It’s been three long days of relitigating Meg White’s drumming

Folks, it’s time to log off. Didn’t you read the ‘Elephant’ liner notes?

Mar 16, 2023 at 11:15 am
click to enlarge Meg White: Truth doesn’t make a noise. - Edd Westmacott / Alamy Stock Photo
Edd Westmacott / Alamy Stock Photo
Meg White: Truth doesn’t make a noise.

If you’re way too online, which in the year of our Lord 2023 is just about all of us, you may have noticed that people on social media have spent the past several days discussing the drumming of Meg White — whose raw, unschooled style helped make the White Stripes one of the biggest rock bands to ever come out of Detroit.

We’re seriously talking about Meg White’s drumming again? What is this, 2003?

To recap as succinctly as possible: According to White Stripes lore, the band was formed after Meg decided on a lark to sit behind then-husband Jack White’s drums in their Detroit attic. Thanks to their chemistry and keen peppermint-striped visual style (and despite the fact that they divorced just as the band was taking off), the White Stripes’ trajectory was basically a straight line pointing upward ever since, but debates about Meg’s drumming skills followed, at least in some snobbish Guitar Center-guy circles. There was even a joke about it in the movie The School of Rock.

Last week, the conservative magazine National Review (of all places) published an article commemorating the 20th anniversary of the band’s hit album Elephant, declaring its lead single-turned-improbable-sports-anthem “Seven Nation Army” the “best song of this century thus far.” In response, some journalist named Lachlan Markay (who?) tweeted his disapproval. “The tragedy of the White Stripes is how great they would’ve been with a half decent drummer,” he said. “Yeah yeah I’ve heard all the ‘but it’s a carefully crafted sound mannnn!’ takes. I’m sorry Meg White was terrible.”

That very tired opinion somehow sparked three days of discourse, with fans rushing to Meg White’s defense, accusing haters of misogyny and using the opportunity to share fun early 2000s rock ’n’ roll trivia. Meg’s defenders included Jack White’s second ex-wife, Karen Elson, who quipped, “to the journalist who dissed her, keep my ex husband’s ex wife name out of your f*cking mouth. (Please and Thank You).”

The Roots drummer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson also weighed in, saying, “I try to leave ‘troll views’ alone but this right here is out of line af,” and denouncing “people choking the life out of music like an Instagram filter — trying to reach a high of music perfection that doesn’t even serve the song (or music).”

He added, “This is why I walk that Dilla path and play like a drunken sloppy af amateur because them flaws is the human element in music that is missing,” he said, referring to off-kilter rhythms of Detroit’s late, great hip-hop beatmaker J Dilla.

That was a point echoed by Jack White’s new drummer, Michigan native Daru Jones, who told Metro Times last year that he was a White Stripes fan and said Meg’s drumming “reminds me of a Dilla vibe.” (Jones previously drummed in the live version of Dilla’s group Slum Village.) He added that he tried to imitate her style when he and Jack play songs from the White Stripes catalog.

Markay has since apologized, deleting the initial tweet and calling it “an over-the-top take” and “just plain wrong.” He also changed his Twitter bio to “Bad music take haver.” On Wednesday, Jack White posted a poem in tribute to Meg on Instagram, pining “to be born in another time … one without demons, cowards and vampires out for blood … where no tall red poppies are cut down.” He included a photo of Meg appearing to stare at him from behind her drums in the middle of a performance.

Anyone blessed to have ever seen the White Stripes play live knows that the key to the band’s success was Jack and Meg’s seemingly telepathic bond, perhaps due to their romantic connection, perhaps due to their shared love for old rock and blues. Their gigs were electric, improvisational, subversive, even a bit dangerous-feeling, and unlike absolutely anything else going on in popular music in the early 2000s, especially the other so-called “garage rock” bands that music journalists wrongly compared them to.

On top of her unschooled drumming style, Meg was famously shy when not behind her drums and never spoke much during interviews, which just made her seem even more cool and mysterious. But she didn’t seemed to have the same drive for rock stardom as Jack, and in 2007, the band broke up mid-tour, citing Meg’s “acute anxiety.” (According to our sources, she still lives in Detroit and has been laying low ever since.)

So why all of a sudden are we talking about Meg’s drumming — again? Well, earlier this year, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame nominated the White Stripes for induction, the first year the band was eligible. But a crucial component of what one fan jokingly referred to as a 20th anniversary “deluxe edition of Is Meg White a Good Drummer discourse” is the simple fact that Twitter did not exist back in 2003.

Contrary to new owner Elon Musk’s stated vision of Twitter as a “global town square” that will somehow help humanity by fostering connection, the app is really just designed to do one thing, and it does it with brutal, machine efficiency: keep us addicted by making us mad and arguing with each other. It primarily does this by algorithmically boosting the worst takes — what Twitter users refer to as the “main character of the day,” something no sane person would ever want to be. More insidiously, bad actors are able to game this system. That’s how Donald Trump was able to hack his way into the White House by tweeting racist, false claims about Barack Obama’s birth certificate, and why Musk ordered the company’s engineers to boost his own obnoxious memes and monomaniacal ego.

But lost in all the noise about Meg White’s drumming is the original context in which Elephant was created. The band recorded it at Toe Rag Studios in London, boasting that it was made without the use of computers, instead utilizing an eight-track tape machine and other antique gear made no later than 1963. Its liner notes dedicated the album to “the death of the sweetheart,” and Jack and Meg appeared on its cover dressed in unstylish Western wear, looking like a gothic country band mourning the end of a bygone era.

The White Stripes’ post-Y2K, pre-social media age crusade against computers seems almost quaint now, compared to the horrors that the internet would soon bring. At the time, the band was protesting the proliferation of sterile ProTools technology in rock music and Photoshopped magazine covers. Facebook was just a twinkle in Mark Zuckerberg’s eye, and the iPhone wasn’t a prototype yet, but even then the White Stripes saw where a soulless, digitized world was taking us.

In 2003, the Whites Stripes said to log off. It’s high time we do.

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