The White Stripes Don’t Fear the Rock

When “Fell In Love With a Girl” hit it big in 2001, mainstream rock had become something akin to a boring art gallery opening. For those of us who had been forced to attend and were sick of the pretentious and elitist jabberings of the Nickelbacks and Creeds of the time, Jack and Meg White were like a drunk couple determined to crash the party with their beautifully simple punk/blues guitar riffs and steady drums. All played on vintage instruments, their sound gave a backhand to the studio technology that seemed to suck the soul out of any artist. Finally, rock n’ roll became fun again.

But the Stripes’ last album, Get Behind Me Satan, seemed to leave the some fans, including this one, cold. “Blue Orchid” seemed to be more a composition than a rock song, and many wondered if the Stripes had backed down on their trailblazing gutsiness.

That’s why Icky Thump is such a breath of fresh air. Jack and Meg are back to their rocking selves again, complete with the red and black costumes and the licks to match. It’s an ambitious album, but it works like a satanic charm. The title track, which you most certainly have heard unless living in a bomb shelter some place, is a back-to-basics for a group that has always easily blown away our expectations.

But the song also provides a glimpse at a new side to the Stripes. Telling the story of a fun-seeking American south of the border, Jack sings briefly from the point of view of a Mexican prostitute:

“White Americans, what?
Nothing better to do?
Why don’t you kick yourself out,
You’re an immigrant too.
Who’s using who?
What should we do?
Well you can’t be a pimp
And a prostitute too.”

Take that Lou Dobbs.

Jack White has always insisted he doesn’t write political songs. And, interestingly, this song provides us with no reason to believe otherwise. “Icky Thump” is simply enough a raunchy trip into the underbelly, a utilization of rock n’ roll’s long forgotten ability to relate an issue in a thoroughly true and taboo way.

But as always, what makes the song work is the music. With typical bad-ass sexiness, “Icky Thump” mixes a visceral, pounding drum line underneath a guitar part that seems to sneer at the very notion that the story shouldn’t be told. In between this raw barrage Jack throws in wildcard solos that bob and weave in and out as if trying to escape the assault of his power hungry riffs. It’s a song unapologetic in its portrayal of an ugly and shameless experience.

The whole album keeps this up. “Bone Broke” throws back to the old chestnut of true poor boy/rich girl story, told with a crudeness that revels in its brash simplicity. The roadhouse blues-laden “Rag and Bone” relies on a delicious swagger while Jack and Meg riff back and forth their plans of charming rich folks out of their useless possessions. Both are, bottom line, gutsy, fun and rebellious in the most basic sense.

If there’s one thing this album shows off, it’s the White Stripes’ strong suit of making us want to embrace the inner rebel. And that the best way to rock is to be honest, bare-bones, and heart-stopping. When so many bands fear possibilities of rock n’ roll, Jack and Meg let it take them wherever. Their beats and riffs speak more power than any big shot producer can ever hope to.

These are down and out stories that used to abound in rock n’ roll’s glory days of loud screams and hip-swinging guitars. That swagger, that rudeness, that all-important ability to play from your heart; until recently it seemed all but extinct. Elvis and Jerry Lee, the MC5 and even the Stones had it. The White Stripes have it. And God bless ‘em for it.

Alexander Billet, a music journalist and solidarity activist in Chicago, runs the website Rebel Frequencies. He is a frequent contributor to, Dissident Voice, ZNet and the Electronic Intifada. He has also appeared in, Z Magazine, New Politics and the International Socialist Review. His first book, "Sounds of Liberation: Music In the Age of Crisis and Resistance," is expected out in the fall; you can donate to the project on Kickstarter. He can be reached at Read other articles by Alexander.

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  1. Mike said on July 17th, 2007 at 12:43pm #

    Intresting read – thanks

  2. Priscilla Feral said on July 18th, 2007 at 12:30pm #

    Patti Smith has it too, — a gutsy, magnificent artist who defines rock ‘n’ roll. In March 2007, when Patti Smith was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Zach de la Rocha paid tribute to Patti, saying she “revealed truth without regard to the political and social consequences.”

    How many artists have earned that distinction?