David Hajdu Is Wrong: You Can Tell Him I Said So, Re: The White Stripes

Close to two years ago I stumbled upon a book in the Essays section of Kramer Books, easily the greatest independent bookstore on the planet, “Heroes and Villians: Essays on Music, Movies, Comics, and Culture” by David Hajdu. It caught my eye because it had a ‘chapter’ on The White Stripes. I want to re-write the entire passage in this space, so you will understand how wrong Hajdu is about the White Stripes. But I won’t. So let me show you. [OK, maybe I re-wrote a lot of it.]

First, David Hajdu is the music critic for The New Republic – a magazine I am convinced no one reads (a used to be weekly now published 20 times a year. Uh huh.) He is also a professor of journalism at Columbia University. OK. Noted on the back of this book are other books he’s read: “The Ten-Cent Plague”, “Positively 4th Street” and “Lush Life.” OK.

I will admit that I didn’t read a lot of the other essays in this book, only because he pissed me off so badly. I knew how wrong he was from the start, calling rock ‘n’ roll “music [that is] formally underdeveloped…where lyrics do not need to hang together and chords are not supposed to follow harmonic convention.” Let me just steep through this pretention and remind you ALL that rock ‘n’ roll is not this. Not one bit. Every since Johnny B. Goode carried his guitar in a gunny sack and sat beneath the trees by the railroad track, up until we waited for our man with twenty-six dollars in our hand. On through to when the truth was found to be lies, and all the joy within you dies ….I think you get my point. Rock and roll was meant for melodic evolution (see: the Beatles’ discography), double entendres and storytelling. It has always been precise. Hajdu says the audience of rock and roll “exists in a state of permanent adolescence and that it carries a critique of adult society,” which – yes it does. Rock ‘n’ roll has always done that. He tells us that the White Stripes fit this very characteristic – by “conspicuously rejecting elements of [adult’s society].” Which they do, because – again – all rock music does that. But the fact that is that The White Stripes are more than just your average rock band. They are refined. Pure, straight rock, The White Stripes are a lesson in self control. A lesson Jack White has talked about many times over.

This book was published in 2009. Assuming that the chapters of it were not all published at the same time from the same place, none of them are noted to their original date of publication. Another irritating factor. (If someone out there has this information, please feel free to speak up.) Just five full pages and maybe no more than 2,000 or 3,000 words – Hajdu makes the argument that The White Stripes live in “a new class of youngish singer-songwriters working under band aliases.” (He sites Mark Oliver Everette of Eels, Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes and David Bazan of Pedro the Lion.) But that The White Stripes are special due to Jack White’s rejection of technologically produced records. Hajdu notes that on the liner notes of 2003’s Elephant it states that, “no computers were used during the recording, mixing, or mastering of this record.” The White Stripes record live in studio – as Hajdu says – “the way the Beatles did before they learned to exploit the studio and make the recording, not the composition or the performance, into the art form.”

Hajdu then goes on to complain about the lack of instrumentation depth on White Stripes’ records. “White uses a minimal number of instruments…no bass to lay a harmonic foundation for a song and flesh out the rhythm section, no second guitarist to add counterpoint or stimulation his own playing.” Never mind the actual concept of The White Stripes. If you are unfamiliar with it, the lesson can be learned in a few hours – well, even less if you skip over The Edge’s part in “It Might Get Loud” (although watching him try to pick along with Jack White and Jimmy Page IS hilarious. Oh and then when he literally shows us how he can’t play guitar and it’s all up to machines…yeah that too.) You learn that Jack White likes to play plastic, toy guitars. He likes to play guitars that he building himself. A man of his instrument, Jack White gets the big picture. Hajdu, not so much.

I unexpectedly learned about The White Stripes. Before I even had furniture in my living room when I moved here, I stayed up late one night with headphones plugged into my then TV so I could watch “Under Great White Northern Lights” without waking up the three sleeping people in the next room. I found it while surfing the late night channels and I’ve never been more entrapped by a documentary. Chronicling The White Stripes tour across Canada in 2007, they play in a bowling alley, on a bus, in a retirement home and in arenas. Shot some in black and white and some in color – it is the definitive description of the band. INCREDIBLE live footage, the first time I really saw Jack White play a guitar and my mind was blown. (True love is possible.) Their live shows are captivating. Meg barely talks, as usual, but it is so telling of their relationship. (That and show #349 – at the bottom of the page – of the Sound Opinions radio show from WBEZ in Chicago.) White is always willing to explain the band.

White discusses the self limitations of the band is entirely on purpose. He loves design and wants to see what he can do with the three colors – black, white and red. Hajdu claims “that this color scheme is elemental and severe, like The White Stripes’ music.” Calling it “an allusion,” Hajdu says, “the scheme evokes early twentieth-century constructavist propaganda posters, in which extremism and delusion found vivid expression.” Meanwhile, in the past Jack White has explained that he wants to see how far he can stretch imagination by limiting the possibilities. When have we ever written the same book with the same three words, or the same three sentences? The White Stripes had the ability to do something no other band ever tried – or wanted to do. Hajdu questions it, even as he quotes Jack White: “I love the fact that it’s hard for people to understand…certain people go away thinking, ‘Oh dear, she can’t play the drums!’ ‘Fine, if you think it’s all a gimmick, go away!’ It weeds out people who wouldn’t care anyway.”

The instruments the Stripes use – guitar, drums and organ – speak for that same limitation. Same goes for the limitation of a six string guitar. The marimba on Get Behind Me Satan was sitting in a hallway in Meg’s house – a coincidental reason of how it’s featured on the entire record. (A record Hajdu calls “a collection of homages or larcenies…and perfunctory musical ideas weakly or partially executed.”) Hajdu says that “White Stripes tracks sound like demos…[that they’re] trying out ideas in their rec room.” This essay reads like Hajdu has never even listened to The White Stripes. That he’s never heard the passion, anger and love for music Jack and Meg have. The White Stripes weren’t playing a cruel joke on us. They were teaching us a lesson in restraint.

Influenced by the Flat Duo Jets a rockabilly “psychobilly” two piece from Chapel Hill, NC, when Jack White was working as an upholsterer and playing music on the side before he started The White Stripes. He learned the guitar because someone already played drums (the instrument he taught himself as a kid). White claims that The White Stripes happened by accident – just like he claims Blunderbuss was too (it started as a session to fill time, recording some songs he had written, because RZA didn’t show up to studio time White planned with him.)

Towards the end, Hajdu finally tells us that he knows all of this – never mind that he’s comparing their colors to extremist propaganda and telling us that “”The Nurse” ends like a half a dozen John Lennon songs, the piano part to “White Moon” comes from Dylan’s “Dear Landlord.”” Calling the Stripes’ scales “equilateral amateurism.” Hajdu even quotes Jack White from an Ottawa Citizen article from 2003, where Jack White says The White Stripes are “an art project,” where Jack admits – even as he did when the band broke up – that “it can only go so far.” Hajdu annoys me because he makes all of these points throughout the piece even as he gets the words straight from the horses’ mouth, actually quoting Jack White who says the band was an experiment – that worked!

But, honestly, the worst part is the last paragraph where Hajdu unloads a bomb on us – grouping in an entire generation to one useless ‘bag of tricks’ that is meaningless. Hajdu states, “No wonder the band is so popular with young America: the White Stripes create the music of the IM age, the sound of tossed off partial thoughts, blurted out and blithely replaced with more of the same, never concluding. Jack White may think of his work as a protest against the proliferation of digital technology, but his music is its leitmotif.”

This book was published in 2009. There is a list of publications where these chapters were published, but not when. There is an index, but only to index the contents of the book and not their sources. By 2009, The White Stripes were done making records – Icky Thump came out in 2007 – and while “Under Great White Northern Lights” was released in 2010 – “It Might Get Loud” was released in 2009. I am siting interviews with Jack White that happened THIS year, I know. But The White Stripes records are our biggest evidence here. Hajdu spells it out blankly calling “White Stripes songs feel patched together from vinyl swatches.” He is endlessly calling The Stripes musical copycats, never mind that even McCartney copied the sounds of Motown records. Hajdu at first tells us that rock music is underdeveloped. And then complains that Jack White never did finish his songs: “As Jack White has said in interviews, he went into the recording studio without having finishing the album’s songs. He came out the same way.”

I will give it to him to write a critical piece, a piece that is unfavorable. But I cannot stand how he executed it – first telling us what rock music is and then complaining that Jack White was doing just that. “Rock ‘n’ roll has a quality of incompleteness that connects it to young adulthood,” is the first sentence. And then at the end Hajdu moans “no wonder the band is so popular with young America.”

David Hajdu, if you’re out there I would love to talk to you about this. I would love to listen to these records – back to back with others – and watch these movies. You are wrong about The White Stripes. I don’t just believe it. I know it.