Cover Story 66: Jack White

06
Mar

THE GENIUS OF JACK WHITE

As Jack White drops his most challenging, boundary-pushing album to date, we examine the man who is his generation’s rock star, a man whose musical muster has grown so far beyond The White Stripes

It’s a sad truth: They don’t make rock stars like they used to.

In the age of pop music and autotune and reality TV and every single person you know wanting to be a rapper, being a rock star just isn’t what it used to be, say, 30 years ago.

This isn’t about the death of any particular genre — because whether you’re talking about hair metal, grunge or anything else, trends come and go. What’s impactful is longevity and creativity.

And what sets the apart the dudes playing in a band from the actual rock stars is one very important thing: coolness. It comes in many fashions. Axl Rose was cool. David Lee Roth was cool. Kurt Cobain was a different kind of cool. Chris Cornell was too.

Today, Jack White is cool. The coolest, in fact, of the current crop of rock stars. From this generation, you’d have a hard time finding someone with the creativity and impact and march-to-their-own-drum coolness than Jack White.

In an era where the actual rock stars are few and far between, Jack White might be one of the last of his kind — if the Imagine Dragons and Foster the Peoples and Maroon 5s of the world have any say.

“Rock ‘n’ roll needs an injection of some new young blood to really just knock everybody dead right now,” White said in a recent interview on KROQ. “It think it’s brewing and brewing and it’s about to happen, and I think that it’s good. Since rock ‘n’ roll’s inception, every 10, 12 years, there’s a breath of fresh air…some sort of what you could I guess call “punk attitude” or something like that, a wildness.”

New young blood? That’s not Jack White. But there’s a good chance Jack White might inspire those people.

We’ve reached the point in Jack White’s career where releasing a new album is an event. That sort of honor doesn’t come lightly. It happens with Adele and Taylor Swift and Justin Timberlake and Jay-Z. And it happens with Jack White.

“Boarding House Ranch” is his third proper solo album and 11th album of his career when you include the various bands he is or was a member of — from The White Stripes to The Dead Weather to The Raconteurs.

For a man whose unpredictableness has been a calling card of his career, “Boarding House Ranch” might just be the riskiest work on his career.

You could argue that at this point, White could mail it in, survive off the Jack White name and brand, push out some mildly creative but mostly familiar songs, go on tour and collect some sizable checks.

But that’s not Jack White. Never has been.

Instead, for this album, he challenged himself in new ways. He’d committed to spending three days in a New York City studio with a group of musicians he’d never played with before. Many of them came from different worlds — hip-hop musicians who’d played with Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar.

He wasn’t sure what would happen. It could have been a disaster, frankly, but he liked the risk.

“I think it would scare the hell out of most people,” White told Rolling Stone, “so it was very enticing to me.”

Ten minutes in, he was sold.

“There was so much amazing music being played,” White said. “Some of those songs could take up an entire side of an album, like a Miles Davis record or a Funkadelic record. Then someone would do something and another mood would change the room.”

He did the same thing again, in L.A., with another group of musicians. Using a common respect for musicianship, creativity and innovation, they played and watched where it took them. Then White took all the results back to his studio and turned it into an album.

It’s all over the place: rockin’ rock, jazz, some funky digital stuff and that same brand of psychedelic-inspired music you’re used to from him.

Because coolness doesn’t come in just one flavor — and being a true rock star means stretching yourself beyond what you’re used to.

***

Perhaps what makes Jack White so great is that idea of never being satisfied. We saw early in his career, that what would have thrilled most people wasn’t enough for him.

The White Stripes catalog — six albums and a pretty big hit in “Seven Nation Army” in just eight years — would be a dream come true for most people. And maybe it was for White. But that was just the beginning of his endeavours.

From there, he was a core member of The Dead Weather to The Raconteurs. He went off on a solo tour. He started his own record label, Third Man Records, that functions a lot like a label of yesteryear would. It mostly releases its projects on vinyl, including many limited-edition pressings that are collector’s items.

Third Man’s Nashville location is a record store, a performance venue and the house of all the usual stuff that happens within a record label. In Detroit, where White is from, Third Man has a vinyl pressing plant. It’s the way White wants it to happen, not the way mainstream music does it.

And that’s truly what sets him apart, what makes him this generation’s rock star and a certified rock genius in an era where there aren’t many others like him.

He doesn’t want to conform. He doesn’t want to do what’s good for the radio. Or for his brand. Or for social media.

He wants to challenge himself and challenge his listeners.

“I’ve always made it my job to push myself into uncomfortable situations,” White said recently. “If you’re an artist, your job’s not to make life easier on yourself and make other people do your work for you. I’ve never been a fan of people who do that, and I don’t respect that sort of way of attacking music.”

See. That’s what makes Jack White a genius.

 

 


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