Jack White will not let you take his picture, so the lead image of this story is instead FKA Twigs. Deal with it. Photos by Frank Thomas.
Jack White is easy to mock. He’s spent the last three years in enough pancake makeup and ghoulish garb to play Johnny Depp’s ghost in a Tim Burton biopic. He’s a staunch anachronism in a world governed by the thrill of the new. He institutes anti-cell phone rules at shows, sermonizes on the differences between real and fake, will inevitably be buried in a casket made of shellac, and has sustained a gloriously petty feud with the Black Keys over who re-invented the blues for the 73rd time.
Then there’s this photo. I know we’re all here to hear about Coachella, but I can’t talk about Coachella without going back to this photo. It launched a thousand memes and lodged in the popular imagination because it confirmed our worst suspicions about Jack White.
When was the last time he had fun? Here he is, scowling at a Cubs game, an ostensibly enjoyable activity. His eyebrows sneer with Grinchian malice. His hair looks like the White Stripes broke up over a failed weave business. It’s like he’s permanently aggrieved because the players weren’t wearing flannel uniforms and hurling spitballs. You don’t even want to know what Jack White thinks about the designated hitter.
But none of these ancillary details matter the moment he hits the stage. Any reservations you might have about White’s self-righteousness or Vitamin D deficiency are forgotten once he starts playing music. AC/DC headlined on Friday night and yes, they are Rock Gods of the hedonistic fuck-a-groupie-with-a-shark school. But while Angus Young remains one of the greatest guitar players alive, when you compare him to White, the schoolboy outfit seems fitting.
Young’s solos only go in one direction: up. They’re a series of peaks in which the sole objectives are altitude and power. When White lets loose on the guitar, sound squalls and splinters in every direction. It’s a series of Lissajous curves, fractals becoming fragments and re-forming. He makes the instrument speak seven languages, coaxing noises of out a tool that you’d long thought had already exhausted every last permutation. It’s not about volume as much as it’s about being visceral, making the hairs stand on the back of your neck, making you putting down your fucking cell phone.
The first time I ever saw Jack White play was at the 2003 Coachella. The White Stripes were the most relevant band on earth, touring on the strength of their solstice, Elephant. “Seven Nation Army” had yet to become the greatest jock jam since Gary Glitter and instead was a destructive cavalry force that hadn’t been pillaged by every mash-up DJ thirsty to exhibit his “eclecticism.” It was a “Look at God” moment. Up until that point, my musical tastes had largely slanted towards rap music. Watching White offered the potential that maybe rock still had the capacity left to be re-imagined. He proved to be a Trojan horse. There are no other Jack Whites. Even if there were, he’d probably assassinate them Terminator 2 style.
We’re a dozen years past that first Coachella moment. The White Stripes are ghost. The Raconteurs put the fiddle down slowly. The Dead Weather fulfilled the destiny of their name. And we’re left with just Jack White, backed by a full band, violins, and all the violence and misanthropy he’s capable of summoning.
Over the course of his hour and 45 minute set, White ran through his solo material, a song from the Raconteurs, and an Otis Redding cover. But there’s no disguising the sacral nature of the White Stripes songbook. He played “Hotel Yorba,” “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground,” “Icky Thump,” “Ball and Biscuit,” “I’m Slowly Turning Into You,” “Cannon,” and “We’re Going to be Friends.” He re-envisioned them in the way that suggests that his natural destiny is Bob Dylan, subtly tweaking his catalogue every time he hits the circuit. He finished with “Seven Nation Army,” a charitable gesture that revealed that for all the eccentricity, he’s not above giving the people what they want.
He’s too smart not to understand that the minimalist framework of the Stripes offered an orphic power. One of the best parts about music is that it doesn’t make any conventional sense. There is no tangible explanation why his union with Meg White, a technically mediocre drummer, yielded some of the best rock and roll of the last 20 years. In theory, he should be able to round up a better drummer, some session player virtuosos, and write brilliant concept albums about Antietam and the decline of the automotive industry until his voice caves in. But that’s not how things work.
“Music is sacred!!” White screamed and pleaded to the crowd three times near the end of his set. It was a mission statement both grandiose and deceptively small. He shouted out Tyler, the Creator, St. Vincent, Run the Jewels, and FKA Twigs—his own picks for his few legitimate peers at the festival. Earlier, White declared “we’re gonna get this show to transcend the people.” He lectured the audience to clap their hands and “put your cell phones down for five seconds.”
Maybe this is a deeply uncool gesture, but it’s nothing if not sincere. All art is artifice, but it’s naïve to think that honesty has no role. And if there is such a concept of authenticity, it’s not in image or backstory, but more archaic qualities like honesty and sincerity. Jack White can’t stop himself from being too raw. He doesn’t fit, never will, and never gave a fuck—except when he did more than everybody else. Everyone wants to make music sacred, but White is one of the few people capable of making that not seem like illusory pretension. He still can do it whenever he wants. He even kind of made it look like fun.
Tyler, the Creator isn’t easy to mock. He’ll do the job for you and intentionally undermine any criticism you can lob at him. About an hour after his Coachella set ended, he Tweeted, “fuck that kinda sucked.” He wasn’t totally far off. With Tyler, you have to take the good with the bad, and mute your critical mind. He talked shit to Kendall Jenner standing in the VIP, told the crowd to go watch Jack White, and heaped scorn on the entire VIP section. There was a joke about killing puppies. It might not have been the greatest Tyler set, but even at his most meandering he’s relentlessly compelling.
We’re almost a half-decade removed from the insufferable OF hype deluge and Tyler’s regained the freedom to retrench into his own weirdness. He wants to make rap albums steeped in 70s soul-jazz fusion. He unveiled “Deathcamp” and “Fucking Young,” from his new album, Cherry Bomb. There was a saxophone solo because Tyler #ListensToMoreJazz. His stage set was a fluorescent Peewee’s Playhouse type bedroom. He told people to put away their cell phones too.
At heart, he’s an experimental artist who directs great videos. One of them happened to feature a roach. Maybe you saw it. It made him a star, which was unavoidable. Tyler couldn’t exactly stay working at Starbucks. He’s an agent of chaos, sometimes great, sometimes bad, subverting expectations indefinitely.
I don’t even know how you could begin to mock FKA Twigs. If you do, it probably triggers some ancient curse from Aphrodite, who sent her 21st century representative to offer imprecations and spells to fans of trip-hop revival. I know I’m supposed to tell give you some summary and context for the British dancer-turned-singer-turned sultry goddess, but translating Twigs’ live show into conventional review somehow cheapens it.
She was up there hissing Sanskrit rites, some apotropaic spawn of Sade, Chili from TLC, Rihanna, Massive Attack, and Josephine Baker. It sounds a little stupid to write out loud, but Twigs basically figured out how translate sex to the stage without seeming tawdry or contrived. In a sheer top with gold sparkling pasties, she danced some delirious combination of Balinese ceremonial moves, hip-hop ballet, and free-form flails. Over ominous scudding beats, she simultaneously whispered seductions into everyone’s ear and crooned ethereal wails that carried to the back of the tent.
I wrote “What Am I even Watching” at least twice in my notes. I overheard someone mumble, “I wish I could be reincarnated as Twigs.” This was the sort of thing that makes you believe in voodoo—a strange occult ceremony with no answers, only impulses. All you could do was stare, everyone full of emotion but wholly incapable of motion. Transfixed.
As I walked out, I heard no less than three people say, “I can’t believe Robert Pattinson is fucking her.” In one hour, Twigs may have delivered the best set of the festival and answered the question of “Team Edward” or “Team Jacob,” once and for all.
Jeff Weiss is somehow still alive in the desert. Follow him on Twitter.