The White Stripes/Black Keys Smackdown: Who's Right?

If you haven't heard by now, White Stripes founder Jack White has a problem with the Black Keys. Rolling Stone, who have been chronicling the feud, wants us to believe that Mr. White is being petty and arrogant (so much so, they've reported the gist of emails concerning White's divorce [courtesy of TMZ, no freakin' surprise there], suggesting this emnity was spurred on by White saying he wouldn't want his kids to attend the same school as Keys guitarist Dan Auerbach.) But frankly, I wouldn't be so dismissive about White's assertions: that his band was first, and that the Black Keys have done a good job of assimilating the style and attitude of the group he founded with drummer Meg White in 1997.

In White's own words, "I'll hear TV commercials where the music's ripping off sounds of mine, to the point I think it's me. Half the time, it's the Black Keys. The other half, it's a sound-alike song because they couldn't license one of mine. There's a whole world that's totally fine with the watered-down version of the original." Does anyone with journalistic cred really challenge this comment? The Keys have licensed songs to Madison Avenue - songs that sound suspiciously similar to White Stripes material. The Keys have cross-pollinated the same musical genres (blues, garage-rock and alternative), although nowhere near as pointed and introspective in the songwriting department. The Keys are blues-lite, the White Stripes never pretended to be blues musicians, and wouldn't insult their antecedents with such an audacious comparison. 

And the Keys have not exactly responded to these accusations with d├ętente - drummer Patrick Carney took to PItchfork to say, "I feel embarrassed for him" and "White obviously sounds like an asshole" then qualifies these statements with the seemingly empathic sentiment: "We've all said fucked up shit in private, and divorce is hard." He also lashes out at deserved target TMZ, saying "I really think personal things are personal things. Like, TMZ? Honestly, they should be fucking ashamed of themselves, that they make a living dragging poor souls that have nothing, that aren't famous, into this world." Of course, Carney is mistaken about the last observation - TMZ doesn't care who you are, but obviously, if you're famous, more folks will be interested in taking a voyeuristic look at your transgressions.

All of this could have been avoided if Dan and Patrick weren't so adamant about denying the influence (consciously or not) that the White Stripes has had in regards to their sound -
they could've said something along the lines of "Yeah, The Stripes are an influence. But then we're influenced by a lot of things (then list them) - hopefully, we are putting our own unique spin on it, but there will be folks who will just call us copycats. We're okay with that. We love making music more than trying to convince our detractors to like us." And then, if White still takes you to the woodshed, he is in fact, being an asshole.

The White Stripes: "Seven Nation Army"

The Black Keys: "Your Touch"


  1. Every "new thing" of course spawns imitators, partly because artists like what they hear and want to incorporate it, and partly because A&R scouts are dutifully trying to find the next Nirvana, next Mumfords, next Beatles, next G&R, and that unfortunately leads to immediate saturation. After "Nevermind", every song had to have some screaming in it, just to have something like the Cobain scream. Thanks to the success of Mumford and Sons we've had an onslaught of 3-chord guitar and bass-drum music and all pretty much with identical themes. The late 80's were particularly bad when producers where cranking out disc after disc of either Bon Jovi or Motley Crue sound-alikes and this happened again with the "new metal" where every band sounds more or less like Seether.

    So what does that all have to do with Jack White? Well here's a guy who spent years finding a style and a sound that he wanted to achieve: raw, minimalist, unprocessed, uncorrected, etc. I guess I can understand his annoyance with someone going to great lengths to mimic that, not just including a track here or there that sound like they were inspired by him. Led Zeppelin lifted a large amount of their early work directly from those that inspired them, but they put their own brand on it, made it faster, louder, heavier, more aggressive, and interspersed completely original ideas amongst those derivatives. If the Black Keys cited Jack as one of their inspirations, as Zeppelin or the Stones did of Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, et al, but also diverged from his sound and style, I'd have no problem with what they're doing. That being said, I think Jack is overreacting a little, imitation is flattery.

  2. I think part of Jack's "overreaction" is that the same music critics who lauded his work with The White Stripes have all but forgotten his trailblazing in the genre of music that The Black Keys have made a cottage industry out of. And maybe he's also still mired in the angst of a messy and well publicized divorce (abetted by the vultures at TMZ).


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