Rock ‘n’ roll in its early phases was all to be taken lightly. It was for fun. There were some differences of mood and genre, to be sure. You could compare a deeper (and darker) funniness in Jerry Lee Lewis with something more trifling in The Big Bopper. There was an angry undercurrent in Little Richard. There were songs and star performances that weepers could weep over. But nothing on the order of “Like a Rolling Stone” or “Gimme Shelter” was heard before the great mid-60s paradigm shift from entertainment to art, when ostensibly serious rock songs became common. A question arises: Is the funning spirit essential to rock or not?
For an everyday rock listener it’s easy to forget how silly the sounds and styles of rock are, and how you need bravado to carry them off. There’s more to this than the fact that any idiom can sound silly to one not accustomed. A rock guitar really does honk grotesquely, like a kazoo, and a rock singer squawks like a rooster. A rock song is a put-on. Maybe you feel that a song by Schubert is a put-on, too, but I warn you, the Schubertians will be offended if you say this, whereas rockers usually won’t deny they’re goofing.
But even if rocking and goofing are intimately related, it’s not necessarily a good idea to flaunt the goofing. Van Halen are worth listening to, when they are, in spite of their facetiousness, not because of it. Mick Jagger barely gets away with the japery of “Emotional Rescue” and on other occasions is less fortunate.
It’s a notable achievement, therefore, to give voice to an essential goofiness in rock without giving the game away. That’s why I’m impressed by Jack White, whose music in The White Stripes and The Raconteurs is hilarious but gripping too. Although his instrumental parts ring whimsical changes on blues-rock clichés and his vocals are hysterically declamatory, like a circus barker on speed, he doesn’t come across as merely playing the fool. His vocal timbre and dynamism are no less intense than his crunchy lead guitar sound. He’s channeling a formidable rock spirit; he might very well be the voice of that element in rock. (Who else really sounds like the voice of a core property of rock? Robert Plant for wailing? Mick Jagger for leering? Janis Joplin for sweat, Grace Slick for acid?) When you hear the voice of something you know you’re in the presence of a Power or right up on a Platonic Form, subject to its direct impression.
Once you’ve tuned in to Jack White you can spot the goofy quality in “Seven Nation Army” (by The White Stripes) even before he starts singing. It’s in the mincing triplet formed by the third, fourth, and fifth notes in the song’s superpopular main riff. (I’m told it gets chanted now by soccer crowds.)
All our uncertainty about how to take the song can be focused on those notes, or even on the third note alone, part-for-whole, when it’s played later as a squeezed-up chord. The song’s subject matter is serious, by Jack White standards: there’s a problem about how the singer is going to stand up to some threatening people, and there’s a fear that the looming violence will make him bleed even in his effort to evade it. The martial beat on Meg White’s toms is commensurately serious (or I should say as if serious, since we know we’re just pretending) and Jack’s distorted guitar, when it comes in, is (as if) properly passionate. The obvious nudge of kidding is in his overjuiced singing. His pronunciations are slightly hokey, making fun of everyone else who ever sang with that vocabulary. He goes into falsetto oddly in the middle of the verse, making fun of everyone who ever crafted or followed a melody.
The bottom-line meaning of this could be just that he is (and we are) young: irresponsible, uppity, desperate. The triplet notes plucked loose from Meg’s duple time put us outside the stable state of things, reminding us of all we don’t really have, granting us freedom to take exception to anything.
Watch out that Jack White’s style doesn’t start sounding as aesthetically normal to you as Led Zeppelin’s or anyone else’s. Then you would miss what might be the main point. There’s a helpful reminder of what he brings to the table in the Raconteurs track, “Consoler of the Lonely,” which starts out with a Brendan Benson-led section and then brings White onstage for a bridge or B-theme. Here he gets to play the role of a crazed, funny guru to Benson (and us), cackling in falsetto that if Benson can look in the right direction he might offer him something “good to eat.” And indeed, a feast of nourishing riffs follows. This laughing won’t lead to starving.