The White Stripes — “Icky Thump”

Released: 4.26.07

Peak: #26

In the American popular imagination, Mexico has traditionally offered permeable frontier beyond which honorable outlaws can escape the encroaching demands of civilization. In the 00s, as U.S. paranoia over immigrants crossing the wrong way metastasized, country music displaced that anxiety into a new subgenre. Instead of outlaws, now upper-middle-class Yanquis could escape into a fog of inebriation outside the jurisdiction of everyday suburban morality. Tim McGraw claimed that “That’s Why God Made Mexico,” and what happens in Mexico, Toby Keith assured us “Stays in Mexico.”

Which is more than we can say for Mexicans themselves, amirite? Had any of that nation’s actual inhabitants surfaced in these songs, that would have spoiled the fantasy. And so, acknowledging the pesky continued existence of a native population was left to a largely apolitical, aesthetically reactionary rocker. “Icky Thump” begins with a confused Jack White coming to, “sittin’ drunk on a wagon to Mexico,” like the victim of some wild spring break gone awry. But rather than reducing his experience to a crazy story for the bros back home, White wakes up to history, “went home and learned to clean up after myself.

Heavier and weirder than any other White Stripes hit, “Icky Thump” plunges beneath and rises above waves of cacophony. The deliberate tempo shift that accompanies each return of the main riff, and the clavoline squiggling like electronic bagpipes, mirror White’s disorientation in rhythm and melody, with Meg’s clunky banging away as essential to their sound as ever. The sonic turmoil says more about the confused attitudes toward 21st century borders than the confused lyrics themselves. Though White’s snide aside “Why don’t you kick yourself out you’re an immigrant too?” makes for a rewarding line. As does (personal to Snoop) “You can’t be a pimp and a prostitute too.”

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