Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Big Three Killed My Baby

For the last couple of weeks or perhaps a month, I've been rediscovering The White Stripes, a Detroit City garage rock band. I knew and liked them before my visit to Detroit two and a half years ago, and I can't say that my visit to Detroit really had anything to do The White Stripes - but I did discover another garage band The Detroit Cobras while there. Not sure why I'm re-tuning myself to Stripes, probably because their sound is quite close to The Detroit Cobras - unpolished, raw, energetic and not filled with a pitch-perfect ProTools sound.

The song that really stays with me is "The Big Three Killed My Baby", a song that is both typical and atypical for the Stripes. It was their third single ever, also the third track on their debut album. The sound is typical of their early years, which is more unpolished than the later, and Jack White's vocal is more scratched and raw and pulled a bit back in the production. The result is pretty close to MC5, who of course also hailed from Detroit. Lyrically, the song is atypical for the Stripes, as it is quite political, while most of their songs are relationship songs (for lack of a better word).

Generally speaking, three is a significant number for the Stripes as Jack has often stated. Their music consists of three sounds: vocals, guitars, drums or vocals, piano, drums. Visually, black, white and red are the only colors used. In the context of Detroit, the Big Three can really only refer to the Big Three car companies: General Motors, Ford and Chrysler. That they "killed my baby" needs a bit more unpacking. But first, here is a live version of the song - it's a bit faster than the original, and the sound is less good - but here Jack White inserts the names of the Big Three into the song.

The song has three verses and three choruses but interestingly the structure is reverted from the standard verse-chorus and instead runs chorus-verse. The song ends with a coda that can almost be said to serve as a new chorus. Musically, the song starts with a discordant guitar noise, leading into a typical garage rock riff for the first chorus. The verse shifts into a standard blues riff, akin to Muddy Waters or John Lee Hooker intoning the ails that afflict them. Thus, there is a reversal of the way that verse and chorus are used musically - the typical blues riff is used for the verse rather than the chorus, while the more standard rock riff is used for the chorus.

The song is simple and stripped-down, with no real musical progression except at the coda. What the reversal does, is to draw forth the lyrics of the verse and make them stand as statements, much in the spirit of blues. It is a similar feeling to "I'm a Man" - ba-da-bam "I'm a man" ba-da-bam "I spell M" etc. This strategy makes us pay attention to the lyrics of the verse as much as chorus. The silence between each riff pushes Jack's voice forward and his shouts seems as if refracted through a megaphone or otherwise distorted. It gives the sensation of aggressive and frustrated shouting.

The chorus is simple and direct:

The big three killed my baby
No money in my hand again
The big three killed my baby
Nobody's coming home again
Here is a blues echo again, "bad guys killed my baby, I'm now left alone with no money". This is definitely familiar territory for any form of blues or rock, and certainly also the Stripes themselves. The change comes in the first verse:
Their ideas make me want to spit
a hundred dollars goes down the pit
30,000 wheels are rollin'
and my stick shift hands are swollen
everything involved is shady
and the big three killed my baby
It seems reasonable to assume that 'their' refers to the big three and it is in this verse that we see not just a personal protest and revulsion ("make me want to spit"), but also the clue to what the big three are. The reference to wheels and stick shifts make us think of cars, and as I mentioned, in the context of Detroit, we can be sure that the Big Three represent the car industry. Money being wasted and shady dealings set the tone for the rest of the song, but the reference to stick shifts is peculiar. The image of having used the shift so much that one's hands swell up, is clear enough. The negative feedback image that we get, a particular loathing towards the car and its mechanism, is also clear enough, and quite powerful in the way the car is seen as almost penetrating in nature.

What is peculiar, is that most American cars have automatic rather than manual transmissions. The reference thus seems rather out of place in the context of Detroit. Of course, even automatic transmission requires the driver to manipulate a strick, so the image still works.

After another chorus, comes second verse, which is almost twice as long as the first verse:
Why dont you take the day off and try to repair
a billion others dont seem to care
better ideas are stuck in the mud
the motors runnin' on Tucker's blood
don't let them tell you the future's electric
cause gasoline's not measured in metric
30,000 wheels are spinnin'
and oil company faces are grinnin'
now my hands are turnin' red
and i found out my baby is dead
Most of the verse is clear enough, revealing a frustration with people buying new cars instead of reparing old ones, being indifferent to the problems and the involvement of the oil companies. However, there are two significant lines, the first being "the motors running on Tucker's blood".

Preston Tucker designed one of the most iconic American cars; the 1948 Tucker Sedan, also known as 'Tucker's Torpedo'. It was not, however, a big seller, as only 51 cars were produced before production was shut down, based on allegatons of fraud. Tucker had taken to selling the cars before they had been built, and this led to investigation for fraud, initiated, some say, by the Big Three - hence the reference to blood.

The reason it was called the Torpedo was not just its sleek aerodynamic design, but also because Tucker during World War II had produced gun turrets for torpedo boats. After the war, Tucker shifted his production to cars, but brought in ideas from his military experience. Friedrich Kittler's statement on the entertainment industry being abuse of military technology seems to be suitable even here.

Tucker, then, becomes an image of the car industry's involvement with the military (metonymic with war and death) and shady dealings (although he was acquited, the rumors that the Big Three initiated the investigation still reflects corruption).

Related to this same notion of the car industry being implicated in a larger system of dominance and corruption, comes in the lines "don't let them tell you the future's electric / cause gasoline's not measued in metric". Gasoline in the US is of course not measured on the metric scale, but rather on the Imperial - so the song claims a certain Imperial colonialism on the car industry's part, implicitly arguing, I would say, that the reason there are so few electric cars is the fact that the car industry and oil industry work together to keep such change down ("and oil company faces are grinnin'"). Clearly, there is conspiracy theory at work here, but also a capitalist critique of inter-connected corporations.

The chorus again and then third verse:
Well I've said it now, nothing's changed
people are burnin' for pocket change
and creative minds are lazy
and the big three killed my baby
The shortest of the three verses, it continues with the accusation against the majority of people, pointing out that their greed for money halts change and development. It makes creative minds lazy and thus baby gets killed. What is more interesting, is the coda of the song. The music shifts into the chorus but changes slightly into a pounding finale. The lyrics:
And my baby's my common sense
so don't feed me planned obsolescence
yeah, my baby's my common sense
so don't feed my planned obsolescence
i'm about to have another blowout
i'm about to have another blowout
Three different lines, each repeated once, makes this coda seem akin to another chorus. "Don't feed me planned obsolence" extends the disgust at the lack of development in the car industry, but what is more interesting is that suddenly "baby" moves from supposed lover to common sense. What is killed by the Big Three is thus not (just) the lover, but is instead an expression of the frustration and anger with the meaningless structure of the corporate car industry. The final line, is even more signifying, seeing as we can interpret "blowout" in many different, yet inter-connected ways.
  • blowout refers to the eruption of oil and gas from an oil well.
  • it may also refer in medicine to a specific skull fracture, located around the eye.
  • it is a term in real estate, when many people vacate the premises.
  • when a tyre explodes.
  • a social event.
  • in sports, with a one-sided result.
  • a big sale, often used relating to car sales.
  • separated into blow out, it also refers to exstinguishing something.
The oil well eruption connects to the accusation of the oil industry being part of a larger corporate dominance - the blowout reference can be seen as antagonistic; an attempt or desire to blow up oil wells. Similar violence is echoed in the fracture reference, but from the other side of the battle - yet another strike is about to fall from the car industry. A tyre exploding furthers the frustration over poorly made cars, the one-sided sports game may be understood to refer to the opposition against the car industry. It's a blowout. A car sale increases the number of cars in circulation, and if you're blown out, your resistance has been extinguished. The social event doesn't fit particularly well into the discourse I have established, but there is one significant element that I have left for last.

Real estaters refer to many people leaving a particular place as a blowout. For me, this is the reference that pulls it all together. Downtown and Midtown Detroit has in the last decade or more suffered "white flight" yet again, as the Big Three have reduced production and moved production away from Michigan. Detroit has more than halved its urban population in this decade. "The Big Three Killed My Baby" is from 1999, just as this flight was happening, and this is most definitely a blowout. Urban Detroit depopulated, leaving only poorly educated and often unemployed people behind.

When I visited Detroit, certain areas of Downtown - not to mention Midtown - felt almost like a ghost town. Huge hotels stood vacated, empty, with their windows boarded up. Everywhere there were houses falling into ruin. At times it was surreal, much like these two pictures can tell:

They are taking facing opposite directions on the same street.

This blowout is a direct consequence of the Big Three's actions, and has caused understandable anger and frustration in Detroit. It is a clear case of what Jane Jacobs in her book The Life and Death of the Great American Cities calls cataclysmic money; whole neighborhoods are struck by a lack of flow in capital and production.

This reading of the song as protesting against the actions of the Big Three in the social context of Detroit workers, also provide us with a new insight into the lines of the chorus. Suddenly, the context of "no money on my hand again" functions as a reference to the poverty the Big Three have caused (yet again), as production changes. The line "nobody's coming home again" is easily understood as the regret of people moving out of Detroit, leaving behind a dysfunctional city. The baby that is killed can then be seen to be the city of Detroit, rather than a lover or even common sense. The common sense simply comes from living in Detroit and seeing the effect of the car industry first hand.

But as much as this song is a protest song, a cry of anger and frustration, it is is not completely without reflection. There is one line in the second verse that goes "now my hands are turnin' red". I see this as an admission of guilt and complicity. Everyone has a car, needs a car, in Detroit and while you can be dissatisfied with the actions of the Big Three, you are still part of the larger system. Tucker's blood is also on your hands and on the Stripes themselves.