Happy 15th Anniversary to The White Stripes’ fourth studio album Elephant, originally released April 1, 2003.
The White Stripes are dead. They announced their death in 2011 by posting this statement on their website: “The White Stripes do not belong to Jack and Meg anymore. The White Stripes belong to you now and you can do with it whatever you want.”
It wasn’t creative differences, health, or “lack of wanting to continue.” Simply put: they wanted to “preserve what is beautiful and special about the band and have it stay that way.”
What I find most interesting about The White Stripes might seem obvious: the fact that they were a concept band. Some of the stories and pieces of trivia about the band are well known—like the fact that Jack and Meg aren’t brother and sister, they were actually married (divorced in 2000)—and others aren’t. Did you know that the word “little” appears in a song title on each record (“Little People,” “Little Bird,” “Little Room,” “Little Acorns,” “Little Ghost,” “Little Cream Soda”)?
Did you know that Elephant has more than six different versions of its cover with Jack and Meg positioned to create the shape of an elephant?
The legend of The White Stripes is fascinating—the rumors, the truth, and the personality (a loud, chatty, definitive frontman and a silent drummer). Add the concept—strict dress code and design only using the colors black, white, and red—and we haven’t even gotten to the music yet.
Sonically the concept is simpler: they were a blues band. Everything revolves around the guitar. The drums are overtly basic, which has caused naysayers and critics to perpetually roll their eyes at Meg’s drumming. But what those people don’t want to give into is that the elementary drums are on purpose, and that purpose serves the guitar. Meg’s modest drumming allowed for Jack’s guitar to speak and spit in many languages. The White Stripes’ music is innovative inside these boundaries. They were designed that way, in concept.
Because we are able to look at The White Stripes as a whole, complete discography, it’s easy to pinpoint Elephant as their magnum opus. When introducing the band to a new listener, it’s where to begin if only because it contains their most famous song, album opener “Seven Nation Army”—a perfect earworm riff (that has since become an international stadium chant) you know even if you live under a rock.
But Elephant is more than its fame. Between tracks are the different sides of Jack White as a songwriter, and his techniques as a guitarist and producer. The preceding White Stripes’ records—their self-titled debut The White Stripes (1999), De Stijl (2000), and White Blood Cells (2001) —all released one year after another are fabulous lessons in sound and color, sound that melts the mind and color that pokes the eye. But it’s Elephant where The White Stripes’ ethos proves the devil is in their details—slide guitar on “I Want To Be The Boy To Warm Your Mother’s Heart,” twisted guitar on “There’s No Home For You Here,” and muddy, dense guitar on “The Air Near My Fingers.”
For me it’s always the sheer volume of the band. The louder it goes, the calmer I am. “Black Math” is a death rattle wall of muscle, as Meg keeps steady on the cymbals. Until the bridge and the squealing and moaning of Jack and his guitar are so loud they’re soothing.
Alternatively “You’ve Got Her In Your Pocket” is an acoustic track, just Jack and six strings. It’s nearly romantic if he wasn’t singing about how he’s worried she’ll leave for someone better, “like she’s threatened before.” It’s a song savoring what you have but feels like a heart has already been broken. There’s a depth to “You’ve Got Her In Your Pocket” even in its track placement—a soft piece of wonder in the middle of a record that pumps your blood around their veins like a damn water slide.
Then the crescendo rises again, taking its time on “Ball and Biscuit,” the longest studio track the band recorded. The lyrics to the song are so one-dimensional—a blues song repeating its story of woe over and over—they don’t really matter. It’s the freedom of the guitar we’re here for, and Jack even uses the lyrics to talk to it: “I can think of one or two things to say about / alright listen” before he shreds enough electricity to power a record plant in Detroit’s Cass Corridor. The truth in this song always gets me: Jack White is actually the seventh son (and youngest of nine) and eventually became the “third man.”
Everything The White Stripes did was on purpose and another code the band lived by was to keep things in three’s (Jack’s favorite number and symbol “III”). The supreme success of “Ball and Biscuit” is three little things: guitar, drums, and voice.
A month before the album was released Jack and Meg confirmed to The New York Times that the theme of Elephant is “the death of the American sweetheart.” Everything was made, they said, and written in response to how kids live today: because they listen to hip-hop, smoke a bong, and play on a Sony Play Station. (The album was recorded in two weeks on “pre-1960s recording equipment” including an eight track.) Jack then directly claims not to be a Luddite, which is a hard sell. He then goes on to talk about creating a box to live inside as an artist, to make sure nothing is easy.
The only direct attack on youth and the 2003 status quo, and this is pure speculation here, is the blues and the band’s minimalism. And if that’s actually it, then it worked. Elephant has become so beloved that it’s now a benchmark in indie and alternative rock catalogs everywhere. It even won the duo a Grammy for Best Alternative Music Album.
Jack White is a man of hometown tributes and the one tucked neatly onto Elephant is just another eye of the storm. “Little Acorns” features Detroit broadcast journalist Mort Crim reporting a speech about compartmentalizing problems to handle them one at a time, like an acorn, before the guitar bursts in the door and plucks at your nerves to make sure you’re still listening. The rest of the album fills in the box Jack and Meg built for themselves. There’s the short, catchy, raunchy “Hypnotize,” the Burt Bacharach cover “I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself;” and “In The Cold, Cold Night” where Meg sings lead and the trickle of the guitar makes you shiver.
My favorite White Stripes song is “Girl, You Have No Faith In Medicine.” Find me someone else who rhymes “acetaminophen” the way Jack White does in this song and I’ll consider changing my mind. My imagination has run away with itself here: I hear it as a commercial for Tylenol—the most popular brand of acetaminophen always in a red and white bottle (even when you buy off-brand). The hook, the drop of the beat, and the chime of the chord snaps me to attention every few lines in between my head banging. “Girl, You Have No Faith In Medicine” is a novelty track that shows how a novelty band built on bounds actually didn’t know them.
I love to think The White Stripes could’ve lived forever. The resourcefulness they managed to mine is impressive across the six studio albums and seventeen accompanying music videos (plus the 2009 concert documentary Under Great White Northern Lights, plus eight live albums and four video albums). Their originality is striking in their body of work.
The only thing I don’t believe is that The White Stripes “belong to me.” The idea and concept is too perfect and too smart not to belong to Jack and Meg. No one else made music like The White Stripes did. The White Stripes may be dead but their legacy, in theory and in concept, lives on, and it lives most gloriously on Elephant.