What the White Stripes taught me about writing and painting

The whole point of the White Stripes is the liberation of limiting yourself. In my opinion, too much opportunity kills creativity.” – Jack White, 2005

For a band that relied almost exclusively on rock’s two most recognizable instruments (electric guitar and drums) and played economical, 4/4 songs that drew upon country, blues, and the British Invasion (40 years on), The White Stripes drove a lot of people to do some weird things. Just look at Elephant, the group’s fourth LP.

I drove my mom home the day of its release, a pristine April 1, 2003 in rural Kentucky, having just obtained my driver’s license that day, to find it waiting for me on the porch swing, inside an Amazon box, alongside The Essential Clash. It was mere hours old and already it had:

  • Been named one of the best 100 albums ever by NME.
  • Incited possibly the most left-field of Pitchfork’s Brent DiCrescenzo’s many left-field reviews (have you read his paean to Kid A and its “mating tyrannosaurs“?); he fixated on “Ball and Biscuit,” reading “biscuit” as “vagina” rather than “MDMA.” Apropos, he rated it 6.9 (also, if you’re new to Pitchfork, 7.0 is basically the cutoff for “good”).
  • Inspired a similarly unhinged rant from Stylus Magazine’s Colin McElligatt: “When I see them plastered all over today’s music magazines as rock’s new saviors, I want to grab the offending article’s writer, shake him or her like I’m the only sane guy in an insane world (think 12 Monkeys) and yell “The White Stripes aren’t special!”, because, let’s face it, they’re not.

Later that year, Jack’s guitar work on “Ball and Biscuit” helped him clock in at 17th on Rolling Stone’s list of rock’s 100 greatest guitarists. The adulation for the Stripes and for White in particular from 2001 to 2003 is puzzling in retrospect. The band had nothing in common with the most popular music of the time, such as nu-metal and Eminem. Indeed, an entire superficial movement – “new garage” or “rock revival” – was constructed to unite dissimilar acts like The Strokes, The Vines, The Hives, and The White Stripes, who shared little more than an affinity for definite articles and electric guitars.

Maybe this revival was the last gasp of rockism as it railed against hip-hop and Christina Aguilera. For non-cynics, though, the obsession with rock in the early 00s may have been a reaction to the dawn of Too Much – too much “information,” too much Internet, too much potential customization via ProTools. Where had the easily digestible, listen-in-one-sitting album, with clear progenitors, gone? New classics like Massive Attack’s Mezzanine and Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP were products of byzantine production and enormous guest lists. Albums, transitioning from LP to CD to MP3, were becoming longer than ever and making focus (from artist and listener alike) more difficult.

The White Stripes, more so even than their rock revival peers, made material the perceived simplicity of the past. Through a basic setup and whirlwind recording methodology (their albums were recorded in only days or weeks), they literalized clichés about “back to basics,” “raw sound,” and “down home authenticity” (they were from Detroit, the least glamorous big American city) seeming to peel back the layers of artifice that had accumulated on rock since at least the 1960s.

At the same time, they were futuristic. The lack of a dedicated bassist foreshadowed the lessening importance of sonic details in the age of the MP3 and shitty earbuds. The “disruptive” (I hate this word, but here I think it’s apt) ethos of making more palatable resources with fewer resources foreshadowed the tiresome arguments of a thousand Silicon Valley startups eager to take down nominally better-equipped competitors.

What DiCrescenzo saw as a limitation, this approach so akin to “paying tribute to Edward Hopper, Ansel Adams, Robert Colescott, and Georgia O’Keeffe in mural with a foot-pump-operated Wagner Power Painter and buckets of red and white,” years later seems startlingly prescient. As a painter and writer, I have come to feel that options are overrated.

A pastel done with 3 basic colors in 20 minutes.


I remember doing chalk pastels in high school and limiting myself to just a few colors from a simple set for each one – neutrals for one, red/green for another, etc. I produced 20+ pieces for a portfolio this way, while years later, burdened by ambition and huge color sets, I felt paralyzed – where would I start? What if I messed up? My mother, an artist and art teacher, has expressed similar feelings to me, saying that she can only paint well when she paints quickly.

Writing is much the same. I don’t enjoy agonizing for days, months or years over details; a lot of the time, it barely helps and ends up muting the raw fervor of first drafts. I wrote a 30+ page analysis of the Shakespeare authorship “controversy” (it’s nothing of the sort, really) in 2005, as an 18 year-old, without the pressure of publication or assessment, in just two days, and it reads much better than any of my laborious undergrad papers.

None of this is to say that editing or careful reworking is bad. Still, from Flaubert to Brian Wilson, we have romanticized the tortured tinkerer for centuries, and strands of such work-worship are everywhere, from Malcolm Gladwell’s pseudo-profound 10,000 hour rule to job postings that glorify meaningless years of experience. Sometimes the best strategy is, as trite as it sounds, to just do it, as a track from The White Stripes’ Get Behind Me Satan (my personal favorite from their catalog) suggested – to add constraints, to limit yourself, and to be free.

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