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Examining Art and Music – The White Stripes

Geneva Pattison looks at the White Stripe’s use of colour as expression…

American garage rock duo the White Stripes, doctor formed in Detroit in 1997 went on to produce some of the most eye catching album covers in their time, with their back-to-basics take on musical work reflected harmoniously in the cover art. This is mainly due to the ‘Wellesian’ creative control held by frontman Jack White in style, music, substance and running concepts.

An ongoing element retained throughout the White Stripes’ career circled around their use of colour to create a solid, memorable function in forming their image.  The systematic use of red white and black in all elements pertaining to the band proved to be both powerful and salient, as explained by Jack White “they are the most powerful colour combination of all time, from a Coca-Cola can to a Nazi banner. Those colours strike chords with people …. When you see a bride in a white gown, you immediately see innocence in that. Red is anger and passion. It is also sexual. And Black is the absence of all that.” This set construction of authoritative colour scheming did exactly what it was envisioned to do. It echoed the command of the music and the sometimes innocent, childlike lyrics effortlessly.

Their debut album, self-titled The White Stripes,  introduced an associative symbol of the band, the red and white peppermint sweet. This was initially due to drummer Meg White’s favouring the candy, but it also fortified further a sense of incorruptibility and infantile purity, which one can expect from a band’s maiden expedition into the music industry. They stated that “it’s the most raw, the most powerful and the most Detroit-sounding record we’ve made.” With songs such as the menacing Cannon, I Fought Piranhas and the pivotal song Screwdriver spanning their live career, it’s an inarguable truth.

The second album to be released by the duo, De Stijl, saw the band draw on the Dutch artistic movement of neoplasticism, which illustrated an uncluttered approach to creativity, focusing on that of form and colour.  Again in terms of colour we see the minimal tricolour theme of red, white and black with alternating rectangle shapes adorning the cover, continuing to demonstrate the basal link to The White Stripes’ simplistic garage/blues sound, which was largely alluring to fans.

2001 saw the pair return with White Blood Cells and a cover that poked fun at the farcical nature of the music industry. On the front we see the twosome clad in red and white against a backdrop of a red brick wall being ‘attacked’ by black shadows wielding cameras. To further satirise the band’s growing popularity in the mainstream music culture, one of the lyrical themes of the album comprises of paranoia, as seen in songs such as I Think I Smell a Rat.

Their fourth album, Elephant, which included their most renowned song, the anthem Seven Nation Army still promotes the elemental sound they had become known for, but takes a looser approach thematically. We see the two on the cover sitting with backs turned to each other, on a circus travel trunk. “If you study the picture really carefully, Meg and I are elephant ears in a head on elephant. But it’s a side view of the elephant too, with the tusks leading off either side,” along with this clarification, Jack White goes on to divulge that the reason for this ambiguous construct was so that fans would be staring at this cover for years till finally they realise “hey, it’s an elephant!”There are also other allusions to the album’s overall musical theme, including the death of the ‘American sweetheart’ that you see on the cover.

Get Behind me Satan, the penultimate release from the band takes a different slant on the band’s previously heavy guitar laden songs in favour of the piano. The album’s title is derived from a biblical story about the temptation of Jesus and these theological notes can be seen on the cover, namely the symbol of the white apple held by Meg, a nod to the story of Adam and Eve, the other being the fact that the two are not facing each other, depicting both as Satan. Truth and the corrupting nature of lies are the main lyrical themes for the album, which aside from the cover art, we hear clearly in the majority of the tracks especially Blue Orchid and The Denial Twist.

The final album of new material released by the pair saw the creation of Icky Thump come to fruition. Despite maintaining certain practical elements evident in previous albums, this is an extreme move from their earlier work due to the musical inspiration behind much of it, including Scottish folk and Spanish flamenco. The title song of the same name as the album, Icky Thump, deriving from a northern English saying ‘ecky thump,’ presents some irony, as the band feature on the cover in black and white,  ornamented in pearly kings and queens costumes which are traditionally cockney attire.  This album, artistically and musically represents a ‘mix and match’ of styles which although strangely complimentary of the complete work, also show a loss of strict uniformity previously seen in the older albums of The White Stripes.

Having disbanded in early 2011, The White Stripes made a unique impression on the current music scene through their rigorous desire to carve both an explosive musical sensation and conceptual visual dexterity to their presentation and calling.

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