If you walk into any music store in the western world, you’ll most likely hear a familiar melody emerging from the guitar section. An almost obligatory test drive for any product on the floor, customers take the instruments off the display mounts to plunk out the iconic E minor riff to a song that has permeated every corner of the world. It is a melody so well-known you can’t help but hum the booming chords when it hits your eardrums. The song? Seven Nation Army.
The White Stripes are considered to be one of the greatest rock bands of the aughts, and to many, of all time. Duo Jack and Meg White formed the band in 1997 and immediately rode the Detroit music scene to become a major player in the early 00’s garage band revival movement. With the likes of the Strokes and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, TWS made crashing cymbals and electronically distorted guitars a hallmark of the era that influenced many of the most popular rock bands we know today. With just a guitar, an octave pedal, and a drum set, Jack and Meg put out six highly-acclaimed albums in their nearly 14 years, not to mention one of the most ubiquitous and beloved fight songs that transcended beyond just music culture.
Like numerous frontmen before and after him, Jack White became the face of the band, frequently given credit for the band’s rise to stardom. He’s considered a virtuoso and has the career record to back that claim up. He runs a record label, plays six instruments, sits on the board of Library of Congress’s recording preservation, holds the record for most first-week record sales since 1991, and is a twelve-time Grammy Award winner. Jack White is one of the most respected artists both in his genre and in the industry at large – a feat in a profession known to swallow people whole. While he still remains at the top of the game, the other half of the pair that made his star is largely and unfairly forgotten.
The band’s greatest hits compilation released last December reignited discussions from music journalists on their legacy and their relevance even almost 10 years after the breakup, most of which gave Meg only a passing glance. When articles about the White Stripes were written, Jack got to be his own person while Meg became a packaged deal. Copious amounts of reviews written about the compilation didn’t even mention her contributions once, instead of focusing on the springboard contribution the duo provided for the guitarist’s legendary career.
At best, they briefly mentioned her; at worst, they reincarnated a version of the sexist criticism of Meg’s work from the mid-2000s grave we thought it to be buried in. Articles kind enough to mention her often cited her style as “primitive” and sometimes speculated if her partner should have replaced her with a better drummer. Some pieces took it a step further, subliminally and baselessly attributing the ending of the group on her battles with anxiety.
On the White Stripes’ rise to mainstream consciousness, critics more often than not placed their grievances on the drummer’s shoulders and toed the line from being professional to condescending. Jenny Eliscu’s Rolling Stone review in the year 2000 of the album De Stijl even mocked her drumming as “so minimal it’s almost funny.” Even though Eliscu went on to say that the beats contributed to the record’s folksy charm, it doesn’t change the fact that Meg was never taken as seriously as her counterpart. The Associated Press wrote her off as “maddingly rudimentary” and the disrespect even branched out to the Onion with the headline “Meg White Drum Solo Maintains Steady Beat For 23 Minutes.”
Although Jack often came to his press-shy partner’s defense–telling journalists that their comments were sexist and that she was the backbone of the band–it wasn’t enough to stop the attacks. Reporters were as restrained as their professional code of conduct would allow, but internet comments were unleashed, hiding behind anonymity to put their misogyny on full display. An article on a blog run by “local drummer” Colin Gawel of Ohio refuted Meg’s 94th position on acclaimed music journalist Pete Vogel’s top 100 best drummer list. He stated: “Sadly, she shouldn’t be on the list. She probably shouldn’t even be on a Top 200 list. I’m not trying to disparage women and drumming—I’ve had several chick drummers as students—but I know a seventh-grade girl who plays better than Meg. I imagine you probably do, too.”
Gawel’s criticism not only lacks nuance but is also emblematic of a certain kind of misogyny that ridicules women and femmes for occupying spaces where mainly men thrive. It points to the larger problem of discrimination. Workplace sexism runs rampant in every industry, and it is exacerbated by the silence of fellow male coworkers and the management. More than three out of four women have reported harassment and seventy-seven percent reported sexual harassment in their workplace. Women in work environments are still seen as a novelty rather than a contributor to the job, a slippery slope that leads to the idea that we are less capable of doing jobs men do.
Women in “male-dominated” industries have extra hurdles to jump when earning respect. Meg White was seen as a talentless sidecar in the masculine world of drumming, mirroring the distasteful treatment of women engaging in professions outside of the norm. A student in an essay for the Barnard Center for Research on Women spoke about the time she bought a set of drumsticks, only to be asked by the shopkeeper if they were a gift for someone else. While many have pondered the question of the lack of female drummers, many attribute it to a chicken or the egg issue – if there’s no representation, young girls won’t feel good about getting into a boys club. Another question comes to mind, however, when I hear this argument. It is a question that not only women but people of color, the queer community, disabled folks, and other marginalized communities have asked for years: why does there need to be a lot of us in order to get even the smallest bit of respect?
Even putting aside the issue of representation, we still can’t ignore that many young women are told their youthful hobbies are stupid and juvenile. Things like vampire romance novels, makeup trends, and most notably pop music are immediately gendered and written off as low intelligence activities – vapid, cringy, and for aesthetic purposes only. Many think that jokes at the expense of the love tween girls have for things like K-pop and boy bands are a funny punch-down joke. But the stigmatization of all things “women” is an insidious tool of oppression for everyone. How many times have girls been told they aren’t good looking enough to “make it” in music? How many times have boys been told they’re gay if they want to do theatre instead of activities we have deemed more appropriate? Categorization of likes as masculine or feminine not only stops many people from exploring things they like but breeds an ‘us versus them’ mentality causing volatile ripple waves in all corners of the country. Large amounts of money were spent in the fight against Title IX, the 1972 bill that would allow for equal funding of school sports programs. Some of the people who started the movement are still fighting for it today. This behavior breeds misogyny and discrimination, whether it be in the hands of men or from “not like the other girls” women. It’s not a huge leap to realize this a purposeful social construction to further cast us out.
To many, a fate worse than being outright devalued is when the caveat “good… for a girl” is added to our work. Countless lists in music publications have been made, probably in a well-meaning fashion, have been dedicated to discussion regarding “girl drummers” and what they contribute to their respective groups. It often feels like the “female” addendum has been co-opted as a feminist rally cry without a critical look into its true patronizing roots. Instead of building a culture of sisterhood and empowerment, it’s a repackaged way of perpetrating the same workplace devaluation we’ve always experienced. Packaging it nicely with a bow on top doesn’t change the fact that men get to be the default while women are separated by a boundary most if not all will become a part of.
The conversation surrounding Meg White and her work is an important microcosm on how patriarchal culture continues to devalue the contributions we make to our fields. Either subliminally or blatantly, perpetrated by men or women, the lack of recognition of a woman’s achievements in her field is a dark stratagem used to weaken self-esteem and subsequently weed us out of our chosen professions. It’s time we have conversations about double standards in the settings we spend time in–be it school, work, or anywhere else. We need to ask questions like why our male counterparts get more recognition for work we did before and better. Why do Meg White’s simplistic but explosive drums get characterized as untalented while Ringo Starr’s equally simplistic beats make him a living legend?
Seven Nation Army is a song about fighting those who care more about their life outside of their art, a fitting theme that mirrors the drummer’s existence in the music world. The fact that Meg isn’t where her counterpart is in terms of the music world isn’t the point. She never wanted to be a star, a virtuoso, or a record breaker like Jack is. Meg wanted to make music, something she was damn good at but never got recognition for. It didn’t matter whether her beats were simple or complex or even God-tier. The idea that a woman could contribute to a genre dominated by men was apparently enough to warrant bullying poorly disguised as critique.
Even though more attention is given to women’s rights issues than ever before, it’s obvious that when a Grammy award-winning musician of one of the most iconic bands of our time can’t get any respect, it’s clear the problem doesn’t lie with her, but with our society.