“I’m gonna fight ’em off. A seven nation army couldn’t hold me back.” In 2003 the lead singer of the White Stripes, Jack White, sang these words for the first time. Seven years, five MTV Video Music Awards and five Grammys later, his words ring truer than ever, as the White Stripes continue to take the music world by storm, breaking rules and defying convention every step of the way.
Jack and Meg White, or better known as the “sibling” rock duo, the White Stripes, rocketed out of Detroit, Michigan in 1997 with an unconventional melding of alternative rock, punk and blues. Defined by a unique song-writing style based on the number three, a wardrobe of only black, white and red and an unapologetic “bite me” attitude, the band was both a slap in the face and a breath of fresh air in the music industry.
In the band’s recent documentary, Under Great White Northern Lights, accompanied by the release of a live album of the same name, Jack and Meg invited the cameras back stage on their 2007 summer tour across Canada for a shockingly real view of their lives that are extraordinary and unconventional in every sense.
What sets the White Stripes apart from other bands of their kind (or as close as you can get) is their ability to divorce themselves from predictability and tradition. The cameras reveal that their unconventional style goes far beyond their musical sound, bleeding into their way of life, how they tour and how they function as a unit.
The most remarkable thing about the band is that it is composed of only two members. Jack points out, “If you listen to a White Stripes record, there’s a lot of different things happening, a lot of different songs and personalities happening. I think your brain starts to forget there’s only two people doing it.”
“We’re like a rock and roll band, but there’s only two of us. So that’s a little odd I suppose,” Meg admits. “We just make a lot of noise between us.” Even as a two-person band, the White Stripes infuse their music with enough life and energy to be able to command the stage.
Jack, who is ranked #17 on Rolling Stone’s list of “The Greatest Guitarists of All Time” — among the likes of Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones and Kirk Hammett of Metallica — is the lead vocalist and multi-instrumentalist. He plays guitar, piano and bass, usually all during the same song.
As if that wasn’t hard enough, he plays with older, sometimes finicky, instruments from the 1960s, including an acoustic guitar named after Rita Hayworth, femme-fatale extraordinaire. And he uses the entire breadth of the stage during a performance. He arranges his instruments across the stage so that he has to physically run and leap from one to the next, which certainly makes for a visually dynamic if not musically dynamic show.
Meanwhile, Meg, who has never taken a drum lesson and initially picked up the hobby as a joke, has evolved into a killer drummer. Her style is strong but simple in the purest sense; it’s a brilliant contrast to Jack’s wild antics.
The White Stripes are certainly a unique band in and of themselves, but their tour is also distinct. They have no set lists, so every “show has its own life to it,” as Jack says. They play what feels right at the moment instead of relying on the monotony of a routine.
On their tour, Jack and Meg added to the big city venues with shows in smaller towns across Canada that are typically forgotten and neglected by other big-name bands rather than simply relying on the big city venues. With no planning, no set lists and only giving an hour’s warning at most, the band delivered intimate, impromptu shows — each with its own individual flavor.
In place of amphitheaters and stadiums, the band performed in crowded public buses, dingy bowling alleys (Jack took the opportunity to bowl between songs), tiny boats in the harbor, toddler-filled YMCAs (keeping it PG), smoky pool halls and even a small boat in the harbor of Charlottetown.
Under Great White Northern Lights exposes the real lives of Jack and Meg White, but their music is a clear depiction of their personalities. On stage, on camera or behind the scenes the White Stripes are shockingly real.
If you learn one lesson from the White Stripes, it should be that unconventional is sometimes the way to go. Its healthy — and necessary — to just throw routine out the window, screw the rules, “buck” the system and live life a little more spontaneously. Their documentary is an inspirational look into the uniquely wonderland word of the White Stripes.