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. —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” — 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.
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 — 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 — 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.