Meg White Is The 21st Century's Loudest Introvert

Dec 20, 2018
Originally published on December 24, 2018 9:35 am

It's not enough to make list after list. The Turning the Tables project seeks to suggest alternatives to the traditional popular music canon, and to do more than that, too: to stimulate conversation about how hierarchies emerge and endure. This year, Turning the Tables considers how women and non-binary artists are shaping music in our moment, from the pop mainstream to the sinecures of jazz and contemporary classical music. Our list of the 200 Greatest Songs By Women+ offers a soundtrack to a new century. This series of essays takes on another task.

The 25 arguments writers make in these pieces challenge the usual definitions of influence. Some rethink the building legacies of popular artists; others celebrate those who create within subcultures, their innovations rippling outward over time. As always, women forge new pathways in sound; today, they also make waves under the surface of culture by confronting, in their music, the increased fluidity of "woman" itself. What is a woman? It's a timeless question on the surface, but one deeply engaged with whatever historical moment in which it is asked. Our 25 Most Influential Women Musicians of the 21st Century illuminate its complexities. β€”Ann Powers


Comedy lore has it that when Budd Abbott and Lou Costello first started performing together, Abbott was paid 60 percent to Costello's 40 percent. Abbott was the straight man, Costello the kooky comic, and their salary ratios were in keeping with burlesque tradition that put a premium on the straight man's skill. In one of the most famous comedy bits of all time, "Who's on First?", it's Abbott's persistence and composure that make Costello's increasing frustration and hysteria funny. No matter how frenetic Costello gets losing his proverbial baseballs, Abbott keeps time. Before finding Abbott, Costello had worked with a number of partners. But it was Abbott who made all the difference in anchoring a scene; according to Costello, "A good straight man is hard to find."

Jack and Meg White weren't a comedy duo. But they also kinda were. And Meg was always the straight man. Listen to "Girl, You Have No Faith in Medicine" as Jack builds towards total vocal and guitar hysteria, challenging Meg's drums in a race to the cliff's edge. Jack's tiptoes are hanging off as he wails, "Give me a sugar pill and watch me just rattle down the street." Meg doesn't give in, instead she hits a simple "boom crack" and then "ts ts ts ts ts ts" β€” laughing her high-hat head off watching him rattle. Hear Meg's insistent thwack in the face of absolute frustration followed by the four-beat desperation of bashing her metaphorical head against the wall on "The Hardest Button to Button." Hear Jack wail the title lyric of "I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself" and feel Meg's wry smile as she lets him suffer all alone for just a hair too uncomfortably long before barreling back in. The timing of their dynamic, and the balance between bonkers and basic, is what made The White Stripes stand out among the garage-rock bands who would usher in the 21st century. It allowed Jack and Meg to mash the simplicity of the blues with the spirit of punk to create theater.

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Meg White started drumming because of Jack. It was 1997, a year after they got married and Jack Gillis took her last name. At the time, Jack was trying on a lot of different musical outfits. He played guitar and sang lead on songs for Two-Star Tabernacle, played bass with The Hentchmen, drummed in cowpunk band Goober & the Peas and played on the first album by garage-rock band The Go. But one night, Jack asked Meg to play a simple beat for something he was working on, and shortly after, they started a band that would change rock history. I hate to feed into the sexist trope that a woman's worth is framed by a man's story, or that woman's primary purpose is to fill a void for a man. But this is not a trope or an assumption. This is the real origin story of The White Stripes, and to ignore it would be to miss an opportunity to credit Meg for the amount of work she did in forming the backbone of 21st century rock.

When they burst on the scene, The White Stripes was called "the greatest band since the Sex Pistols" and "the future of rock and roll." New York magazine credits the band's 2001 album White Blood Cells with helping the early-aughts rock revival go national and "blissfully ending nu-metal and boy-band chart domination." The momentum The White Stripes created, along with other rock revival bands like The Strokes and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, proved to the industry that back-to-basics could be bankable. Yeah Yeah Yeahs played its first public show opening for The White Stripes in 2000, and the second wave of post-punk revival bands like The Killers, The Shins, The National, The Libertines and Arctic Monkeys certainly reaped the benefits of plugging in to a scene while the amps were already on. The White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army" would go on to become one of the most instantly recognizable sporting chants in arenas around the world, and the band's success has allowed Jack White the clout to continue running his label, Third Man Records (the first label to take a chance on, and therefore introduce a wider audience to, Margo Price). Meg herself has also inspired Ray LaMontagne to write a flattering ode in her name, and apparently Dave Grohl's daughter has a favorite drummer, and it's not her dad.

Jack has said that "the whole point of the White Stripes," since the band's beginning, was "the liberation of limiting yourself." Meg's simple style of drumming was the absolute embodiment of that goal and, paradoxically, the primary source of criticism lobbed against her as a musician during the band's ascent to fame. Meg's role in the band was often framed by critics (professional and civilian alike) as an audition rather than an essence due to her lack of training or elaborate technique. Just Google "Jack White Defends Meg's Drumming" or search for Meg White on Reddit. To question whether someone has earned the right to a seat at the table (or the kit, as it were) in a band that she has been half of since its inception, to play the songs that she originated, is ludicrous. But the question is significant, and even helpful, if it helps us understand the way many people see women in bands as accessories rather than authors. In the same 2005 Rolling Stone feature where Jack explains to journalist David Fricke how the foundation of The White Stripes is finding creativity through imposing limitations, Fricke later asks, "Are there times when Meg's style of drumming is too limiting β€” that you can't take a song as far as you'd like to go?" Jack responds: "No. I never thought, 'God, I wish Neil Peart was in this band.' It's kind of funny: When people critique hip-hop, they're scared to open up, for fear of being called racist. But they're not scared to open up on female musicians, out of pure sexism."

Meg is at the center of another paradox. Her bashing, smashing and booming made her one of the loudest musicians of this century. And yet she's often remembered, and in some cases criticized, for being a quiet person. She was certainly more reserved than Jack in public, and rarely spoke in interviews. History is full of examples of women who do not speak because men will not let them, and so it's understandable that many people's default assumption was that Meg was silenced by Jack. In the 2009 concert film Under Great White Northern Lights, which chronicles the duo's last tour together, Jack begs Meg to clear things up. "What would you say to people who say, 'Jack won't ever let Meg talk?'" he asks. Meg simply replies, "I would say that you have nothing to do with it." As someone who interviews musicians for a living, I do believe that hearing what artists have to say about their art can help illuminate it in a different way or help me hear things differently than before. It's a delight when that does happen. But the most humbling lesson I have learned by digging into Meg's story is that an artist who has already given so much of herself through her work, does not owe anybody any conversation about it. Through that lens maybe Meg wasn't quiet, but instead radical in the defiant template she set for how to be a famous person who makes no apologies for letting the work speak for itself.

In September 2007, months after releasing the radically creative album Icky Thump, The White Stripes made an announcement that marked the beginning of the end. They were cancelling their entire upcoming fall U.S. tour. An official statement from the duo read, "Meg White is suffering from acute anxiety and is unable to travel at this time." Cue any Meg naysayers to come out of the woodwork and complain that not only was she not worthy of being in the band in the first place, but that she was responsible for its demise. But what music history ought really to remember here is that this was an artist who, at the very height of fame, had the courage to be upfront about taking care of her own mental health, whether or not it was disappointing to fans. At a time when even fewer artists were publicly broaching the subject of mental health than they are now, Meg shared her reality with bravery, clarity and no drama. By allowing that statement into the world, Meg said a lot about something that is hard for people to talk about.

By all accounts, including his own, Jack White was the more outwardly emotionally demonstrative member of The White Stripes β€” the big personality foil to Meg's straight man. See the end of any given live performance: Jack's hair is drenched in sweat and he looks like he might crumple into a catharsis puddle; Meg, whose job was arguably the more athletic of the two, is bone dry and still exuding the same composed air as she did an hour earlier. But do not make the mistake of confusing Meg's outward persona of nonchalance for a lack of tremendous musical emotion. On the drums, Meg White smashed out carnal, visceral, raw, sometimes funny and always urgent stories that told of the human experience. Maybe that's the thumping feeling that penetrates our pores and anchors our attention when we listen to The White Stripes. Maybe that's why we ever cared about the band in the first place.

Correction: 9/20/18

A previous version of this story incorrectly referred to The White Stripes' concert film Under Great White Northern Lights as Under Great Northern Lights.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

At the turn of this century, a guy-girl rock duo from Detroit exploded onto the scene dressed all in red and white and black. They formed the backbone for the next 20 years of rock 'n' roll.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FELL IN LOVE WITH A GIRL")

THE WHITE STRIPES: (Singing) Fell in love with a girl. I fell in love once and almost completely.

KELLY: That band was the White Stripes. The guy half - that would be frontman Jack White - has been recognized as a catalyst for a new era of rock from the beginning. His wheeling, chaotic energy demands to be noticed. But you should also pay attention to the other half. That would be drummer Meg White.

That's what Talia Schlanger, host of WXPN's World Cafe, argues for NPR's Turning the Tables project, which explores how women and nonbinary artists are shaping the music of our moment. Here's her warning not to underestimate Meg White just because she lets her drumming speak loudly for itself.

TALIA SCHLANGER, BYLINE: So Jack and Meg White were married. They got married in '96. And actually, Jack took Meg's last name. His maiden name - I don't know if you (laughter) call a guy a maiden name - his bachelor name was Gillis. One night, he asked his wife Meg White, who had not played the drums before, to play a simple beat for something that he was working on.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE WHITE STRIPES SONG, "SCREWDRIVER")

SCHLANGER: And this electric thing happened, or so the legend goes. I mean, I obviously wasn't in the room.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SCREWDRIVER")

THE WHITE STRIPES: (Singing) I got a little feeling going now. I got a little feeling going now.

SCHLANGER: You can hear Meg's personality on the drums pretty much from the get-go. It's deceptively simple, which is why people often don't give Meg the credit that she deserves. But there a brilliance in that simplicity.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE WHITE STRIPES SONG, "SCREWDRIVER")

SCHLANGER: Jack has always said that the White Stripes are about the liberation you can find through limitation and how simplicity is an incredible breeding ground for creativity.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE BIG THREE KILLED MY BABY")

THE WHITE STRIPES: (Singing) The Big Three killed my baby.

SCHLANGER: Meg as a drummer is the perfect example of that. And yet, that was the primary source of criticism that people lobbied against her as a musician. It was pretty much from the get-go that everyone jumped on Meg and called her childlike or criticized her for being out of time. And I can't think of a different situation where you would question whether somebody had earned the right to a seat at the table that they had basically built. She originated these songs, and to talk about her as if she's not worthy of playing them is so bonkers.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE BIG THREE KILLED MY BABY")

THE WHITE STRIPES: (Singing) Well, I've said it now. Nothing's changed. People are burning for pocket change. And creative minds are lazy. And the Big Three killed my baby.

SCHLANGER: So good music is all about telling stories with sounds. And I defy you to find somebody who tells stories with sounds on the drum kit quite like Meg White does. And if you listen to their songs and if you watch them in live performances, you'll see that they're kind of a comedy duo - right? - where Meg is the straight man to Jack's wild, frenetic energy. She's the Abbott to his Costello.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE WHITE STRIPES SONG, "GIRL, YOU HAVE NO FAITH IN MEDICINE")

SCHLANGER: Have a listen to "Girl, You Have No Faith In Medicine," for example. There's this moment in the song where Jack is building towards absolute vocal and guitar hysteria. And you can hear him sort of running to the edge of the cliff, and Meg is following him with the drums. And his tiptoes are hanging off the edge. And he says...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GIRL, YOU HAVE NO FAITH IN MEDICINE")

THE WHITE STRIPES: (Singing) Give me a sugar pill and watch me just rattle down the street.

SCHLANGER: And then she waits. She doesn't give in. And instead...

(SOUNDBITE OF THE WHITE STRIPES SONG, "GIRL, YOU HAVE NO FAITH IN MEDICINE")

SCHLANGER: She lets him fly off the cliff. Like, she's laughing her high-hat head off on that ts-ts-ts-ts-ts (ph) and just watching him rattle.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE WHITE STRIPES SONG, "THE HARDEST BUTTON TO BUTTON")

SCHLANGER: Even if you miss seeing the White Stripes live in concert, if you pull up any video of them, at the end of any given performance, Jack White has crumpled into this sweaty, cathartic mess of a puddle. And Meg White, who has the way more athletically demanding job of the two, she is bone-dry. She is cool as a cucumber.

And people confuse that all the time with an air of maybe not caring. But if you really pay attention to what she's doing, she is smashing out these carnal and funny and urgent stories of the human experience. And she is the anchor of our attention when we listen to the White Stripes. And maybe she's why we love the band in the first place.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE HARDEST BUTTON TO BUTTON")

THE WHITE STRIPES: (Singing) The hardest button to button.

KELLY: That's Talia Schlanger, host of WXPN's World Cafe, celebrating Meg White for NPR's Turning the Tables project.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TRUTH DOESN'T MAKE A NOISE")

THE WHITE STRIPES: (Singing) Her stare is louder than your voice because... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.