Wednesday, June 04, 2008

The Best Rock Band That Isn't The Beatles or U2

Listen to this song:

Yesterday, I was driving home from work and thought about that song, "Seven Nation Army," by The White Stripes, who are The Best Rock Band That Isn't The Beatles or U2, and even without hearing the song, I began humming that beat.

I was still humming it three hours later when I went to play basketball with The Boy.

(I lost, 48-15, but it wasn't as bad as all that. I was down 31-15 at the end of our 20 minutes, and I declared that the next shot would be worth 17 points -- 18 if it was from beyond the arc. I then missed six consecutive shots and The Boy made one to win 48-15.)

"Seven Nation Army" is the only song I know that can withstand The Star Spangled Banner Surefire Annoying Song Cure. I was told about this from a friend of mine. He said if you ever get a song stuck in your head, hum "The Star Spangled Banner" because it has no real melody or catchiness and is hard to hum, so it will drive the other song out of your head without replacing it.

Some people talk about what can be done to help humanitarian relief reach Burma. I talk about what can be done to get "Livin' La Vida Loca" out of my head.

But his cure works -- except on "Seven Nation Army." I don't know what kind of voodoo The White Stripes put into that song, but it withstands everything. Just writing about it now has me humming it. It's freaking me out.

That's not why The White Stripes are The Best Rock Band That Isn't The Beatles Or U2. As The Best of Everything continues to explore what "rock" is -- because everyone gets it wrong, and everyone gets it wrong and says their music is "rock" because they want to think they are a "rocker" but they're not and their music isn't -- we're using The Best Rock Bands to show what "rock" is because it can't be defined -- Wikistupedia's 4,422 only-partially-defined attempt at doing so notwithstanding.

Rock can only be experienced.

So we've seen that Rock, as created by The Beatles, is primal and creative and ever-expanding. And rock is raw and one-upping and in-your-face-- just ask U2.

Rock is also elemental. Rock is found deep down inside of us and struggles to get out and when out, cannot be contained. If rock is sometimes a primal scream and sometimes an Apollo rocket, it is also everything contained in Pandora's Box, straining at the walls of its confinement, and once out, it cannot be put back easily; it's all the trouble in the world that makes life so sweet but also threatens to cut our lives short.

That's why The White Stripes fit up on that top shelf of rock and roll. Their music cuts straight through to that deepest, darkest, fight-or-flightiest part of us and pulls it out into the open and it cannot be put back: we love it and hate it and fear it and want it.

What, you thought it was just that their songs were catchy? If catchiness made for a great rock song, Rick Dees would be at the top of the Rock Pantheon; just try getting Disco Duck out of your head. It's not just that their songs are catchy, it's why they're catchy. Catchy songs don't stay in your head for hours and hours so that you're subconsciously cooking a grilled cheese sandwich to the beat of "Seven Nation Army." Primal songs do.

The White Stripes are just Jack and Meg -- drums and whatever instrument Jack is playing currently. Jack's voice is not that great, when you listen to it. Everyone (but me) is critical of Meg's drumming. They look weird. There's no reason they should be popular.

But they are, and that's because they make rock, real rock and roll, rock and roll that you can't ignore anymore than you can stop the hair on the back of your neck from rising up when you hear a sound at night. It's instinctual: you have to go hunt down that sound, and you have to listen to The White Stripes.

Their music, like early Beatles and U2's Rattle And Hum, strips away most of the glitz and glamour and presents a raw feeling; it's that feeling, that emotion, that elevates The White Stripes above a lot of other, similar, bands; you can't fake that kind of gut reaction. The passion behind the music carries forward into the listener and shakes him by the lapels, picking him up and making him listen like a mobster shaking down a guy that didn't pay off his bet. Listening to the best of The White Stripes' music makes me feel that way -- like I'm dangling by my shoulder blades hoping to survive this one.

The White Stripes understand that, too -- they may not be doing it consciously, but all of their music exists only to remind you that you're on the edge, that your life could take a turn for the worse at any second, so you'd better enjoy it while you can but also make sure you look over your shoulder.

The beats in their songs are almost tribal; they would not be out of place in the darkest jungles containing the worst animals that are most desired by collectors and hunters.

The guitars and keyboards in their songs are slicing and grand -- they are broadswords and battleaxes, glittering with the promise of victory... or death.

The lyrics to their songs drive home the point. In "Fell In Love With A Girl," the singer says he must be fine because his heart is still beating. Meg sings about emotions making her feel older in the cold cold night. Jack complains that he's a bleeder on "White Moon" and begs for people's throwaway scraps on "Rag and Bone," and then finally, on "I'm Lonely (But I Ain't That Lonely Yet") leaves the river just before he could get wet -- having almost drowned himself. In sorrow? In real life? Who knows?

How much of the power behind rock and roll is being sad and fighting it off, of working to catch the good in this life before the bad overtakes us? It's hard to say. But the urge to keep going, the urge to fight and claw and kick our way to the top, the urge to avoid or destroy all of those things that came from the box, the burning need we have to hold onto someone, to rise above, to struggle on, is omnipresent in The White Stripes' music, and their ability to make us stop and listen, and then listen and move, is why they're The Best Rock Band That's Not The Beatles Or U2.

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