Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Serious Contenders: The White Stripes, "Fell In Love With a Girl" & "We're Going to Be Friends"

Looking at the Wikipedia article "2002 in Music" brings back a lot of memories. Not always pleasant ones. Looking at the tracks listed under the top hits of the year, you see rock represented by Nickelback, Sum-41, Blink-182, Matchbox-20, Staind, Goo Goo Dolls, Coldplay, Creed, POD, Puddle of Mudd, and Foo Fighters... and while there are two or three bands listed there that I like or don't mind, a pattern sort of emerges.

None of their songs are about girls.

Oh, some of the songs are about relationships: "How You Remind Me," sorta, "Disease" by Matchbox-20, in their Matchbox-20 kinda way... but the one quirk of the post-grunge era was that it was not cool to be in love. It just wasn't. You had to be above it. I feel like the last great rock single about being in love before this was "Sweet Child O' Mine," or maybe "Buddy Holly." Every song about a boy-girl relationship from the 90s onward seemingly had to be about what a headache it was, or how miserable of a person the guy was: alternative rockers and mainstream ones alike had to find ways to circle around the idea without ever really allowing it to speak for itself. And I love the 90s. And there are plenty of holes in this theory, but they're outliers. And really, so were the White Stripes when they arrived on the scene. Even the bands they were bundled with in the so-called neo-Garage movement, weren't really writing about the same things. Jack White wanted to talk about girls. And not about scoring, or fumbling your way through an awkward first date like a pop-punker. He just wanted to sing about the real feeling of being in love with someone. And that's why it was so shocking when there appeared a song literally called "Fell In Love With A Girl." It felt practically like a novelty, but it was for real.

And it's far from an oddity in the Stripes' catalog. That album, White Blood Cells, is steeped in the language of young romance, sincere heartbreak like "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground," wistful recollections of youth like "We're Going To Be Friends." Somehow it becomes a daring statement just to peel back the layers of detachment and irony and reveal, "This is what we all want to say, isn't it?" And for my generation, it was. We had a thing to call our own. I was in Grade 10 when I heard this album, and it felt like I was living out this album a half dozen times a week.

That straightforwardness, in their lyrics, moods, construction, was what made the Stripes so attention-grabbing, a cultural force instead of a novelty. Love was suddenly not just the domain of starry-eyed popstars and R&B seduction artists. It was once again a going concern for grimy white teenage boys. The same way "Smells Like Teen Spirit" taught Gen X that it was time to stop being shallow all the time, these tunes taught my generation that it was okay to give in sometimes. It was a cultural watershed moment.

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