White Blood Cells shows that the death-of-rock meme never dies
At the outset of the aughts, the conventional wisdom goes, rock and roll was hooked to its death-drip demise. Nu-metal bands like Korn and Limp Bizkit dominated the modern rock airwaves, grunge’s illegitimate offspring Creed was moving millions of records, and boy-band *NSync had landed the fastest-selling album of all time with No Strings Attached. On the artier end of the spectrum, Radiohead’s Kid A saw the one-time supposed saviors of rock abandoning the genre, and Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP was being heralded as hip hop’s arrival-of-Elvis moment.
But just when rock’s backbeat seemed to be heading for the archives, something changed. New York's the Strokes started catching hype for their avant-punk pastiche on their debut EP Modern Age. Perhaps more significantly, Detroit garage-rock duo the White Stripes—composed of Jack and Meg White—started receiving similar enthusiasm for the self-conscious grittiness of their third studio album, White Blood Cells.
It’s a period worth looking back on now, and not just because Sunday marked the tenth anniversary of White Blood Cells’ release. The death and revival of rock is an old trope—a trope that itself is undergoing a revival this very moment.
Though well-received by critics, White Blood Cells initially sputtered commercially in the U.S. It was English tastemakers who, by the end of summer of 2001, had formed the narrative of the “garage rock revival,” or “neo-garage,” or the “New Rock Revolution.” The praise for the White Stripes was lofty: The late, great BBC Radio One DJ John Peel called them “the most exciting band since punk or Jimi Hendrix.”
In 2002, after the White Stripes signed a deal with the imprint V2 and White Blood Cells was subsequently re-released, their frenetic lust paean “Fell in Love With a Girl” became an unlikely hit, in part due to the track’s Lego-powered video, directed by Michel Gondry. By then, the U.S. music press began to swoon as well, with Spin and Rolling Stone both calling them the “saviors of rock and roll.”
At the time, though, Jack and Meg were viewed in the press as a novelty, in part due to the gimmick of claiming to be siblings (they’re actually a divorced couple), their red-white-and-black color scheme, their lack of bass guitar, and their professed adherence to the aesthetic philosophy neoplasticism. But the band's shtick didn't develop in a vacuum. Indeed, according to Ben Blackwell, the band’s “official archivist” and Jack’s nephew, the Stripes’ singer had unveiled versions of the songs “Hotel Yorba,” “The Union Forever” and “Now Mary” in 1998 with another one of his then-groups, Two-Star Tabernacle, Blackwell said. Renditions of the White Blood Cells tracks “I Can't Wait” and “Offend in Every Way” debuted in 1999 with another one of his short-lived outfits, Jack White and the Bricks, and “This Protector” and “I Can Learn” were played by the White Stripes at their initial shows in 1997.
“To me, White Blood Cells was Jack finally wrangling in all of these loose, forgotten songs he had laying around from the previous couple of years,” Blackwell said in an interview. “Coupled with the bombastic tunes that make their debut around this time [‘Fell in Love With a Girl,’ ‘I'm Finding it Harder to Be a Gentleman’] and what you've got it what is essentially a perfect White Stripes record.”
Compared with 1999’s The White Stripes and 2000’s De Stijl, White Blood Cells represented a change. On their first two LPs, Jack and Meg played homage to their Chicago and Mississippi Delta blues idols, along with their Detroit heroes the Gories and the Stooges. But with White Blood Cells, these influences, while still present, settled to the background. “Far too often, it seems forgotten that White Blood Cells features no blues music, no guitar solos, no guest musicians and no cover songs,” Blackwell said. “This is the White Stripes album that doesn't fit in with the others, and is quite possibly so successful because of it.”
Yet, for all the self-imposed restrictions placed on the album, it managed to be surprisingly diverse. The band swung between the country tinge of “Hotel Yorba” to the quasi-ballad “The Same Boy You’ve Always Known” to the proto heavy-metal instrumental “Aluminum.” “We’re Going to Be Friends” plays like a whimsical schoolyard jingle, while “I Think I Smell a Rat” displayed a Spanish guitar influence. The album was book-ended with the hard-rocking “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground” and the subtle piano-backed duet “This Protector.”
But the defining White Stripes aesthetic, which continued on White Blood Cells, was brevity. Not a single song on the album goes past the four-minute mark and only six of the 16 tracks make it past three minutes. Being concise allowed them to cover a vast amount of musical terrain while appealing to short attention spans. Perhaps that’s what made it resonate with both orthodox rock purists and the MTV Generation. “In less than two minutes,” the New Yorker’s Ben Greenman wrote in 2002, “[‘Fell in Love With a Girl’] distills thirty-five years of garage rock and leaves you wanting more.”
But, of course, rock’s so-called resurrection was short-lived. Once again the genre has supposedly flat-lined. Only one rock song cracked the top 10 of Billboard's Hot 100 Songs of 2010, and it was barely “rock”: Train’s treacly “Hey, Soul Sister,” which The Village Voice rightfully named the worst tune of 2010 and “the whitest song to ever have the word ‘soul’ in it.”
“It is the end of the rock era,” Paul Gambaccini, the BBC’s “professor of pop,” recently told the Guardian. “It's over, in the same way the jazz era is over … That doesn't mean there will be no more good rock musicians, but rock as a prevailing style is part of music history.” And in February, right after the White Stripes announced that they had officially disbanded, citing their main reason as an effort to “preserve what is beautiful and special about the band and have it stay that way,” The Telegraph’s Neil McCormick questioned whether their departure was the exit of the “last of the great rock groups.”
But these types of proclamations about the death of rock have been going on almost since the genre’s infancy. The rockabilly troupe the Maddox Brothers and Rose cut the ditty “The Death of Rock & Roll” in 1956. The country-music revival ignited by Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding led to a similar meme in the late 1960s. And, of course, disco created the same catcall before punk peaked, as did hair metal and new-wave before grunge emerged.
As the Pitchfork and Rolling Stone contributor Douglas Wolk put it in an email, “I don't think [White Blood Cells] was a reaction to the sound of that particular time; if it came out today, I bet it'd have pretty much the same effect. The energy and craft of that album is what made it a word-of-mouth success.” This may be the lesson of White Blood Cells: Forget the hype, listen to the songs.