Can Motor City become Music City? Does it want to?

Its gritty, industrial character is attracting fans weary of five-part harmonies, but Detroit residents are wary of conventional success.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The Magic Stick is not the kind of place you just stumble upon. You have to know about it. A pool-hall-cum-live-music venue, it is on the second floor of a16-lane bowling alley near the downtown campus of Wayne State University - replete with a disc jockey and a mirror ball.

But if music critics and "buzz" creators are to be believed, this is the spot for the next big thing in music.

The Stick and the bands that play here are giving Detroit - long known as the nation's leading repository of urban blight - a reputation as top musical hothouse. The city is even drawing comparisons with that early-'90s music mecca, Seattle.

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At a time when pop charts are dominated by navel-baring blondes and boy bands still exploring the mysteries of shaving, serious music fans see Detroit's grittiness as a plus. But the more entertainment mavens sing the praises of Detroit, the more the city's insular music scene seems to agonize over the perils of success - especially the trappings of corporatization.

"Is this the next Seattle? I don't know, it could be anywhere, and if the corporate powers say so, that's what it is," says Neil Yee, who until recently ran one of Detroit's best-known clubs, the Gold Dollar. Mr. Yee decided to get out of the club business in part because the city is becoming "too normal." "We're getting a Starbucks down the street," he frets.

Musical heritage

All the attention is not entirely new. In the past decade or so, Detroit has become widely recognized for its role in the development and growth of techno, an electronic, beat-driven form popular at dance clubs. Some consider Detroit techno's birthplace: Derrick May, the "father" of the form, still lives here, and the annual Detroit Electronic Music Festival over Memorial Day weekend draws roughly 1 million fans from around the world each spring.

The city also has a strong foothold in rap in the person of controversial Grammy-winner Eminem, who grew up in suburban Detroit and is still based there.

But it is rock 'n' roll, still the most mainstream genre, that generates the real buzz. Enter the White Stripes, a guitar/drum duo that play a raucous, blues-punk brand of rock that has won the hearts of critics here and abroad, stirred the interest of record labels, and caught the eyes of talent bookers. It's the recognition of the White Stripes, slated to appear on "The Late Show with David Letterman" in October, that has called attention to Detroit's "garage music" scene and its raw sound.

While some here scoff at the idea of a specific Detroit sound, others acknowledge that there is a stripped-down, underproduced, thrashing quality that has links to Detroit's punk-music roots and, in particular, a short-lived but influential band called the MC5. (The MC5, which emerged in the late 1960s and preached free love and anarchy, was never commercially successful - and proudly so.)

The band's enduring legacy probably has more than a little to do with the concern some Detroiters feel over the sudden interest in Detroit music. For them, the city's chronic inability to right itself helped create a music culture that was largely unaffected by the surrounding world. Now, some fear, that might be changing.

"All the notice is starting to bother the long-timers," says Mr. Yee, standing behind the bar at the Gold Dollar during the club's goodbye party. "They come in here and say, 'Man, that last White Stripes show was so annoying. There were all these kids there.' "

"It's the curse of the MC5," Yee smiles.

But others are less convinced that Detroit will follow Seattle's path. The music industry's "powers that be," they say, no longer mine the fringes of society for the next big thing. They simply create and market test bands to find which ones have the biggest sales potential.

"I don't think Detroit is going to be the next Seattle," says Joe Hagan, a contributor to The New York Times who wrote a laudatory review of the White Stripes. "The music coming out of Detroit just isn't that digestible for the mainstream."

Waiting on the White Stripes

To some degree, Detroit's rise as musical hot spot may hinge on what happens to White Stripes. If the band hits it big, record executives will likely come here looking for a facsimile. Only the band itself knows if it will sign a contract anytime soon - and it's not talking. But sources say the White Stripes has turned down offers from several big studios.

Music writer Jennifer Maerz says Seattle-fication is possible in Detroit, but the bands here don't seem interested. "It's not about the city. It's about the bands. Seattle could definitely happen again, but it's a media thing. You need one breakout band to get everyone's attention, and the White Stripes don't seem to like that game."

Well, yes and no.

The band seems to understand the PR game. The musicians, Jack and Meg White, always wear red and white on stage. And they have fabricated a biography about being brother and sister. The Detroit Free Press discovered they are actually a divorced couple.

Controversy and color-coordination - what more could a music writer ask for? The duo's decision to stop giving interviews only feeds the media frenzy while, of course, allowing the band to maintain street credibility.

Yee grows philosophical as he talks about the White Stripes, looking professorial behind his small, round glasses.

"The whole point is to sell out without looking like you're selling out. Everyone has a price," he says. "If they haven't signed yet, it's because they haven't got their price yet."

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