MANCHESTER, Tennessee — White Stripes mastermind Jack White has some explaining to do about "Icky Thump," the first single and title track from the band's just-released sixth album.
"That song is about people using other people," White said from the just-wrapped Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival (see "Bonnaroo Recap: White Stripes, Police, Lily Allen Bring Heat To Already Scorching Fest"). "The theme is 'Who's using who?' ... But one moment of it felt like, I didn't want people to confuse this character, who seems to be using this prostitute across the border. I wanted it to be taken as a metaphor for other things, so it seemed like a good time to talk about immigration. People think it's a thing that's come up in the last year or something, but it's been a ridiculous thing that's bothered people throughout U.S. history. I think when things get crazy in America's history, people turn to issues like immigration to throw people off the scent a little bit."
It's probably the first bit of sociopolitical commentary in the duo's decade-long career, and while the issue White's singing about is a timeless one, it's the bit about "people using other people" that makes it seem like he could've written the song last week.
See, ever since Chicago radio station Q101 made the decision to play a leaked version of Icky Thump in its entirety late last month (see "White Stripes Frontman Thumps Radio Station For Playing Leaked LP") — a decision that prompted White to phone the station while the Stripes were on tour in Spain — he's felt a little used.
But up until now, he hasn't really done much talking about it.
"When you're famous, you're not allowed to have any kind of reaction unless it's completely positive and saying, 'I love rainbows and stars,' on Entertainment Weekly or 'Entertainment Tonight' or whatever those shows are called," White said. "But this radio station — in this instance — I was having a private conversation with somebody, and they wanted to exploit it and try to make even more press out of the situation. But that's what usually happens nowadays. ... Jack White the singer and songwriter isn't reacting to you; it's the president of Third Man Records — our record label — calling you and asking for an explanation. I'm not screaming and yelling at anybody. I'm just saying, 'Who did it? Tell me why you did it.' [They reacted] like I called up and threatened to burn down the building or something. For God's sake."
And though he's plenty ticked about the situation, White is willing to chalk it up to "the times we live in." Which — for a guy who seems to draw inspiration from a different era entirely — is a pretty big step. Still, he'd be lying if he said he didn't pine for the days when people, well, waited for things.
"I think it's a shame for generations coming up that everything is 'now, now, now' and that they're getting everything from a mouse click. We have people who get upset that you can only buy a T-shirt at our shows," he laughed. "That's upsetting to people. So it's kinda hard in this age where you get everything instantly to tell people that they have to wait. Let alone if it's the rules. People can't help but rebel against any kind of rules.
"I think everyone is like, 'Big deal, it's not my fault. Everyone's doing it. Everyone's downloading,' but it's about the rules and who chooses to follow them," he continued. "We're all in the business together — record labels and musicians and songwriters and radio stations and MTV — everyone's in that together. And if they don't all respect each other, the foundation crumbles. It's obvious."