I have two speculations I wish to put forth. Neither are grounded in any kind of fact or research – these musings of mine to do not come from anything I have read or heard, but only derive from what my ears have observed in my several-years-or-more-long engagement with each of the bands/artists. The speculations might be proposed thusly:
1) The more I listen to his music, either as a solo artist and, in some ways, even moreso in his previous incarnation as Ben Folds Five, I am convinced that Mr. Ben Folds was highly influenced by Christian music legend and generally rockin’ piano player Keith Green.
2) The more I listen to their music, especially their brilliantly theatrical most recent release Get Behind Me Satan, I am convinced that The White Stripes (or, say, at least Jack White, since he is the driving creative force) are to some degree influenced not simply by gospel/church music, which is a given, but also specifically by Christian youth-musicals or cantatas in the style of the late-70s and early-80s.
The Ben Folds-Keith Green connection should be somewhat self-evident – if you don’t believe me, just listen to “Kate” or “Missing the War” from 1997’s Whatever and Ever, Amen. I have had this suspicion regarding Mr. Folds for quite a few years now, and several musical and non-musical observations would seem to support the possibility that the artist in question has a conservative Christian, church-going background that he has reacted to at various times and in various ways. For example, he is a North Carolina native, which firmly qualifies as the Bible Belt, and for awhile lived in Nashville (arguably the “buckle” of said belt). He is a close friend and occasional collaborator with fringe-Christian artists and Nashvillians Fleming & John (husband and wife team Fleming McWilliams and John Mark Painter, who did the string and horn arrangements on Ben Folds Five’s The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, as well as on DC Talk’s Jesus Freak). Folds played drums on Fleming & John’s Delusions of Grandeur (1991 on R.E.X. – what a great label that was, while it lasted) and co-wrote one song on The Way We Are (1998).
While I will not embark on an explication of the much-examined lyrics to “Brick”, which correctly interpreted are an obvious morality tale about the evils of abortion, consider lyrics such as:
“Wondering, who I am when I ought to know / Straighten up now time to go
Fool somebody else, fool somebody else…
Trying to be for you what you wanna see / But I can’t help it with you
The good and bad comes through” (“Best Imitation of Myself”)
Commentary: This is the plight of every youth group kid…who am I, really, and who am I fooling? Which hat shall I wear when I’m around which group? We operate in different modes around school friends, church friends, parents, cool-guy youth pastors, different even when at youth group events as compared to summer youth-camp. The urge to please, to be accepted (by mom and dad; by the Spirit-filled hottie in the youth group that you really want to feel-up; ultimately by Jesus) is at war with the urge to be a selfish punk teenager. And yet, strangely, there something about evangelical Christianity that, for all its possible ills, tends to generate extremely self-conscious young persons. One hypothesis – all of these teenagers, as they come into adulthood, end up falling into one of two categories: 1) those who, deciding the examined life was just too damn hard, stopped being so self-conscious and maintained an easy relationship with their conservative roots, and 2) those who, deciding the examined life is the only life worth living, continued to flail away in their Cartesian questioning, which inevitably unravelled any certainties they had about anything and severely problematized their relationship with their conservative roots, at which they continually hack away but of which they never fully succeed at ridding themselves.
“I see that there is evil / And I know that there is good
And the in-betweens I never understood…
I pushed you cause I loved you guys
I didn’t realize / That you weren’t having fun
And I dragged you up the stairs / And I told you to fly
You were flapping your arms / Then you started to cry, you were too high
Now you take this all for granted / You take the mortar, block, and glass
And you forget the speech that moved the stone
But it’s really not that you can’t see / The forest from the trees
You just never been out in the woods alone
So go ahead and laugh all you want / I got my philosophy
It keeps my feet on the ground
That’s why my philosophy / Keeps me walking when I’m falling down.” (“Philosophy”)
Commentary: Just what is Ben’s philosophy? Certainly not what he was given in youth group. And yet the trace of it remains – there is good and bad, and the in-betweens just muddle things up and make this difficult. No, far better to just place everything into dualistic categories: right/wrong, sin/not-sin, etc. And perhaps it is the unsaid trace of this that he gets at here – “Keeps me walking when I’m falling down.” We’re always falling down, but we’ve always got to keep on walking – this is the paradox. We have to sin to be forgiven…there’s no sense in staying home and hiding under the bed out of fear that I’ll have a lustful thought about Spirit-filled hottie during the cool-guy youth pastor’s Wednesday night Bible study. The problem with most of those people that end up in the first category (un-examined life) above is, as Ben says, not that they can’t see the forest for the trees, it’s just that, poor souls, they’ve never seen the forest in the first place. They’ve never ventured out, which means they’ve never allowed themselves to stray so far as to want for grace. Life is a risk, and it’s a scary thing trying to fly on your own. Not to mention “the speech that moved the stone,” which scares the hell out of us.
“Roots – the funny limbs that grow underground
That keep you from falling down
Don’t you think that you’ll need them now?
If you’re afraid they might discover your redneck past
There are a hundred ways to cover your redneck past
They’ll never send you home.” (“Your Redneck Past”)
Commentary: An undeniable “vine-and-branches” reference, this song, while not specifically about Ben’s conservative Christian identity but rather more generally his Southern background (and of course, the latter includes the former, almost by default), really gets down to what I’m talking about. We hate those roots, but we need them – they’re inescapable and the very things that allow us to stand at all. And that “They’ll never send you home” line is an obvious reference to youth camps and youth group activities wherein the greatest threat against misbehavior is to be prematurely sent home at your parents’ expense. Which, of course, rarely – if ever – happens.
“Grew a moustache and a mullet / Got a job at chic-fil-a.” (“Army”)
Commentary: Now, everyone who lives in a region where Chic-fil-A restaurants proliferate will know that it is the aspiration of every youth group kid to work at Chic-fil-A, founded by “Christian businessman” S. Truett Cathy, which is closed on Sundays and allows employees to earn college-scholarships according to their tenure “slingin’ chicken,” as we used to call it. As a former chickin’-slinger, this pretty much seals the deal for me.
The latter proposition regarding The White Stripes is admittedly more difficult to pinpoint. Beyond the more well-known musicals of the Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar variety, I refer broadly to most every cheesy musical written to be performed as a local-church production: specifically, musicals with one-word names like Life and Joy; and even perhaps the ones in which I was involved as teen: The Basics of Life (based, of course, on the music of 4-Him), The Pledge (based, of course, on the music of DeGarmo & Key), and the like. But in this case, too, many of the lyrics speak for themselves:
“And you know why you love at all / if you’re thinking of the Holy Ghost.” (“Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground”)
Commentary: Of course, with the exception of the standard doxology (“…Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost”), mainline Christians have exchanged Holy Ghost for the Holy Spirit, which doesn’t conjure up such creepy connotations as ghost (which immediately makes us think of films like The Others and The Sixth Sense, of course). Still, this line is a simple statement of theological truth sung in the disembodied voice of Robert Plant which issues from the lips of Jack White.
“If you give me a look / I’m gonna get the book
I’m gonna preach the word / I wanna preach to birds.” (“Little Bird”)
Commentary: This makes me wonder if Jack wasn’t brought up in a Nazarene church (like me), or perhaps Wesleyan, or maybe an uncharacteristically conservative Methodist church. I mean, this is an obvious reference to John Wesley, with Bible (“the book”) in hand and the field as his sanctuary. This image also functions multivalently as an allusion to St. Francis of Assisi preaching to the the animals, including, but not limited to, the little birdies.
“I love people like a brother now / But I’m not gonna be their mother now
What if someone walked up to me / And like an apple cut right through me
I’m not the one who’s sinnin’.” (“Screwdriver”)
Commentary: There may be some gender-bias issues in this lyric, namely that the narrator wants to be a brother and not a mother. This of course doesn’t jive with St. Paul when he writes that “there is neither male nor female… [etc] but all are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). Further the reference to the apple hints at Eve in the Garden of Eden, and the obviously male protagonist says “I’m not the one who’s sinnin'” – no, of course not, it was that woman. This kind of thing could only be the product of a fundamentalist upbringing, although I would venture to say that this is Jack White’s tongue-in-cheek way of mocking such chauvinistic, phallocentric notions. Then again, this IS a guy who tried to pass his ex-wife off as his sister, so there may well be some gender and familial issues going on.
“Lord above, I command / I’ve been evil…evil…evil.” (“Cannon”)
Commentary: The fact that Jack literally screams these lines after explosively covering a bit of Son House‘s “John the Revelator” makes for one of the most overtly Christian moments in the White Stripes catalogue. It is a moment of purely ecstatic utterance, not simple confession (which would make more sense) but command, “I command I’ve been evil.” It’s as if Jack is defiantly thrusting his sinfulness in the Lord’s face, daring him to extend grace to “such a worm” as he. A very “blues” outlook, indeed.
“Women, listen to your mothers
Don’t just succumb to the wishes of your brothers
Take a step back, take a look at one another
You need to know the difference / Between a father and a lover.” (“Passive Manipulation”)
Commentary: If this isn’t a “True Love Waits” plug, I just don’t know what is.
So, there you have it. I realize my lyrical analyses don’t particularly reinforce my conjecture about musical (and not just theological) influence, but the themes these lyrics occasionally belie are, I assert, very closely linked to a particular expression of conservative Christianity and the musical stylings, in their various forms, that tend to provide its accompaniment. Anyone care to affirm or refute?