The White Stripes
Group formed in 1997 in Detroit, MI; members include Jack White (born John Anthony Gillis, July 9, 1975, in Detroit, MI; married Meg White, 1996 [divorced, 2000]; married Karen Elson, 2005), vocals, guitar; Meg White (born Megan Martha White, December 10, 1974; married Jack White, 1996 [divorced, 2000]), drums, vocals.
Addresses: Record company —V2 Records, 14 East 4th St., New York, NY 10012. Website —http://www.whitestripes.com.
Jack White was a member of the Detroit-area bands Two Part Resin, The Go, 2-Star Tabernacle, Goober and the Peas, and The Hentchmen; appeared in the film Cold Mountain, 2003; produced compilation album Sympathetic Sounds of Detroit, 2001, and Loretta Lynn's album Van Lear Rose, 2004. Jack and Meg White formed the White Stripes, 1997; released debut album, The White Stripes, 1999; released De Stijl, 2000; released White Blood Cells, 2001; released Elephant, 2003; appeared in the film Coffee and Cigarettes, 2004; released Get Behind Me Satan, 2005.
Awards: MTV Video Music Awards for breakthrough video, best special effects, and best editing, all for "Fell In Love With A Girl," 2002; Grammy Award for best alternative music album, Recording Academy, for Elephant, 2004; Grammy Award for best rock song, Recording Academy, for "Seven Nation Army," 2004; Grammy Award for best country
With just a guitar, drums, and vocals, the White Stripes excited modern rock fans with their breakthrough album White Blood Cells in 2001. They were celebrated as leaders of a "garage rock" revival that made simple guitar rock with smart lyrics popular again. After multi-platinum success, Jack and Meg White, a duo who were once married but still claim to be brother and sister on stage, have stayed true to the boundaries they set for themselves when they formed their band. They still perform most of their songs with only two instruments, record entire albums in a few weeks, and try to create music that draws from blues, folk, and rock traditions while sounding raw and new.
Jack and Meg White met at a Detroit-area coffee-house after graduating from high school. Jack, who was born John Gillis in Detroit, grew up on the city's southwest side, playing music from an early age with a friend. Meg White, shy, with a creative bent, had grown up in Grosse Pointe Woods, an upper-middle-class Detroit suburb. Meg worked as a bartender, and Jack worked as an upholsterer while playing in various local bands, including the country-rock outfit Goober and the Peas. The couple married in 1996. Jack White took his wife's last name.
The couple began playing music together in 1997, opening for more established Detroit bands at indie-rock clubs like the Gold Dollar in Detroit's impoverished Cass Corridor. Jack White, the guitarist, singer and songwriter, was clearly the driving force of the duo. Meg seemed to learn to play drums as she went along, with her husband sometimes cueing her onstage. In interviews, Jack has spun that into a positive, consistently defending her rudimentary drumming as key to the band's primitive sound. "When we started, our objective was to be as simple as possible," Jack told Norene Cashen of the Metro Times, a Detroit alternative weekly newspaper. "Meg's sound is like a little girl trying to play the drums and doing the best she can. Her playing on 'The Big 3 Killed My Baby' is the epitome of what I like about her drumming. It's just hits over and over again. It's not even a drumbeat—it's just accents."
Once the band released their self-titled debut album in 1999, they had already established an identity that would stay essentially the same for years. Their sound was simple, without even the bass player that usually completes a rock band lineup. Jack was organizing the band's music in threes: guitar, vocals, drums. "It came out the most on 'The Big 3 Killed My Baby,'" he told the Metro Times ' Cashen. "It's three chords and three verses, and we accent threes together all through that. It was a number I always thought of as perfect, or our attempt at being perfect. Like on a traffic light, you couldn't just have a red and a green. I work on sculptures too, and I always use three colors." The same three colors—white, red, and black—have always graced the White Stripes' album covers, stage outfits, and even Meg's drum kit.
Parts of The White Stripes, released on the small label Sympathy For the Record Industry, were rooted in the experience of living in Detroit: "The Big 3 Killed My Baby" was a protest song about the negative effects Jack felt the Big Three automakers (General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler) had on Detroit, while "Lafayette Blues" mentioned the city's French street names. The local press declared the album a success. Cashen of the Metro Times declared that the White Stripes had succeeded where other Detroit bands had failed: "remind[ing] us that local identity has more options than a membership card to the latest cliché … or a one-way ticket to the coast." The band's music, she added, would excite the sort of music fan "who still gets a thrill out of raw talent."
Fans and writers were also noting another part of their stage identity: Jack often claimed that he and Meg were brother and sister, instead of husband and wife—a pretense he would keep up long after the truth was exposed. "When you see a band that is two pieces, husband and wife, boyfriend and girlfriend, you think, 'Oh, I see,'" he told David Fricke in Rolling Stone. "When they're brother and sister, you go, 'Oh, that's interesting.' You care more about the music, not the relationship—whether they're trying to save their relationship by being in a band."
In fact, even as the White Stripes' popularity grew, their marriage was breaking up. Writer Chris Handyside began his book Fell In Love With A Band: The Story of the White Stripes in March of 1999, with a scene at a local music festival: Meg and Jack had become estranged, and she did not agree to play their scheduled gig until the last minute, after which an announcer told the crowd, "I've just been informed that this is not actually the White Stripes' last show." The duo's second album, De Stijl, was released in 2000, the same year the Whites divorced.
The band began attracting attention outside Detroit by going on two tours as opening acts for established alternative-rock bands Pavement (in 1999) and Sleater-Kinney (in 2000). They also toured Japan and Australia after De Stijl was released. In early 2001, Rolling Stone named them one of ten bands to watch that year. Writer Jenny Eliscu explained that De Stijl was named after "a 1920s Dutch design movement based on simple geometric shapes and primary colors," and described their sound as "scuzzy garage rock, blues and Mod-era Sixties pop."
The White Stripes recorded their next album, White Blood Cells, in Memphis, Tennessee, at the studio of accomplished producer Doug Easley. Several shows on their national tour either sold out or nearly sold out. Record labels began competing to sign them. On the eve of the third album's release, the Metro Times ' Melissa Giannini caught them confronting the beginnings of fame: fans asking for autographs, phones ringing constantly with business offers, and New York audiences showing up with arms folded, waiting to see if they lived up to the hype. The album art for White Blood Cells showed Jack and Meg, clad in red and white, surrounded by black shadows holding cameras. "The name, White Blood Cells, for the album, is this idea of bacteria coming at us, or just foreign things coming at us, or media, or attention on the band," Jack told Giannini. "It just seems to us that there are so many bands from the same time or before we started that were playing and are still playing that didn't get this kind of attention that we're getting. Is the attention good or bad?"
Critics described the band as leaders of a "garage rock" movement, also including the New York City band the Strokes, that was reviving simple, catchy guitar rock. Fans began praising the White Stripes for bringing a new energy to rock music. "That's the nicest thing," Meg told Giannini, "when somebody comes up to us and says they'd been discouraged with music and that we've made them feel a new energy for it."
While De Stijl included a lot of bluesy songs and slide guitar playing (as well as homages to mid-'60s British rock, such as "You're Pretty Good Looking"), White Blood Cells had a different mix of genres—on purpose, said Jack, who was worried about being pigeonholed as a blues band. Most of the songs on White Blood Cells were written on piano, then sped up and recorded with guitar.
White Blood Cells became a huge hit, selling more than 500,000 copies. The catchy, ultra-fast single "Fell In Love With A Girl" became a hit in England, and its video (featuring animation that used Legos to depict Jack and Meg) was played frequently on MTV and won three MTV Video Music Awards. Billboard 's Chris Moore heralded the White Stripes as the leaders of a "Detroit rock revival," noting that Jack had produced a compilation of several Detroit bands, Sympathetic Sounds of Detroit, and often talked up other Detroit musicians in interviews.
Some critics complained about the band's carefully crafted image; half of Time 's 2001 piece on the band was spent exposing the fact that the Whites were a divorced couple, not brother and sister. But most critics praised the band for making blues and simple rock sound new again. "The singer's manic intensity emerged gradually as he peppered the performance with deconstructed blues riffs and inspired solos," Jay DeFoore of the Hollywood Reporter wrote in his review of the band's sold-out April of 2002 show at New York's Bowery Ballroom. "With one broken string perpetually dangling from his guitar, Jack resembled a mad magician conjuring up spells from discarded songs of the past."
Like many other American alternative-rock bands, the White Stripes became widely popular in Europe first. On their 2002 European tour, they played on the British TV show Top of the Pops ; their show in Stockholm, Sweden, sold out in 13 minutes, and they discovered that French crowds knew all their songs. Later in 2002, the White Stripes were an opening act on part of the Rolling Stones' tour. They even embraced the role of trend-setters by performing four shows with The Strokes, two in Detroit, two in New York. By then, the band had left their old independent label to sign with the larger V2 Records, which re-released all three of their albums. As part of their minimalist ethic, the White Stripes kept their shows spontaneous. "We never use a set list, and we never rehearse, really," Jack told Rob Sheffield of Rolling Stone. "We just keep it as spontaneous as possible and keep it off the top of our heads. If it was structured, I would get bored with it."
Expectations were high as the White Stripes released their fourth album, Elephant, in spring of 2003. Recorded in London, reputedly at a cost of less than $10,000, Elephant proved to be very much in the vein of White Blood Cells, but more consistent: dirty guitars playing catchy riffs, mostly rock but still blues-influenced (as on the song "Ball and Biscuit"), with a few ballads mixed in and strong songwriting throughout. Meg even made a rare appearance as a vocalist on the ballad "In the Cold, Cold Night."
The album was a huge critical success, though many critics took swipes at the band's perceived pretentions before praising the music. Josh Tyrangiel of Time warned readers away from the liner notes of Elephant, in which Jack White wrote that the album was about the "death of the sweetheart," but he called the impassioned breakup song "There's No Home For You Here" and the single and lead-off track "Seven Nation Army" classics and the ballads "You've Got Her in Your Pocket" and "I Want to Be the Boy to Warm Your Mother's Heart" "soft, hymnal, and far sweeter than you would think White capable of." Lorraine Ali of Newsweek claimed the band had been "overrated" in the past, but deemed Elephant "a far better album" than White Blood Cells, " praising Jack White's wordplay and describing his voice as "campy and high-strung one minute, smoke-wrecked and gruff the next." Entertainment Weekly 's Rob Brunner groused that the "half talented" band had succeeded because Jack is a good salesman, that Meg had only recently reached "near adequacy" as a drummer, and that the red-and-white color scheme had gotten old. Yet Brunner gave the album a grade of B and called Jack "a top-notch frontman, a charismatic yowler with a seemingly endless supply of brilliantly simplistic guitar riffs that often find fresh musical twists on tired rock & roll cliches."
Elephant went platinum, selling more than 1.4 million copies in the United States and four million copies worldwide. One of the album's songs, "Seven Nation Army," became one of 2003's biggest rock singles. The album won a Grammy award for Best Alternative Music Album in 2004. After Elephant was released, Jack ended up in celebrity gossip columns, mostly thanks to his relationship with actress Renee Zellweger. The two had met in 2002 while filming the movie Cold Mountain in Romania. White played a small role in the film, a romantic drama set in the Civil War (released in December of 2003), and contributed songs in a 19th-century folk style to the soundtrack. White was showing Zellweger around Detroit in July of 2003 when he broke a finger in a small car accident; the injury forced the band to cancel a few months of tour appearances. (White and Zellweger eventually broke up, and she married country music star Kenny Chesney in May of 2005, from whom she filed for divorce a few months later.) White was also in the news because he got in a bar brawl with a fellow Detroit musician, Jason Stollsteimer, lead singer of the Von Bondies, in December of 2003, reportedly over comments Stollsteimer made in an interview downplaying White's role producing the Von Bondies' first album. White eventually pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault and battery and was fined and ordered to attend anger-management classes.
Jack and Meg appeared in the film Coffee and Cigarettes in 2004, an experimental collection of shorts directed by Jim Jarmusch in which the actors drank coffee, smoked cigarettes, and talked. (Jack and Meg talked about a Tesla coil, which is used in electronic equipment.) That same year, Jack produced an album for classic country-music star Loretta Lynn, Van Lear Rose, which went on to win a Grammy in 2005. Plus, Jack and Lynn shared a Grammy for Best Country Collaboration With Vocals for one of that album's songs.
Though critics often complained the White Stripes relied on gimmicks to get attention, the duo actually avoid typical music-business marketing strategies. The best example came in the summer of 2005. As their fifth album, Get Behind Me Satan, was about to debut, the White Stripes took off on a tour of Central and South America, followed by a tour of Eastern Europe, Greece, and Russia after its release. Brian Garrity of Billboard had to talk to Jack White about the album by phone while the band was in Chile. "I wanted to go to places where no one had ever seen us before, so we [could] get that feeling back of those live shows where we used to have to prove ourselves," White told Garrity.
While on the South American tour, on June 1, 2005, Jack married British model Karen Elson in Manaus, Brazil. The marriage reportedly took place on a canoe at the spot where the Amazon River meets two other rivers. Meg was the maid of honor, according to the White Stripes' website. "This was the first marriage for both newlyweds," the site claimed.
The band experimented with its sound on Get Behind Me Satan, recorded at a studio Jack White built in his home. He only played electric guitar on a few tracks; others featured piano or marimba instead. Jack White told Rolling Stone 's Fricke that the album, and its title, represented "the end of any unhappiness I have…. Any troubles I have are well-represented: betrayal, loss, pain…."
Reviews were good to mixed. Sasha Frere-Jones of the New Yorker praised Jack White's talent but expressed frustration that he continued to work within arbitrary rules of simplicity. Recording the album in less than three weeks, as the White Stripes often do, resulted in a collection of sloppy songs and made the album more "smart" than "fun," Frere-Jones complained. But Chuck Arnold of People gave the album 3 1/2 stars and called it "weird" but "fascinating," and Lorraine Ali of Newsweek called it "an explosive hybrid of under-the-radar Americana, scraggly hip-hugger rock and 21st-century innovation."
In fall of 2005, the White Stripes headed out on a tour of the United States, and Jack White was preparing to release an album with a new band, The Raconteurs, which includes his friend, Detroit rock musician Brendan Benson. In October of 2005, it was announced that the White Stripes would perform on Comedy Central's The Daily Show in December of that year. The duo was the first band to perform on that show.
White Stripes, Sympathy for the Record Industry, 1999; V2, 2002.
De Stijl, Sympathy for the Record Industry, 2000; V2, 2002.
White Blood Cells, Sympathy for the Record Industry, 2001; V2, 2002.
Elephant, V2, 2003.
Get Behind Me Satan, V2, 2005.
Handyside, Chris, Fell In Love With A Band: The Story of the White Stripes, St. Martin's Griffin, 2004.
Billboard, October 27, 2001, p. 1; April 27, 2002, p. 80; June 4, 2005, p. 22.
Detroit News, March 10, 2004.
Entertainment Weekly, April 4, 2003, p. 98.
Hollywood Reporter, April 8, 2002, p. 28; September 24, 2003, p. 19.
Maclean's, May 24-31, 2004.
Metro Times (Detroit, MI), May 26, 1999; May 29, 2001.
Newsweek, June 21, 2005, p. 50; June 27, 2005, p. 60.
New Yorker, June 13, 2005, p. 178.
People, June 20, 2005, p. 28; June 27, 2005, p. 41.
Rolling Stone, February 15, 2001, p. 65; April 11, 2002, p. 47; December 12, 2002, p. 88; September 8, 2005, pp. 66-72.
Time, June 16, 2001; April 14, 2003, p. 82.
USA Today, August 12, 2003, p. 3D.
"News," The White Stripes, http://www.white stripes.com/news/news.html (August 21, 2005).
"The White Stripes, Biography," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com/cg/amg.dll?p= amg&searchlink=WHITE|STRIPES& uid= MIW030509051902&sql=11:jpx1z81a1yvo~T1 (August 21, 2005).
"White Stripes, 'Daily,'" CNN.com, http://www.cnn.com/2005/SHOWBIZ/10/07/showbuzz/index.html#2 (October 10, 2005).
— Erick Trickey