodied on SNL, with Jimmy Fallon as Jack and Drew Barrymore as a near-mute Meg.
The band were a genuine pop-culture phenomenon for their “are they siblings or lovers” shtick, their red, white and black aesthetic, and most importantly, their blues-garage punk sound. So it is strange, though not surprising, that they would release their most divisive album, Get Behind Me Satan, during the height of their power.
There’s this recurring school of thought that a band’s least characteristic work is their greatest achievement, and that it is superior to whatever is their most characteristic. Everyone has the contrarian friend who holds opinions like this. Yet somehow, these hot takes seem to have eluded Get Behind Me Satan. For many fans, it is the disappointing follow up to a string of masterpieces in De Stijl, White Blood Cells and Elephant. It’s the album where Jack put down his electric, walked away from his riffs and stood behind a marimba, one of the least punk instruments ever invented. It’s the collection of songs where the Stooges and the MC5 stopped being a dominant influence, instead giving away to Appalachian twang (“Little Ghost”), folky guitar (“As Ugly As I Seem”), while still finding space for a classic White Stripes stomper like “Blue Orchid.” Get Behind Me Satan doesn’t live up to the “divergent sounds make the best album” theory, but it does certainly craft the most interesting record the White Stripes, or Jack for that matter, ever made. It’s the album that showed the importance of Meg, a contributor whose crucial input was only underscored by her absence in Jack’s solo and side projects.
There’s also the old cliché of artists being at the crossroads, but what’s interesting about Get Behind Me Satan is that statement is only true retrospectively. At the time of release, it was just the hotly anticipated follow up to a series of classics. In hindsight, it shows the tension within Jack between continuing to work with Meg or going to places he couldn’t creatively go with her. The whole LP explores that gap, making for an artistically meditative album that ponders what’s next for Jack, an album that today’s listeners benefit from knowing that what’s next is a career away from the Stripes.
According to Jack, every White Stripes album follows a central theme, and Get Behind Me Satan was built around truth. Rita Hayworth, born Margarita Cansino, is a reoccurring character, appearing in both “Take, Take, Take” and “White Moon.” Her personal history as a Latina woman who was forced to change her name to cover up her heritage for mainstream success hints at Jack’s idea of the album’s core motif. Yet despite Jack’s assertion of “truth” as the album’s main theme, despair seems to be a stronger central theme. Every track touches upon themes of loneliness or betrayal and there are hints of the time-honored rock star theme of dissatisfaction with celebrity culture. Hayworth as a symbolic figure takes on new light with her history as a woman who was forced to hide away from her personal truth in favor of success, and who was married and divorced five times (the longest lasting five years), all of them failing due to combinations of cruelty and betrayal. Most importantly, her name change thematically links with Jack, who changed his name upon marrying Meg, continuing to use it after the divorce while achieving fame. Hayworth was hiding her heritage in hopes of career success, while Jack has always been focused on having the success of music be more important than his celebrity status. That flight from celebrity dovetails back to Hayworth, who was one of the original sex symbols and a bastion of Old Hollywood, but still struggled with alcohol and relationships while in the public eye. The allusions to her continue Jack’s romanticizing of the old entertainment industries, while despairing about what the modern ones have done to him.
"In today’s celebrity culture, artists need to be as interesting as their art for success, and Jack’s reluctance to divulge only stoked that curiosity."
“Blue Orchid” touches upon these themes, and though Jack has publicly denied that the song is about the end of his relationship with actress Renée Zellweger (which really shows how immersed in 2000s pop culture the White Stripes were), the imagery of a white orchid turning blue seems to indicate the song is about some romantic failure in Jack’s life. The video for the song features Jack’s future wife Karen Elson (a striking redhead, a la Hayworth), a horse, snakes, a dilapidated house and the band in Victorian-era garb; basically, a Tim Burton daydream. Even though Hayworth is absent from the song, Elson’s appearance brings her to mind.
Celebrity and Hayworth take central stage in “Take, Take, Take” which is about a fan’s chance encounter with the legendary actress. He asks for a few too many favors and grows bitter with her refusal. Of course, the song shows Hayworth being perfectly polite before saying she needed to rest and walking away, enraging the fan who feels entitled to more.
It’s easy to draw a parallel between the content and Jack’s personal attitudes towards celebrity. He’s reached the point where his reputation is considered prickly, despite his notable and frequent charitable endeavors, but any standoffish behavior can easily be explained away by viewing Jack as a private person stuck in public spotlight. Jack had built a whole mythos around him, from his prodigious skill to his shrouded past, in an effort to put the music first, but somewhere along the line, he became the focus. People weren’t just curious about the next record; they wanted to know who Jack White is, and Meg’s tendency to shy away from spotlight only pushed Jack further into it. In today's celebrity culture, artists need to be as interesting as their art for success, and Jack's reluctance to divulge only stoked that curiosity. He’d spent years as a private person, but the focus warped that secrecy into eccentricity at best, misery at worst. The guacamole debacle shows this is something Jack still grapples with.
The album, like many of the White Stripes’, does suffer from a lack of quality control, which is more evident here thanks to the different stylistic approaches. “Forever For Her (Is Over For Me)” seems to be building to something that never quite pays off, and the solution might simply be trading the marimba for guitar. The bluegrass jam of “Little Ghost” is playful, but seems like an ill fit for Jack’s voice. “The Denial Twist” suffers from coming after “My Doorbell,” which is a more successful version of it in many ways.
Perhaps the most fascinating misstep, and easily the most reviled, is “Passive Manipulation,” a 35-second experiment with Meg singing lead. Meg is nowhere near comfortable singing, and it shows on the track, but there’s still a Moe Tucker innocence in her voice that would perfectly suit a more understated, acoustic song. The piano is too forceful and the start-and-stop nature makes Meg’s voice stand alone.
“My Doorbell” and “Take, Take, Take” are the closest to centerpieces for the album, the most successful of the experimentation. The piano soul of “My Doorbell” has probably aged the best out of any of the songs here thanks to the solid hook and the slow but strong stomp from Meg. She was always considered the weak link of the band, but really, she was its secret weapon. Jack’s songwriting was always its most successful when he was reined in by her drumming. She operated as either a built-in handicap or a careful editor, depending on the perspective you want to take. While Jack has shown a sprawling vision of what his music can be, Meg’s continued presence always curtailed that in a way that worked to the music’s advantage. Jack’s solo output has never been short on ideas and often lacks restraint: On the other hand, the Stripes were all about that restraint thanks to Meg, with Jack’s guitar always bubbling over, raging against the chains it was shackled with. That interplay between them was often where the White Stripes found their greatest success, and Jack’s solo work sorely misses the structure that let him explore what he could within it. Meg has been reclusive since the band’s hiatus in 2007, and though few clamor for a Meg White solo album and a White Stripes reunion remains about as likely as a full Smiths tour, there’s still a place for Meg White in modern music.
The previous three White Stripes’ releases were hailed for the punk energy they brought to the blue. By and large, those records chronicled Jack’s “angry young man” era, with Meg as the erstwhile sidekick. The albums never fully felt like collaborations between peers, but there’s always been something about Get Behind Me that feels different. Meg escapes from Jack’s experimentation with different instruments and influences; while she may not have been the musical genius, she was the center that Jack always spun back to.
At the time of release, Get Behind Me Satan seemed out of place, but in hindsight, it shows the future trajectory of Jack White’s releases. The album was recorded in Detroit but was mixed in Memphis, hinting at White’s eventual relocation to Nashville. The instruments are more diverse and the styles are more varied, foreshadowing the side projects that started with the Raconteurs in 2005. Jack’s recent acoustic tour that was comprised of stops in states he's never played in even has roots in Get Behind Me, and the following live hiatus could have to do with the celebrity exhaustion that takes center stage thematically.
Also apparent is that the White Stripes were starting to come undone a full six years before they called it quits. The whole album is characterized by ambition: It is clear that Jack was outgrowing Meg’s limited skills and one day, he would have to move away from her to make the music he wanted. Icky Thump feels like the band getting together for one last hurrah, knowing that the end was already upon them. Get Behind Me Satan is the moment where the threads come loose.
And while Jack’s output since the end of the White Stripes has been strong, it hasn’t been as resonate. He still hasn’t released a song that comes close to the heights he reached with the band. He’s crafted a comfortable niche for himself as a torchbearer of forgotten genres, delving beyond blues into bluegrass and classic country, and he doesn’t seem likely to revisit the White Stripes. Even on his own. it’s unrealistic to expect Jack to tap back into the mindset that lead to some of his greatest works, because he’s no longer that angry young man who exploded onto the scene. He found new styles to explore, and on Satan he dabbled with them as much as he could within the confines of the group, before leaving to pursue them further. He stopped being the prodigy to save rock ’n’ roll and just became a prominent, accomplished musician, a label he seems more comfortable with. In hindsight, Get Behind Me Satan is the moment when all of this starts to break. It shed light on the next decade of Jack as an artist and still left enough space to hint at what might come.