It’s True That We Love One Another: Gender Roles in the Music of Jack White

To say that Jack White has a complicated history with women would be a bit of an understatement. Many of his songs reflect on relationships with women. Several warn of the dangers of redheaded temptresses, and few have fairytale endings. He has survived two divorces, one of which was to a woman he led people to believe was his sister. Yet he frequently collaborates with women, and his most successful musical venture (The White Stripes) consisted solely of himself and his aforementioned sister/ex-wife, Meg White. If any music were ripe for comparison to an understanding of the nature of masculinity/femininity, this would be it.

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***Masculinity/Femininity in Musicology***

Frankly, most attempts to analyze music through the guise of feminist criticism seem misguided and uninformative. The process of arbitrarily describing certain traits of music as masculine or feminine is archaic and counterproductive towards better understanding music, yet it is not as outdated as one might think. In his 1989 article “Dangerous Liaisons: The Literary Text in Musical Criticism,” noted musicologist Lawrence Kramer described aspects of musical uncertainty as “weakness characteristic of women’s thinking.” The 4th edition of the Harvard Dictionary of Music (copyright 2003) uses the terms “masculine” and “feminine” regarding cadences to describe their relative strength and weakness pertaining to metric placement. Sexist implications aside, what is gained from using these specific terms? If an analogy is required for understanding different classifications of cadential chord alignment, why not call them “steel” and “sand”? Furthermore, how can a concept as intricate as femininity be labeled simply as weak? The field of musicology – like most fields historically – has been dominated by male voices, so the association of strength with masculine and weakness with feminine by a group of men is itself an interesting meta-criticism on gender studies.

Gender criticism in rock music presents a unique challenge because the genre comes with an inherent sexual charge that implies the presence of both masculine and feminine forces. Yet rock music encounters the same obstacle as classical music: women rarely have a physical presence in the creation of the music. This is particularly true with the heavier rock that emerged in the 1970s, which is a subgenre that is often about women but rarely by women. However, the sexual energy that drives this music at least invites curiosity towards analyzing masculine and feminine roles in the music. For example, feminist critic Susan Fast’s In the Houses of the Holy: Led Zeppelin and the Power of Rock Music describes the relationship of Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and Robert Plant as such: “The musical dialogue that occurs between Page and Plant … is an intimate and sensual exchange in which, I would argue, Plant is cast musically in the role of a feminine other to Page’s masculine guitar hero.” (Oddly enough, Fast later describes bassist John Paul Jones as a “steady and reliable presence” in comparison to Page’s chaotic live performance.) This is at least a more abstract understanding of how these terms can be understood in a musical context (and, notably, presented by a woman), but the lack of a female presence in the music is still troubling.

It is not as if women are absent from rock music – there are a number of prominent female rock musicians, and there almost certainly has been a greater proportion of women performers and creators in rock than in classical music. Yet women in rock tend to overwhelmingly be known as vocalists, not instrumentalists. Here is an interesting exercise: think of the first five female rock musicians that come to mind. Are any of them primarily instrumentalists? How long would this list need to be before you came up with one that was? There are a handful of women that fit this category (aside from Meg White, Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth and Kim Deal of The Pixies are two that come to mind), but they represent an overwhelming minority. This is mostly troubling because there exists a stigma that the emotional qualities of women make them good vocalists, yet they do not possess the necessary intellect to be the steady force of a rhythm section. As a result, using terms like masculine and feminine in music is problematic because they are based on a deeply sexist tradition.

While a blanketed approach to interpreting music through the guise of gender is not helpful, this does not mean that an understanding of gender roles cannot contribute to an informed discussion of music in relevant circumstances. The lack of women in all facets of music presents the biggest obstacle. Unless women already factor into the discussion, an analysis of masculine and feminine traits objectively does not make sense. Though there remains substantial room for development, women are becoming progressively more involved and more recognized in music. Because of this, a new and more authentic application of gender studies is becoming possible. The arbitrary assigning of masculine and feminine designation to abstract musical concepts is still uninteresting, but understanding the complicated interaction of these aspects in regard to postmodern culture has strong potential.

Which is where Jack White comes into play. Obviously, Jack White is not female, but he has consciously collaborated with women more frequently than arguably any other prominent male musician. This description is somewhat troublesome in that it demonstrates the patriarchal practice of a man having the boldness to put a woman as his artistic equal. However, this analysis is less interested with Jack White as a feminine pioneer as it is with Jack White as a collaborator with female artists. The music of Jack White – particularly that of The White Stripes, but also including his side projects and solo work – transcends normative gender boundaries, and through its use of various ambiguities, it actively challenges how masculinity and femininity are perceived in music.

***Conventional Gender Roles in The White Stripes***

In certain regards, The White Stripes validate society’s preconceived expectations for gender roles, where Jack and Meg personify prototypical masculine and feminine mores, respectively. The biggest way in which this is manifested is through Jack acting as the group’s sole creative force and Meg providing obedient support. The general public has certainly projected this dichotomy onto the group, but there is also no disputing that it accurately conveys the reality of the situation. Jack is exclusively credited with writing their original material, and he is also listed as the producer of their albums. According to an extensive New York Times profile by Josh Eels on Jack White, the whole band was Jack’s brainchild, and he even taught Meg to play drums with the sole intention of forming a two-piece neo-blues band. Even the band’s neurotic devotion to its red-white-black color scheme is credited to Jack. Although anecdotal accounts from the band can never be taken at face value, the overwhelming evidence indicates that Jack does, in fact, assume the dominant role in The White Stripes’ creative process.

The band’s sound is also largely controlled by Jack. Throughout their six albums, Jack generates nearly all melodic and harmonic content, providing lead vocals and performing on myriad instruments (he is often the only non-percussion instrumentalist, filling multiple roles simultaneously). Meg is confined to just drums, though on rare occasions she does add vocals. The sheer musical range that Jack demonstrates merits labeling him as a virtuoso, which draws parallels to Fast’s interpretation of Page’s masculine role within Led Zeppelin. In fact, Jack is virtually a hybrid of Page’s guitar hero, Plant’s vocal prowess, and Jones’ diversity. This is not meant to be a dig against Meg’s musicianship. After all, she did not even learn her instrument until recently before The White Stripes started. Rather, it is meant to demonstrate that Jack takes the dominant role in their music.

Jack’s assertiveness can also be detected in how each song begins. Of the 85 tracks from The White Stripes’ full-length studio albums, only 20 (24%) start with both Jack and Meg playing together. Of the remaining 65 tracks, a whopping 61 (72% of all tracks) of them start with just Jack! The only four songs in the entire White Stripes catalogue that Meg starts on her own are “Jimmy the Explorer” (which, oddly enough, is the lead track of their very first album), “Little Room,” “My Doorbell,” and “Prickly Thorn, but Sweetly Worn/St. Andrew” (these are actually two tracks, but they feature the same musical foundation with no gap between them). Whoever starts the song establishes the tempo, style, and general feel for the song, and Jack is clearly claiming this responsibility an overwhelming majority of the time.

Perhaps the song that most vividly demonstrates such an understanding of Jack as masculine and Meg as feminine is “Rag and Bone,” which is the ninth track off 2007’s Icky Thump. Lyrically, the song ranks among their more humorous and light-hearted. It is also an example of a song in which the members adopt new personifications, as Jack and Meg are depicted as rag-and-bone collectors, who are vagabonds roaming in search of discarded treasures. And yes, this is one of the rare tracks that features Meg’s voice.

Each of the song’s three verses begins with spoken dialogue between Jack and Meg, though the latter two also presumably involve interactions with unidentified people who may or may not be looking to get rid of some of their junk. In addition to talking, Jack and Meg both provide instrumental accompaniment for these sections. Jack hammers out a blues-based riff, while Meg thumps time first with sticks before adding bass drum and toms. In the first two verses, Jack breaks into a sung stanza at the point Meg adds the low tom, and this is basically a more metric, melodic, and organized take on their spoken word. This then gives way to the chorus, which is a beefier version of the main riff with Meg now adding cymbals and Jack riffing on the lyrics “come and give it to me” and “rag and bone.” The third and final verse is unique because the talking section of the verse is extended, thus omitting the sung stanzas and going directly into the chorus.

This is a relatively simple and seemingly innocent song, yet it still invites an interpretation that is in line with the previously discussed understanding of the group’s gender roles. Though both Jack and Meg have speaking roles throughout each verse, Jack’s character clearly takes precedence in their dialogue. In fact, calling it a dialogue is a stretch, as it is more of a collection of individual statements that do not necessarily correspond to one another. For example, the first verse starts with the following exchange:

Jack: Meg, look at this place.
Meg: What? Ooh!
Jack: Well, this place is like a mansion! It’s like a mansion – look at all this stuff!
Meg: I don’t know.

Jack’s lines of dialogue help set the scene and establish their roles as rag and bone collectors, but Meg’s utterances are basically complete non-sequiturs. It is as if they recorded their lines, but then Jack went back and redid his and kept Meg’s the same. Not only that, but Meg’s voice is at a much lower level than Jack’s throughout the whole track. All of this makes Jack seem like a knowing, controlling force, while Meg comes off as weak and erratic.

The third verse also starts off with an interesting exchange. Oddly enough, Meg has the first line, but it does not take long for Jack to reassert himself:

Meg: I saw some stuff in your yard – are you going to give it to us?
Jack: Aww, Meg, don’t be rude!

This comes after a second verse in which Jack tries to convince people to give them their stuff, even speaking for Meg at one point (“I can use ‘em. Meg can use ‘em.”). Yet when Meg has the boldness to ask for some stuff, Jack immediately shushes her as being rude. Granted, this is a humorous song that is surely not as sexist as it seems in a vacuum, but at the very least this confirms Jack’s role as the domineering masculine figure in their relationship, at least in this song.

***Unconventional/Ambiguous Gender Roles in The White Stripes’ Music***

The White Stripes were built on a foundation of ambiguities and lies. No one is exactly sure when it started or why they did this, but by the time The White Stripes gained national attention with their third album (2001’s White Blood Cells), Jack and Meg had convinced everyone that they were brother and sister. This claim has since been invalidated by the discovery of their wedding certificate, though Jack and Meg typically shy away from the subject rather than outright deny their sibling status. Jack notoriously withholds biographical information, while Meg is exceedingly reserved from every form of media.

Not surprisingly, this cultivated ambiguity manifests itself in their music, particularly in regard to gender identities. Whether consciously or not, there are a number of ways in which the group either challenges or at least blurs conventional gender roles. Although Jack is the driving creative force of the band, Meg provides the reliable steadiness that Fast associates with masculinity. Without a bass player, Meg is the rhythm section, and she is primarily tasked with providing a solid rhythmic foundation. For all the complaints about Meg’s time, most of the band’s tempo issues are caused by Jack. Compare the intro of De Stijl’s (2000) “Apple Blossom” to the point where Meg enters (0:20). Jack starts the track at a pulse of MM=104, but he has sped up to around MM=128 before Meg plays a note. Get Behind Me Satan’s (2005) “Take, Take, Take” presents one of their more noticeable tempo issues – at the start of the second verse (1:26, where Meg drops out momentarily [1:34 in the YouTube clip]), Jack’s double tracked vocals, piano, and guitar all seem to be in different tempos, and it is not until Meg’s groove returns that time is resolidified.

Meg’s approach to drumming is unique in that it is perpetually propulsive yet not groove based. Her playing develops and evolves with each album, but it is not until their final studio album, Icky Thump, that she plays a groove with divisions of the beat on cymbals. A vast majority of rock grooves are structured around eighth notes on the hi-hat, but Meg’s playing is almost always built on simple rhythmic ostinatos. While this undoubtedly stems from her limited background on the instrument, the fact that she uses this approach does not invalidate her as a musician. She may not have great technical facility, but this choice has more to do with the direction The White Stripes elected to take with their music than with Meg’s skill set.

Meg’s reliance is established through her commitment to pounding out a steady beat, particularly compared to Jack’s chaotic layers. This is often realized through syncopation played against stasis, and a good example of this is occurs in “Astro,” a track from their 1999 self-titled debut that is representative of the heavy blues influence from their first couple albums. While Jack’s guitar riff is built off a brittle syncopation, Meg’s drum part keeps a steady and unchanging beat. Her pattern alternates between bass and snare drums, but she remains unfazed by the temptation of Jack’s upbeats. The entrance of Jack’s voice (0:09) adds further complication, as his voice adopts his guitar’s offbeat attacks, and the guitar in turn adopts the steady pulse of Meg’s beat. Meg stays constant, though, and her consistency allows Jack to be freer and more adventurous in everything he does. (“Seven Nation Army” is also a good example of this syncopation vs. stasis, for the record.)

While this rhythmic distinction between the two offers a concrete means of comparing their respective functions within the group, there are other examples that offer more abstract acuity towards this interpretation. No White Stripes song is more stripped to its core than White Blood Cells’ “Little Room.” There are only two instruments used in the 50-second track: Meg’s drums and Jack’s voice. Because of this, “Little Room” offers perhaps the purest insight into their musical relationship. Meg marks time from the start (this is one of the four songs that she starts alone) with a characteristically heavy pattern consisting of loose hi hat and snare drum. Meg does speed up slightly, but her pattern remains constant throughout the track. Jack enters at 0:06 with a vocal melody sung in his typically nasal timbre that consists exclusively of pitches from a B-flat blues scale. This simple melody (0:06-0:16) is repeated three additional times, giving it a very succinct strophic form with four stanzas. The former two of these feature lyrics, while the latter two consist of Jack riffing on the same melody using scat syllables.

Although each repetition is based on the same melodic idea, there is a progression in Jack’s execution from relative stasis to chaos. When Jack sings on lyrics, his diction and pitch placement are both relatively precise. However, when he switches to syllables, not only does he lose his clarity of speech, his command over musical aspects of his performance loosens. He uses the ambiguity of his syllables to slide into pitches and blur their definition, and pitches undershoot their intended targets with higher frequency than in the first half. His nasally tone veers even further towards this extreme, and he also adds a grainy and distorted quality to his vocal timbre. Even his volume level becomes more inconsistent – it sounds as if he is actually moving freely around his mic. In this regard, Jack is figuratively and literally embodying this descent towards chaos. This is what makes Meg’s part so fascinating – while Jack is perpetually evolving and becoming more manic, Meg remains constant against it. It is Meg who adopts Fast’s masculine persona of stasis and reliability, and Jack, as an emotional grenade, is her feminine counterpart.

An extreme example of this inverted juxtaposition can be found in Get Behind Me Satan’s “The Nurse.” This track is representative of the substantial creative departure the band took from their previous releases, as they became more ambitious in their use of different instruments and sounds. Jack’s primary instrument on “The Nurse” is marimba, which is not only unique for a pop song, it is a sound that had not yet been incorporated on any White Stripes album. Jack also incorporates some sly deviation from convention in regard to form and harmony. Each verse stanza has an imbalanced three lines (drawing an abstract parallel to the blues), and the last of these lines features a progression with modal borrowing. The song is in G Major, but the B-flat Major, E-flat Major and D Major chords that precede the return to tonic in this third line are all taken from the tonic’s minor mode. On this level, “The Nurse” seems like another example of Jack asserting his dominance as both performer and creator.

But something very unexpected happens at 0:31 into the track: a single, bombastic strike of crash cymbal, bass drum, and distorted guitar erupts from nowhere to disturb the otherwise serene character of the song. It seems to be an isolated incident, but the same gesture returns at 0:51, right before the second verse stanza begins. A couple more of these musical land mines go off during this second stanza before a relentless assault is unleashed just before the chorus is introduced (1:18-1:25, a total of 17 hits in a row). Not only are these blasts jarring for their intense timbre, they also clash against the song’s time. It is not that they are not played correctly in time; it is that they are intentionally avoiding lining up with anything else in the song, as if parts of two separate songs are layered on top of one another. These two conflicting characters run throughout the song on their own distinct trajectories until the final chorus, where they are finally brought together into a heavy groove for the chorus’ final repetition (3:20).

Aside from offering a fresh postmodern twist on their definitive sound, “The Nurse” also illuminates the ambiguity regarding their approach to gender. Both of the concurrent trajectories stake valid claims to dominance, and both are also reasonably clearly associated with a specific member. Granted, Jack and Meg both are involved with both characters (Meg plays maracas throughout the track, while Jack plays guitar on the hits), but Jack’s marimba and singing and Meg’s drums are prominent enough to merit this allocation of identities. Jack’s claim to dominance here is similar to that established in most of their other songs, yet Meg’s playing is so bombastic that it threatens to annihilate everything. It may not be uncommon for Meg to play with this type of force, but the fact that she steps out of her conventional role of offering rhythmic support to fight against Jack’s part is highly revealing. Not only that, but Jack’s instrumental playing typically matches the timbre and intensity of Meg’s aggressive playing. The soft sounds of marimba and Jack’s delicate vocal lyricism are heard in stark contrast here. It is difficult to say exactly who exerts the most dominance, but what is more significant is that Jack and Meg are working together and against each other to consciously blur those boundaries.

***Unconventional/Ambiguous Gender Roles in The White Stripes’ Lyrics***

Jack also achieves sexual ambiguity through many of his lyrics. Most of his songs feature some sort of rumination on love, but he rarely employs the conventional pop song approach towards the subject. For example, a substantial majority of Jack’s uses of gender-specific nouns in his titles are either “boy” or “girl.” Although the notion of puppy love is not foreign in pop music (though pop’s approach to love has certainly evolved throughout its history), Jack is probably even more naïve than even the least offensive crooner in most of these songs. A sample lyric from The White Stripes’ “Suzy Lee” demonstrates this:

And the paper
on it was my name
with the question
do you feel the same?

This emphasis of such innocent, prepubescent love is almost so mawkishly inexperienced that it practically rejects sexuality altogether.

Although this description is apt for many of Jack’s lyrics, some songs have a more nebulous approach towards their romantic subjects. Elephant’s (2003) “I Want To Be The Boy To Warm Your Mother’s Heart” is, as its title implies, a song about a boy trying to impress the mother of his love interest. At least at the onset, the titular boy seems to be another young adolescent, as is made evident with lines like:

We’ve been sitting in your backyard for hours
but she won’t even come out and say hi

Though the pronouns used throughout the song are never made explicit, the “we” of this line refers to the boy and his love interest, and “she” refers to her mother. The act of a couple sitting in one of their backyards for hours is surely something that only a young couple would do, as it sounds more like harmless hanging out than an act of romance. However, other lines challenge the listener’s understanding of who these unnamed characters are, particularly this line towards the end of the first verse:

I’m inclined to go finish high school
just to make her notice that I’m around

While a young boy would not yet have completed high school, the phrase “go finish” implies both that this is an activity that the boy can physically and immediately perform as well as something that has been started and abandoned. These conditions strongly imply that the anonymous protagonist is not a young boy but, rather, a fully-grown adult. Yet neither is made clear by Jack throughout the song, and an understanding of the song’s romance is left vague as a result.

There is also a great deal of confusion in Jack’s lyrics regarding his approach to familial relationships, particularly those of sister and mother. Jack obviously places great importance on the various connections he has with women, and as the youngest of ten children who was often raised by his older sisters, it is easy to see why Jack would have such a strong affinity towards the maternal (as in “…Mother’s Heart”). Usually, though, Jack uses “sister” in a context that seems to be interchangeable with a romantic interest. This directly references the group’s famous lie about the nature of their relationship, which would appear to make these songs about Jack’s relationship with Meg. In De Stijl’s “Sister, Do You Know My Name,” Jack reminisces about a boy missing his young crush, but he refers to her as his sister. The object of his interest is almost certainly not his biological sister, as he talks about the school bus pulling up to her house and hoping she’ll sit by him. As with most of Jack’s lyrics, the love he refers to is too innocent to create any sort of grand romantic sentiment, but his association with his sister and this kind of love is moderately disturbing.

A less naïve example of equating a sister with an object of romantic desire happens in “I’m Lonely (But I Ain’t That Lonely Yet),” the closing track from Get Behind Me Satan. The lyrics here reference both a mother and a sister, but the latter has particularly strong romantic implications, as is made explicit in the chorus:

And I love my sister
Lord knows how I’ve missed her
She loves me, and she knows I won’t forget
And sometimes I get jealous
Of all her little pets
And I get lonely, but I ain’t that lonely yet

Nothing in the first part of this stanza indicates that the feelings he has for his sister extend beyond that of a typical sibling bond, but the last line is a fairly bold assertion that this relationship is more than what it seems. The titular lyric has a strong implication of sexual frustration, suggesting that he is not yet quite desperate enough to have sex with his sister. The operative word here is “that” – being lonely is not terribly revealing on its own, but “that lonely” implies a certain degree of loneliness that must remain unmentioned. At the very least, this demonstrates an ambiguity that further adds to the complication of understanding gender roles in the group.

***Ambiguous Gender Roles in Other Jack White Projects***

Although The White Stripes continue to be what most people associate Jack White with even after their 2011 break up, Jack has always been one of the most prolific rock musicians of his generation. Even during his years in The White Stripes, he performed in super groups (The Raconteurs, The Dead Weather) and produced myriad acts of varying styles and experience. Not coincidentally, a good majority of his other collaborations have involved women. The Dead Weather are fronted by The Kills’ Allison Mosshart (Jack plays drums in that band), and two of his more notable producing credits have been with country legend Loretta Lynn and all-female goth rockers The Black Belles (possibly a goth spin on The White Stripes?).

Each of these collaborations shares the same sort of blurred definition of gender tropes as Jack maintained with The White Stripes. Particularly with The Dead Weather and Loretta Lynn – both featuring previously established female artists – Jack adds a harder edge to each singer’s typical canon. The Kills have a danceable post-punk sound in the vein of bands like The Strokes, yet The Dead Weather’s sound is laced with a heavy, ominous gothic flavor. Lynn is mostly known for her musically sugar-sweet country ballads, yet most of the tracks from 2004’s Jack White-produced Van Leer Rose feature a full band and an energetic roots-rock vibe. Jack definitely adds a masculine aggression to their music, yet it enhances these artists’ core sounds to create a unique hybrid rather than completely obliterating them. These are all collaborations in the truest sense, as the headlining females artists all maintain creative dominance. Lynn is credited with writing all songs from Rose (Jack is credited as arranger), and Mosshart is credited as the primary songwriter for eight of their 2009 debut’s (Horehound) eleven tracks. As a result, Jack may bring his conventional creative prowess, but the women maintain the primary sense of dominance.

Another interesting parallel between these other projects and The White Stripes is their use of drums, particularly with how they open songs. Generally speaking, drummers for Jack’s other projects (which, more often than not, is The Greenhornes’ Patrick Keeler) use more conventional beat patterns than Meg does, and there is a clear stylistic and functional difference between their playing. Regarding song starts, again, only four of the 81 tracks from The White Stripes’ six major studio releases started with drums exclusively. By comparison, The Dead Weather have the exact same number of songs that fit this category from the 22 tracks of their two studio releases. A number of other songs also start off with drum clicks leading into a full band beginning. This is particularly significant because Jack is the drummer for this band, which means that not only does he perceive the use of drums differently than he did when Meg was at the helm, he is continuing to assert dominance and control over his music.

This assertion is not absolute, however, and the music and personnel of his 2013 solo debut (Blunderbuss) are an indication of this. One of the more notable aspects about this project is that Jack uses two entirely separate backing bands: one (The Buzzards) is all male, while the other (The Peacocks) is entirely female. Both were used on the album, and Jack takes both with him on the road, generally only determining which one will play the day of the gig. This rigid delineation of gender boundaries elicits a number of potential responses, and a number of them certainly portend sexism. Although Jack has remained typically mum on the subject, Carla Azar (the drummer for The Peacocks as well as the experimental progressive band Autolux) imparted some insight on the matter in an interview conducted by Jack:

If you throw a bunch of females and males on a tour, both playing the same music but in 2 different bands, you really start to see the differences between the two genders. The men play differently to Jack than the women do. And Jack plays differently as well. I don’t want to think that’s true, but it is. I’m not saying this is a rule, I can only speak from this experience and this group of people. There’s definitely more sexual chemistry between the females and Jack.

What is significant here is that Azar recognizes that there is a clear difference between the performances of the two bands, but she does not indicate that there is a difference in quality. After all, if Jack saw his female band as being lesser musicians, why would he even bring them on tour in the first place? For Jack, this does not seem to be an attempt to distinguish dominance and submissiveness between his two bands. One of the more important aspects of The Peacock’s performance is their sexual chemistry with Jack, so it makes sense that Jack is aware of this sexual energy and consciously employs it to achieve a desired effect.

In what is likely the only instance when both bands performed on the same night, Jack used the two musical segments from his recent Saturday Night Live performance to feature both groups. He performed “Love Interruption,” a twisted yet melancholy ballad, with The Peacocks, and then he played “Sixteen Saltines,” which is an adrenaline-fueled romp of a single in the vein of “Fell in Love with a Girl,” with The Buzzards. Given the clear distinction between the sounds of each song as well as the genders of each band, it would be easy to assume that Jack adheres to conventional interpretations of gender roles when considering the sound his looking for. However, he actually recorded with The Peacocks for both tracks on Blunderbuss, and the other driving, prototypically masculine track from the album (a cover of Little Willie John’s “I’m Shakin’”) also features the women. Furthermore, eleven of its thirteen tracks feature women, with the vast majority using women exclusively with Jack. Not only does Jack not view his female band as inferior to his male band, evidence seems to indicate that he actually prefers them.

Because Jack has been so strongly associated with a female drummer, an understanding of how this has evolved with Azar is helpful. Azar is undoubtedly a more technically proficient and versatile drummer than Meg, which may account for why Jack gave her the control to start two of the eight songs on which she appears from Blunderbuss. Regardless, this difference has less to do with their skills than it does Jack’s desired aesthetic effect. The fact that Jack relies so heavily on Azar now indicates that his choice to collaborate with Meg for a decade had little to do with him perceiving her as a feminine drummer. If he truly viewed Meg as being in a purely submissive role to him, he would not be likely to use another female drummer in a more conventional role. As Jack said in his recent New York Times interview, “Meg completely controlled the White Stripes.” Meg clearly did not have complete control all of the time in their music, but Jack is more of a democratic collaborator than he is often given credit. If The White Stripes were propelled by the extreme juxtapositions of masculine and feminine roles, then Blunderbuss thrives off a richly synthesized amalgam of gender tropes. Either way, Jack’s music has and continues to achieve density because of – not in spite of – his interaction with women and his understanding of what they offer, which reflects a more nuanced perception of gender roles.


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