06 Dec, 16

Why We Can't Forget Meg White - And the Sexist Way We Talked About Her

It’s officially been five years since the White Stripes split. It’s been 15 years since NME called the White Stripes “the sound of now,” 14 since Chuck Klosterman writing for SPIN and Neil Strauss writing for Rolling Stone both called them rock and roll saviors, and five years since, in response to news of the band’s split, Consequence of Sound asked if the White Stripes were music’s last great rock band. And overlapping all of these features, “best album” lists, and retrospectives has been the pervasive, heavily gendered critiques of whether or not Meg White is a good drummer.

Remember in 2003’s School of Rock when bratty drummer Freddie argues with quiet bassist Katie about whether Meg White is a good drummer? Freddie demands of his bandmate to name even two “great chick drummers.” It was funny in context because it was the point in the movie where the kids had been schooled by rock, and was showing us that they could now talk about music just like the adults could. And that is what adults in music talk like. That scene is playing out in dive bars and record stores all across America. Women musicians and female music fans are always forced to defend themselves, always forced to be defended.

Around the time School of Rock was released, Meg’s drumming was described as “pancake-handed" by Pitchfork. A year earlier, that same publication ran a review in which writer William Bowers calls her drumming “sloppy” but celebrates himself for not objectifying her (“Hooray for civilization, I didn't talk covetously about Meg's bod!”). And in 2002, Pitchfork published a 1100-word review that devoted a total of three sentences to the White Stripes drummer, with nearly all of them devoted to an analysis of her 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.” (Naturally, there’s no mention of Jack White’s weight, leaving readers to wonder what number of pounds he whips around.)

Indeed, it’s often hard to untangle the criticism and evaluation of Meg White: The Musician from Meg White: The Female Body. In the fan communities, on the forums and the message boards and blogs, the criticism is most unyielding and brutal.

The community discussion board on Pearl Jam’s official website has an “Official Meg White Can’t Play Thread,” in which members fixate to a substantial degree on what they deem the offensiveness of her drumming, but much more often on her chest and general appearance. And in 2013 OC Weekly’s music editor Nate Jackson, in his fine journalistic pursuit entitled “The 10 Douchiest Drummers of All Time,” asked of Meg White “Someone tell us, does this woman even qualify as a drummer?” A written word has rarely felt as spat out as Jackson’s “woman.”

This dismissal has been just as visible in mainstream publications. In June of 2007, the same month that Robert Christgau’s Rolling Stone review of Icky Thump (which was to be the Stripes’ last album) forgets to mention the drums and only mentions Meg as Jack’s “mythical sister” and a contributor to a “cute Jack-and-Meg dialogue,” The Onion offers a scathing take of its own, with a News in Photos feature entitled “Meg White Drum Solo Maintains Steady Beat For 23 Minutes.”

Days after the announcement of the White Stripes’ breakup in 2011, NPR podcast Soundcheck Smackdown held a debate on the value of the White Stripes with managing editor of BUST Emily Rems and music writer Phil Freeman. Rems celebrated the authenticity and power of the band, particularly the drumming. She went on to cite White as one of the main influences of her own percussion education. Freeman responds by admitting to “laughing out loud” at such a kind description of Meg’s drumming and bemoans that she is given attention and praise. According to him, “she gets this kind of affirmative action cheer,” while Hole’s Patty Schemel and Lenny Kravitz’s drummer Cindy Blackman deserve more attention and don’t get it.

This is a great encapsulation of one of the heaviest forms of criticism directed toward Meg White. There is a tone of woundedness and unfairness that she could even be considered a drummer. In their eyes, it’s unfair to other drummers and, in a type of sexism masked as an attempt at feminism, it’s particularly unfair to other drummers who are women. How come Meg White is the one filling the ‘woman drummer’ slot? the argument goes. Compared to other women drummers, it’s clear she doesn’t deserve it!

This argument is structured around the assumption that there is only space for one female drummer, so they all must compete for the title. Imagine how absurd it would be to criticize those who praise Keith Moon because, for example, Taylor Hawkins of the Foo Fighters doesn’t get enough credit. Society would never think to pit all male percussionists against one another.

Those people making this argument have no interest in creating space for women of all types. They expect women to work within a system not built for them, and to be manipulated, examined, criticized, and eventually chosen or dismissed by those committed to tokenism as “progressiveness.” That way no real change has to be made.

There are voices in the conversation, more of them as years go by, that are trying hard to give nuance to the narrative around Meg White. The sexist discussions have changed over the past 15 years, mostly in a reactionary way: responses upon responses have built up, so that now when someone makes a comment about her, it's informed by this history of the conversation surrounding her and is rarely directly addressing only her performance.

Meg’s choice to live a private life post-Stripes also plays a part, giving critics ammo for arguments about her insignificance and allowing Jack White's influence to remain stronger simply by virtue of him being in the spotlight. Indeed, it’s tempting to place blame for the erasure of Meg White’s talent on Jack White. He’s the leader, the virtuoso. He did the writing, almost all the talking, and played all the guitar. And he’s a dominant personality.

However, statements from as far back as the band’s early years reveal that Jack has been consistently and clearly communicating that Meg’s drumming is skillful, essential, and musically significant, and that if you think there’s a damn thing wrong with it then you’re probably sexist and not someone Jack White wants to give any more time to.

In an interview published in September 2005, longtime Rolling Stone critic David Fricke, the kind of rockin’ old fellow that other rockin’ old fellows claim is an icon of music journalism so great we almost don’t deserve him, asked Jack White: “Are there times when Meg's style of drumming is too limiting — that you can't take a song as far as you'd like to go?” Jack, seemingly beyond tired of the question already and not missing a beat, calls out Fricke for “pure sexism” and calls Meg the best part of the band and her drumming “liberating and refreshing.”

Later, in 2010, Jack spoke to The New York Post about Meg, saying "her femininity and extreme minimalism are too much to take for some metalheads and reverse-contrarian hipsters. She can do what those with 'technical prowess' can't. She inspires people to bash on pots and pans. For that, they repay her with gossip and judgement." In another Rolling Stone interview from 2014, he says of Meg, "I would often look at her onstage and say, 'I can't believe she's up here.' I don't think she understood how important she was to the band, and to me and to music,” adding, “Nothing I do will top that."

Jack White has been consistent about his authentic and unpatronizing devotion to Meg’s musical value and his disgust for those who throw sexist criticisms at her. Still, reports of his comments are always framed as “defenses,” which you’ll see in the 1.4 million Google results for the phrase “Jack White defends Meg White.” Similarly in 2003, when Dave Grohl called Meg “one of my favorite fucking drummers of all time” in an interview with Rolling Stone, saying that “nobody fucking plays the drums like that,” it was reported by NME as “Dave Grohl has defended the much criticised talents of Meg White.”

This isn’t to say that Meg doesn’t have her supporters within the realms of music journalism. Noel Murray’s “Why Meg White Matters” on the A.V. Club claims that “just because Jack was the primary creative force...doesn’t mean Meg was inessential.” Steven Hyden’s piece on Grantland, “Jack White’s Meg White Problem,” praises her “essential” drumming and analyzes her outstanding talent from both a technical (“She pounded postmodern chic into that music with rudimentary steadiness”) and experiential (“I couldn’t take my eyes off of Meg...Meg was the truth”) perspective, but still talks about her in terms of providing value to the larger looming figure of the piece, Jack White.

Meg’s musicianship has become subject to the ultimate in benevolent, white-knight well, actually-ing; she starts at a disadvantage, only to have the enlightened rebels of music culture bestow upon her a “defense.” Because it is always a defense; never pure recognition, never praise in a vacuum, separate from the context of her naysayers.

Parallels can be seen in the controversy surrounding the recent Ghostbusters film. The original Ghostbusters, the guys who lived the cinematic legend, approve wholeheartedly of the new film and the new all female ’Busters. They seem not even to enjoy the idea that they need sign off, that there needs to be such an involved and sexist conversation around what should be a non-issue. Because of the cultural narrative, the 2016 Ghostbusters is a film that cannot be evaluated without starting from an unfair place where it has to prove whether or not the lady-haters are right. And even when the film has been “proven” good by those that society decides matter, there’s still nothing that can be done to erase the sexism that has haunted the film from the beginning.

Even when some of the world’s most respected musicians and some of journalism’s most respected publications (typically all male, because a woman praising Meg White will always be accused of being biased) recognize Meg White’s talents, there will always be the footnote that she has been “heavily criticized.” A recovered reputation—however unfair and bigoted the original attacks were to begin with—will never look like one that was unsullied from the beginning.

Yet, the growing sentiment that hey, Meg White actually is good at drums, does not remain unchallenged even now. In March of 2015, frontman of Stone Temple Pilots Scott Weiland, who passed away later in that year, told Esquire that he couldn’t wrap his mind around “a drummer that was as bad as Meg,” until he began to understand “how talented Jack was as a guitar player and songwriter.”

In March of 2016, almost a week after third-tier fake news and “satire” site The Nevada County Scooper published an “article” asserting that Meg White will be taking over for much-lauded icon Neal Peart as the drummer for Rush, Consequence of Sound chimed in with the same claim (without crediting the Scooper), upping the ante by posting a video that reports the “news” of Meg’s addition to Rush and also cuts together unflattering footage of Meg playing the drums with generic overdubbed bad drum sounds and shots of the members of Rush looking extremely disdainful and unimpressed.

Later that month, Rolling Stone cited the oft-quoted Jack White statement about the value of Meg’s “childlike” drumming when it named her the 94th greatest drummer of all time (on a list of 100 that includes only four other women, none of whom cracked the top 50). Again, Consequence of Sound was on the case, seemingly rankled that she (a) is on the list at all and (b) is ranked ahead of U2’s Larry Mullen Jr. and Blink-182’s Travis Barker.

The position of women in music still seems to be that of being saddled at all times with an extra 50 lb. backpack of judgements and preconceptions, and when they carry it and carry on, they’re met with derision and objectification, or, in the very best of a circumstances, a reaction of “these ladies prove women can play instruments also!”

Speaking with filmmaker (and Stripes fan) Jim Jarmusch for Interview Magazine in May of 2003, Meg says, “I've always kind of lived in my own world. Everything else outside me seems far, far away,” prompting Jack to ask, “When do I get a copy of the key to your world, Meg?” In response, she just laughs. Why? Because Jack is never going to get it. No one will ever, can ever, be in Meg’s world.

By Kayleigh Hughes, distributed under a Creative Commons CC-BY license.

Image by Eli Carrico, distributed under the CC-BY-NC-ND creative commons license.

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