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The Ghost of Meg White

By Entertainment

Illustration by Catherine Cao.

The relentless sexism in the music industry and the media has consistently failed women in rock and roll and drummer Meg White of the White Stripes was not spared the same fate. Considered one of the most improbable of rock stars, Meg has won four Grammy Awards despite having no traditional musical training. Though now recognized as one of the greatest drummers of all time (listed on Rolling Stone as #94 out of 100), Meg White’s musicianship was and continues to be consistently discredited in music magazines, on websites, in comment sections, and on forums. Meg White has disappeared from the music industry, and her ghost can teach us all some important lessons about sexism in media, silence as feminism, and the complex discourse of female representation in rock and roll.

Is Meg White a Good Drummer?

Much of the discourse surrounding Meg White’s position in rock and roll centers itself around the question: Is Meg White a good drummer? Meg White’s primal drumming style has been criticized by music media for being “rudimentary,” and “stale.” One particularly glaring review by journalist Hugo Lindgren had this to say about Meg White:

“And can we discuss Meg White for a moment? Her pants were black, but she otherwise seems unchanged from when we first met the band in 1999. The story before each White Stripes album or tour is that her drumming has improved, and surely that must be true, if for no other reason than it could go nowhere else.”

She’s been called “pancake handed” and “sloppy” in two separate reviews that ran in Pitchfork magazine. Simplistic as it may be, her drumming style is anything but rudimentary. Meg White brings power, femininity, and finesse to songs like “Seven Nation Army,” “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground,” and “Fell In Love With A Girl.” Often keeping time with her shoulders, wrists, and elbows, her fun and quirky approach to drumming is consistent and highly original (and she has four Grammys to prove it). Stripping away superficial additives like drum solos, ornaments, and fills, her rhythmic drive makes space for the musical elements around it.

Meg White has a sweet firmness that is undeniable. Her presence in rock and roll was a testament to a world where drumming could exist outside the sexualized, the hyper-masculine, and the ultra-intellectual. It’s a shame her contributions were not valued for their ingenuity. David Fricke of Rolling Stone once asked Jack White in a 2005 interview with the White Stripes if there were times he felt Meg’s style of drumming held him back. For what it’s worth, Jack White has publicly stated that Meg’s musicianship was the best part of the band, but does it matter what he says or doesn’t say about Meg, especially when she’s sitting right there next to him? It’s true women can speak for themselves — but what happens when they choose to say nothing?

Girlhood, Pigtails, and a Nasty Smirk

Instead of being portrayed as a “sexy” hyper-masculine or conversely hyper-feminine drummer, Meg White is frequently described as “childish,” “innocent,” “waifish,” and “meek.” Innocence and girlhood in rock and roll is nothing new, but I am curious if this is an accurate and authentic representation of Meg White as an artist.

Although she has (mostly) managed to avoid being sexualized by the media, Pitchfork published a 1100-word review in 2002 that generously gave Meg three whole sentences, though mostly focusing on her “girlish” appearance: “She appears the prototypical indie girl — waifish, with pigtails and a nasty smirk. Yet she whips all of her 98 pounds into a tornadic fury like E. Honda’s hundred-hand slap.”

Though this innocence is allegedly part of the intentional White Stripes shtick — like when Jack and Meg introduced themselves as brother and sister in the early years of the band, or their decision to brand everything in red and white peppermint candy — it’s hard not to wonder if there is more going on.

With the discourse working against women who refuse to fit themselves into sexy rock and roll tropes, the reclamation of girlhood can potentially offer some advantages. Musicologist Gayle Wald offers an interesting question in “Just a Girl? Rock Music, Feminism, and the Cultural Construction of Female Youth”: “Can the ‘reversion’ to girlhood work as a strategy for feminism, or for producing feminist girls?” Can pigtails fight the patriarchy?

Under Great White Northern Lights

The 2009 documentary “Under Great White Northern Lights” offers insights about the complex discourse surrounding Meg White and her place in rock and roll. Filmed in 2010, this documentary follows the White Stripes as they perform in every province and territory in Canada, highlighting their 10th anniversary along the way. Several scenes are very crucial to understanding the relationship between Meg and Jack. The two were once married but divorced. Their relationship is close, and it’s clear there’s a mutually understood dynamic between them.

Jack spends most of the documentary in the forefront, doing most of the talking in interviews and public appearances. Meg doesn’t say much. There’s a genuineness to her frequent smile and soft-spoken nature. In one scene Meg smokes a cigarette with one hand on her hip, daydreaming out a window. Jack aimlessly noodles at a piano. Meg notices the camera watching her in this unguarded moment, but she simply smiles politely and turns her back, denying the camera’s eye access.

While Jack seems to always be stepping into the spotlight, Meg consistently manages to step out. One particularly profound moment is the final scene of the entire documentary. Jack plays “White Moon” for an empty theatre with Meg sitting next to him on the piano bench. She’s hanging her head, her eyes closed, and soon we see that she’s crying. The gaze of the film up until this point seems to ignore her altogether, but now the camera gets a close-up, tight shot of her face. Jack doesn’t seem to notice until he finishes the song. He cradles her head against his chest and the scene fades to black. The end.

Meg, a quiet woman who has only said a few sentences the entire documentary, now is overcome with emotion. Though this moment is tender, painful, and mystifying, it’s hard not to feel that the filmmakers did Meg a disservice by book-ending the film with this scene, turning a vulnerable moment into a spectacle.

I’m Quiet, What Can I Say?

Meg is known for being quiet. Meg is so quiet that “Under Great White Northern Lights” specifically added subtitles just for her. In one scene, Jack and Meg come offstage, dripping with sweat, exhausted from the show they just finished. Meg says something unintelligible to Jack, and he berates her for speaking too quietly. Examining the few interviews Meg has given, she looks visibly uncomfortable, struggling to make eye contact. She looks like she’s trying to make herself disappear altogether. In one of the few recorded interviews she’s given she says, “I’ve always kind of lived in my own world. Everything else outside me seems far, far away.” In interviews she is often pestered by journalists to speak up or give insight to her silence, as one journalist put it:

“I try to get Meg to comment; she defers to Jack, smiles, and looks away. Meg seems really, really nice and really, really bored. She and Jack laugh at each other’s jokes, but they mostly behave like coworkers. I ask her how she feels about the way people have portrayed her — like when reporters infer profound metaphorical insight from her unwillingness to chat. It’s not that less is more; it’s that less is everything. When Meg White hugs her pillow and tells me that people put more thought into shyness than necessary, I want to play along with her — even though she’s totally lying.”

Even in silence Meg White’s authenticity is in question. The media presents a biased, one-sided version of Meg, only allowing us to see what they see. Maybe the only authentic representation of Meg is her music. But is that even authentic if Jack White is credited for writing and producing everything branded as The White Stripes? Meg White’s silence is a refusal to participate in the unforgiving, and yet ultimately inevitable deconstruction of herself.

Meg’s Ghost

So what is the price Meg paid? Some journalists have gone as far as accusing Meg White of taking Jack White’s solo career hostage. “She may no longer be on screen, but it seems as though Meg White is still controlling Jack White’s narrative. On “Lazaretto,” White continues his pleading to a dominant, unnamed feminine figure who has left him alone, vexed, and alienated.” Her silence stands as a reappropriation of herself: Meg White no longer belongs to The White Stripes, or to us.

Meg White has not made a public appearance, or even a public statement, since the last days of The White Stripes. Isn’t it true that Meg White offered her voice only to be met with criticism, judgement, and malice? So why are we surprised she has chosen to reclaim her voice and creative agency? The ghost of Meg White cannot be seen or heard, but it can be felt. There’s a difference between cannot speak and will not speak: the latter infers choice.

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