This defense of Meg White is something I’ve had in mind for ages, long before I started this blog. The White Stripes have been one of my favorite bands for 20 years. From the start I’ve always loved Meg’s drumming, always found her to be absolutely indispensable to their sound. And I’ve always been deeply irritated at the jackasses who feel the need to opine about her supposed lack of skill. It’s only a lack of time that’s kept me from writing about this before. I’m bringing it off the back burner now because, unfortunately, Meg White’s drumming has suddenly become a hot topic.
Last week, a journalist by the name of Lachlan Markay revived a tired old refrain with fresh venom. “The tragedy of the White Stripes is how great they would’ve been with a half decent drummer,” he tweeted. “Yeah yeah I’ve heard all the ‘but it’s a carefully crafted sound mannnn!’ takes. I’m sorry Meg White was terrible and no band is better for having shitty percussion.”
Markay probably wasn’t expecting his post to go viral and make him the internet’s bad guy of the week. The clapback was swift, widespread and vehement. Many high-profile musicians including Questlove, Tom Morello, Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s Ruban Nielson, Geoff Barrow from Portishead and Against Me!’s Laura Jane Grace rallied to Meg’s defense, turning it from an online controversy into a news cycle that’s lasted for days. Questlove called Markay’s take “out of line af” and referenced J. Dilla’s “drunken sloppy” style and the “human element” of music. Morello’s response was my favorite, and the closest to my own feelings on the matter: “let me set fools straight: #MegWhite is one of the greatest drummers in the history of rock n roll.”
Ultimately Jack White himself responded, dramatically if obliquely, posting a photo of Meg at the drums, hidden behind her hair, and a poem about “demons, cowards and vampires out for blood.”
The day after he made the tweet, Markay deleted it and issued an apology that was as unusually sincere as his original take was unusually mean and spiteful. “Truly awful in every way,” he said of his earlier post. “Petty, obnoxious, just plain wrong.” I was especially impressed that he fully owned up to how sexist his take was, apologized directly to Meg, and humbly admitted that he’d gotten sucked into the soul-draining quest for engagement through hot takes. “Why did I actually write that? It’s not what I really think.”
It’s going to be hard for Markay to live this down. I’d never heard of him before this; I see he has a blue check on Twitter, but you can buy one of those for $8 now. I only know him as that loser who dissed Meg White and set off an entire discourse, and I’m sure the same is true for many of us. I almost feel sorry for him. It’s just hard for me to imagine listening to the White Stripes for any length of time and not realizing that Meg White is a genius.
Markay may have apologized, but the thing that sucks about all of this is that it feeds into a much bigger problem. It’s not just about snobbery or bad taste. I’ve seen several headlines referring to this as a “debate,” but Meg White’s talent is not up for debate. She played and toured the world in a widely beloved band considered one of the most epochal and definitive of the millennial era. She was integral in creating an unimpeachable discography of classic albums and songs — several of them so entrenched in the public imagination they’re practically folk songs (perhaps the most prominent example: “Seven Nation Army” has become a football chant all over the world). She was nominated for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame this year.
Meg White is not only an unfairly maligned drummer, she is a great drummer. As Morello indicates, that should be an objective fact, even if you don’t like the White Stripes or raw, stripped-down garage rock in general. My friend Anwen Crawford, one of my favorite music writers, says there’s no such thing as a great band without a great drummer. The White Stripes were a great band. That should be the end of the story.
But somehow it’s not. Amidst this non-debate, I’ve seen several people quite reasonably ask why we even have to be having this conversation anymore. Isn’t this an old, tired argument that was already settled in the blogosphere in the 2000s? Some have pointed out the injustice of Meg White’s talent being tried yet again in the court of public opinion when she quit the band and retired twelve years ago, and is famously reclusive and known to suffer from anxiety.
But the fact is, we do have to have this conversation. Because this is not a “debate” — it’s a backlash against women in music. One that’s gone on forever, but lately feeds into a much larger antifeminist backlash that has become more virulent as all kinds of reactionary politics lurch into the mainstream. You can see it in the disturbing popularity of misogynist “influencer” Andrew Tate, or in the awful public crucifixion of Amber Heard. You can see it in more subtle and insidious ways too, like in the boorish gatekeeping comments on any Pitchfork article about Lizzo or Billie Eilish.
And despite the massive and beautifully affirming support for Meg from a large majority of music fans, you can see it in the sniping from the minority of jerks on every post about her — doggedly, numbingly repeating the same sneering points. They may be a minority but they are diabolically effective at keeping the waters muddied and keeping the “debate” going.
So yes, we have to have this conversation because we have to defend against this backlash, we can’t just let it go. As one Twitter user remarked: “meg white’s drumming is a rorshach test for how you feel about women musicians.”
Sometimes greatness manifests itself from the beginning. Meg White’s utterly unique drumming style was apparent on the White Stripes’ very first single, 1998’s “Let’s Shake Hands.” As Morello and many others have pointed out, Meg is one of the few drummers you can immediately recognize within a couple of bars. Her drumming is a voice all her own. No one else but her could have made the beautiful thrashing racket she does here, which has the effect of being the third rail for Jack’s runaway train of frenzied guitar and psycho blues vocals.
But let’s say you, in good faith, dismiss her brutally primal performance on that first recording. You will lose the argument on “Jimmy the Exploder,” the first track on their 1999 self-titled debut LP. There is a complete case to be made for Meg White’s greatness on this track alone. Listen to her off-kilter, stomping midtempo swing on the intro that makes you want to kick over the furniture dancing to it before you even hear anything else. Listen to her ominously thumping kick and crashing cymbals on the breakdown, as Jack’s guitar joins the fray, gassing you up for her almost industrial pummelling double-time rhythm on the first verse, the perfect accompaniment to Jack’s incendiary guitar, the whole thing feeling like a machine that’s hurtling out of control, about to explode like the title says. Then the amazing breakdown in the middle, as she takes it back to half-time again, before revving up one more time and charging to the finish.
What other rock drummers have generated so much excitement, created so much outrageous fun, that the band is practically defined by their style? Keith Moon? John Bonham? Who else? This is the company she’s in.
Meg played with so much character, so much style, and so much soul — soul in the sense of pure expression, but maybe I mean the other kind of soul too. She had a funky groove all her own. I’ve often thought of her drum patterns as rock’s version of RZA’s beats on the Wu-Tang Clan’s classic records. They stutter and swing in this way that sounds awkward at first but is so funky the more you listen — not to mention totally impossible to imitate.
To me it’s no wonder that Mark Ronson can tell an anecdote like this one from Meet Me in the Bathroom, about the White Stripes’ music being embraced by hip-hop fans:
What you have to remember is that at that time [the early 2000s], there were no great rock records that you could play in a hip-hop set, there were no quote-unquote black rock records. There hadn’t been in ages. The Strokes were cool and people liked them because they had the kind of jump-up rhythm, but they were hard ones to play on a dancefloor. Then “Seven Nation Army” came. I remember being at Sound Factory, a hip-hop party, and Kid Capri was DJing that night. Kid Capri is a pillar of old-school New York hip hop and seeing him throw on that song in the middle of his set, I was like, “Wow, this shit’s finally come around.” Jack came and played guitar on a song on my first album, but then he heard the record when it was finished and he didn’t like the rap that Freeway had done on the track, so he made me take him off the song. I wrote him a letter. I was like, “Listen, I know you don’t like this rap, you might not get what he’s talking about, but you mean a lot to people in rap and I wish you could see what it’s like when you play ‘Seven Nation Army’ to a club of seven hundred young black kids at two in the morning. Your music means something to these people.”
Imagine thinking a track that had such an effect on hip-hop audiences, and audiences everywhere, could be played by a drummer with no skill!
It goes without saying that showstoppers like “Black Math” and “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground” would sound completely different, and nowhere near as great, with someone else in the drummer’s chair. But I think some of Meg’s most indelible work is on the midtempo ballads: the chugging, head-nodding thump-crack of her kick-snare combo and her climactic ride cymbals on “I Want to Be the Boy that Warms Your Mother’s Heart” and “The Same Boy You’ve Always Known” give the absurd melancholy of Jack’s songwriting so much extra power.
It’s so boring to assume that musicians have to be flashy virtuosos to be great. Who changed the world with their guitar playing more — Joe Satriani or Robert Smith? Inevitably, Rush is always mentioned in the comments about Meg, and it’s beyond hilarious, like something from a Hard Times satire about gatekeeping losers. I love how Morello broke this down: “Does she do a lot of complicated tom tom fills? No, THANK GOD.” And then calling out the “boring ass skin beaters who think we care about your ‘tight’ syncopated para-diddles.” This from someone whose band is famously tight. I think that says a lot: from where he’s sitting, Morello is much more confident about the importance of style and restraint and originality, compared to the insecure snobs and pedants who fill up comments sections.
You don’t have to like Meg White’s style. It’s fine if garage rock is not your thing and you prefer a more technically dazzling, showy drummer like Sheila E., or Nandi Bushell, or Karen Carpenter. I love all of those drummers. I love other, more complex forms that require a high degree of technical skill — cosmic jazz, 70s funk, Detroit techno, the lush soft-rock of Steely Dan. You just need to recognize that indeed Meg’s style is a style, and not some kind of handicap or shortcoming.
Meg’s career is even more of a wonder when you remember she was all alone in backing up Jack. The White Stripes had no bass player, no rhythm guitarist — no one else but her and Jack. There’s no way this would have worked with a drummer who didn’t have her power and her swagger and her voice. She brought a human element to drumming more than almost anyone else. Those delightfully quirky, almost hesitant taps on the rim of her snare in “Hello Operator”! Her ridiculously cool disco-hoedown stomp on “My Doorbell” — the way her beat sounds like a door knock!
She didn’t just provide the rhythm — she gave the White Stripes a unique sound, an identity.
I saw the Stripes live twice: in Brooklyn in 2005, at the baseball park in Coney Island; and at Madison Square Garden in 2007, not long before they stopped touring. They smashed it on both occasions, but the Garden show was especially magnificent, one of the two or three best big concerts I’ve ever seen. Sorry to repeat this point again, but it’s amazing how anyone could think a drummer with no talent could be part of creating such an allmighty, glorious sound on such a huge stage with no one else in the band to carry her.
The most memorable moment of that show for me was “Slowly Turning Into You,” with its massive, cathedral-like organ sound and the uncanny tension in the continually imploding buildup/breakdown of Meg’s beat. During that number, the largest disco ball I’ve ever seen descended from the Garden’s rafters, as if to make a point about the freaky funk inherent in that song and in the Stripes’ music in general — with Meg’s drumming a crucial component of that funk of course.
It’s always hilarious when the knuckleheads say, like Markay did in his post, that Jack would have been better off without Meg holding him back. We have twelve solid years of evidence of what Jack White would sound like without Meg. His solo career and his work with bands like the Raconteurs and the Dead Weather ranges from middling to boring to sometimes great. With “better” drummers, it all sounds more standard somehow. None of it even comes close to being as essential and life-changing as the White Stripes.
This is no knock against Jack, one of my favorite male singer-songwriters and guitarists. It would be hard for anyone to beat the output of the White Stripes — one of a handful of bands, along with, say, Led Zeppelin and the Talking Heads and not many others, whose discography is sublime from the first track to the last. David Byrne and Robert Plant have done wonderful things in their solo careers but nobody expects them to recapture that magic. Nobody expects Paul McCartney to top the Beatles. That magic has to do with chemistry, with the collective genius of the people in the room with you — the Bonhams and the Tina Weymouths and the Ringo Starrs (speaking of underrated drummers!). David Byrne is a genius, but we would not know his name if not for Weymouth (who, to be clear, is also a genius).
In an excellent 2014 Grantland essay aptly titled “Jack White’s Meg White Problem,” Steven Hyden wrote, “Jack White wrote the songs, supplied the artistic vision, and did most of the heavy musical lifting in the White Stripes. But Meg White was the point of that band.”
This is why I don’t subscribe to the idea that Meg’s drumming was “primitive” or “childlike,” as Jack has called it in well-meaning but condescending fashion. Her drumming may have been untutored at first (the same is true of many famous drummers, including Keith Moon and Dave Grohl), but after years of recording and touring, the simplicity and directness of her style had the authority of experience and practice.
Some who seek to deny credit to Meg argue that Jack dictated everything about the way she played. First of all, you only have to watch a few minutes of live footage to see this isn’t true. But let’s grant that Jack, the famously unhinged creative polymath, was possibly quite domineering in the studio (and by the way, can you blame Meg for not wanting to continue a partnership with her control-freak of an ex-husband?). That doesn’t invalidate Meg’s artistic agency any more than Ronnie Spector’s or Tina Turner’s relationships with their domineering, abusive partners invalidates theirs.
It’s important not to lose sight of how sexist it is to continually question or demean Meg White’s talent or contributions. As Markay’s apology indicates, you don’t have to be a misogynist creep to be part of the problem. You just have to be clueless enough not to see the inherent unfairness of it all, especially in a music industry (and a society) that’s already impossibly stacked against women.
A refrain I’ve seen repeated over and over: I’m not criticizing her because she’s a woman, but because she sucks. If she was a guy I would say the same thing. Some of them might even believe it!
Even some of Meg’s supporters are unwilling to admit that sexism is a factor. I see this kind of tedious, gaslighting denialism all the time in fan forums for the Bangles, Wet Leg, and other women in music. Not sure what she’s referring to. I haven’t seen any evidence of sexism myself. All the male fans I know are completely supportive. I just like their music, why does everything have to be political? And God forbid a woman speak up in support; she’ll be answering whiny replies from the dudes for hours. Day after day of this kind of thing — it’s exhausting. It’s intended to be exhausting.
Last week, Courtney Love published a searing editorial in the Guardian about the lack of women inductees in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Love speaks of the “purposeful ignorance and hostility” that keep women out of the gates of the Rock Hall, and I thought of the ignorance and hostility endured by Meg for over 20 years before I even got to this part: “Meg White’s potential induction as one half of the White Stripes (in their first year of eligibility) has sparked openly contemptuous discourse online; you sense that if voters could get Jack White in without her, they would do it today.”
“If there is one thing women in music must be, it is endlessly exceptional,” Love says.
It’s not enough that Meg White spent years co-creating a singularly unique and acclaimed body of music; that her drumming is universally recognized and recognizable, and literally anthemic; that the joy she so clearly found in playing brought joy to millions. Because she didn’t have the chops or finesse of Neil Peart or Stewart Copeland, she will always be considered lesser by some.
“It’s kind of funny,” Jack told Rolling Stone in 2005, when asked if Meg’s drumming limited him. “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.”
I want to give Meg the last word, which seems only fitting. Because she’s retired, and because she was so famously quiet in the first place, she has so very seldom defended herself. This is from a 2002 interview with Modern Drummer (quoted by Rolling Stone):
I appreciate other kinds of drummers who play differently, but it’s not my style or what works for this band. I get [criticism] sometimes, and I go through periods where it really bothers me. But then I think about it, and I realize that this is what is really needed for this band. And I just try to have as much fun with it as possible.
Feature image credit: John Shearer