This sounds like a ramshackle bar band drunkenly signing off an hour after last call. Complete with a ‘goodnight’ at the end. That’s exactly the point of The Raconteurs, and all part of Jack White’s vision of highly contrived authenticity. That’s not a knock; few people follow their vision as wholeheartedly as Jack White does. But bending the world to your vision is, of course, a contrivance, and Jack White is not an old troubadour crossing county lines in a painted wagon. He’s facing, like many before him, the conundrum of how authentic an artist he can be now that he’s a millionaire entrepreneur. Nine years ago that wasn’t as much of a pressing question, though. Nine years ago it was all “Let’s throw together a band and dress like we deserted the Confederate army and play a bunch of shows until we make our fingers bleed and/or get bored and move on to the next fun project!”
I remember the exact moment I first heard Lady Gaga on the radio. Cruising through south Austin in a Subaru station wagon with a person I would now murder if I thought I could get away with it. A far from idyllic memory; the early months of 2009 were among the worst of my life. When most of your time is spent trying to become unconscious, little happy moments make a big impression, and hearing a good song on the radio stays with you. I’ve successfully repressed the rest of that day, but that moment with the radio dial will stay with me forever. Hearing the robotic chorus of Poker Face for the first time, my exact thoughts were, “This song is far too good to be on the radio; I will most likely never hear it again. Better enjoy the hell out of this.” It was like something you would hear at a leather-daddy disco, an aggressively sexual earworm too dark for anything but a three a.m. dance floor. It’s a song designed for that final desperate bout of dancing right before last call, when the fates decide who gets to ride the disco stick and who goes home to cry. That’s to say, it’s a very specific aesthetic. Before Lady Gaga exploded into the mainstream, we were in one of those boring dry spells where the kinky gay club music stayed in the kinky gay club. Now its hit supremacy feels inevitable, the hand of the pop gods at work. But at the time, in that moment, in broad daylight, it had a gorgeous feeling of misplacement, like a straggling reveler doing the walk of shame in their glitter and sweat on a Monday morning.
There’s nothing like a good torch song. Even if it’s corny, it’s still good for cleansing for the tear ducts. Especially in the hands of an emotive singer, of course. I think that Duffy, despite her limited output, is one of the most outstanding torch singers in recent memory. Her voice is different; she’s not what they call a powerhouse. But her grasp of emotional nuance is above and beyond the normal diva range. Also, her tastes run retro – retro to the point of near-camp sometimes. It works, though it’s a tricky aesthetic to pull off consistently. It works because a lot of torch songs are, let’s face it, retrograde; you need a hint of irony to leverage that out.
In 2008, the underground rapper M.I.A. officially ‘crossed over’ (a phrase with loaded meaning for an immigrant and child of political activists.) She brought her unique diy aesthetic into the mainstream and created one of the hits of the decade. If she turned out to be too weird for the mainstream, too outspoken politically, too unhappy with the boxes she was stuffed into as a woman and a person of color, too unique in her music and her style….well, good for her. The world doesn’t need another ‘fun’ pop star with a little flavor; M.I.A. is all flavor and it’s the kind of flavor you find in neighborhoods you’re afraid to go into because all the signs aren’t in English. She’s been offering a view into that world for over a decade – not always hitting the bullseye, but never not interesting. Her music is for everybody, but it’s not about everybody. That may be hard for some people, but that is what great artists do.
Remember this? I’m not hearing any news of a Raconteurs reunion, and honestly, they’d kind of slipped my mind. They’re the homely middle child of Jack White projects. Not as seminal as The White Stripes, nor as electrifying as The Dead Weather. The latter benefits from the charisma and sex appeal of Alison Mosshart. It takes a gale force personality to balance out Jack White’s, and that’s where The Raconteurs fall short. They never fell short musically, to be sure. But the mild mannered Brendan Benson and gnomic Jack Lawrence just aren’t charismatic enough to be more than sidemen, and any Jack White project is necessarily a cult of personality. Cult of personality is what makes rock stardom possible, and it exists independently from musicianship. Some thrive for decades on nothing but ‘It factor’; some make great artistic achievements without an ounce of ‘It’. A select few have both in spades. Jack White – being both – is more dynamic when he has someone equally as strong bounce off of. And while there’s no questioning the musical rapport of the Raconteurs, for the audience, it’s simply more compelling to witness the chemistry he has with has with his frontwoman and his ‘sister’ wife. So, then, the middle child effect, making a truly great project appear as the less interesting project.
Am I the only who remembers Duffy? She made two great albums and disappeared into early retirement, spooked by the hot house pressure of fame, I suppose. Well, I miss her. She has the voice of a cartoon princess, and the musical and sartorial aesthetic of a 1960’s lounge chanteuse. And she sings about love stuff in the quavering tones of a true romantic. Love stuff makes me weary, but a good love song can restore the faith, just for a minute or two. There’s an appealing simplicity to the image of a cute blonde with big hair and eyelashes, and a heart full of longing, and a fairy tale faith that purity of soul will be rewarded. I have no faith in any virtue being rewarded, but it’s a nice fantasy.
The other day I was talking about not being emo enough for Death Cab anymore. Y’all know I was joking, right? For one thing, I’m too old to have been a proper ’emo kid’ anyway. I was already an adult when Death Cab for Cutie rose to popularity (though not much of one, so there’s some wiggle room there.) And although Ben Gibbard’s particular brand of soft-hearted navel gazing does appeal to the moodiness of adolescence, there are also plenty of things for older people to relate to. The slow, churning death of youthful idealism, for instance. That’s something you have to have lived a little to truly relate to. Of course, there’s still the emo contingent, bless their mournful little hearts. There’s a reason why the DCFC tag is almost one hundred percent lyric snippets over vintage filtered landscapes and flowers. It means that Death Cab, far from losing relevance with age, continues to appeal, and has found a fanbase with the generation that feels compelled to validate itself by making memes.