Just like that, the White Stripes are no more. In the time it takes to read a Tweet, the Stripes went from being perhaps our greatest working band to a nonentity. One vague, poorly worded statement, released through a website, and it’s dunzo.
And, assuming of course that the inevitable reunion tours are priced out of my comfort range (a reasonable assumption given Jack White’s eBay proclivities), the Stripes immediately join Nirvana and Jane’s Addiction as the bands I most regret never seeing live.
Shit, maybe I should rethink those $50 Arcade Fire tickets in April.
Because the White Stripes are petering out, calling it quits after years of declining activity, cancelled tours and side projects, they’re not getting the due they quite deserve today.
This is a band that never put out a bad album, that improved as they aged, that killed it live by all accounts (and if bootlegs and concert documentaries can be our guide, then those accounts are accurate), and that forged a unique identity. This is a band whose career lasted from the dark, Savage Garden-filled days of the late ’90s to today’s era of a thousand good bands that make no cultural impact beyond a momentary blip on Hype Machine.
The White Stripes, along with the Strokes and a handful of other turn-of-the-millenium bands, were supposed to be alternative rock’s next great generation. They were supposed to follow in the footsteps of Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden and lead us into a new Age of Enlightenment. They were supposed to be the next great crossover band.
It didn’t really work out that way. They did cross over to an extent, as much as anyone really can anymore — but that’s the point, isn’t it? The White Stripes were one of our last shots at having a significant band matter on a broader level than Pitchfork and mp3 blogs. They gave it a good run, but never really got there in the same way that the early ’90s grunge bands did.
If any indie (or alternative, or whatever you want to call this nebulous category) band was ever going to have massive mainstream appeal again, it seems like it would have and should have been The White Stripes. They played catchy but muscular blues-rock, and were always good for two or three radio-friendly singles per album. Their dress-up, brother-sister act is a throwback to another time, and that gimmicky packaging could only help their appeal.
But in this culture, this moment in American history, it’s not possible for a band like the Stripes to get bigger than the Stripes got. Future generations will never experience the communal rush of having a Beatles or a Led Zeppelin or a Guns N’ Roses or even a Nirvana that unites the best and worst among them. There are too many choices today, and a decent percentage of those choices are even worthwhile. This fragmentation has its advantages, as there are bands and artists around for every taste, every peccadillo. Music fans can connect on a micro level through blogs and social networking, but we’ll never again have a moment where people are excited because a band, their band, made the cover of Rolling Stone.
I don’t mean to sound nostalgic, because in most ways what we have now is better. People who cared enough were able to listen to The White Stripes, to seek them out and download their music and catch their shows and watch their concert film on Netflix Instant Watch. People who didn’t care listened to something else. Everybody’s happy.
But there is something missing, and I say that not as an aging fan wishing for bygone times. It was great that everyone I knew loved Nirvana, but in almost every other regard it’s easier and more fulfilling being a pop music fan in 2011 than it was in 1992 or 1968. I don’t miss those days — not really. But music is dying as a culturally uniting force, and I’m worried that means music is dying as a culturally significant force. So for that reason, it’s worth commemorating the end of the White Stripes, and taking a moment to play your favorite Stripes album this week — because whether or not they ever had a shot to be something more than they were, it seemed like they had a shot. And that’s gone now.