#390: The White Stripes, "Elephant" (2003)

What I remember now is not Jack White’s voice but my steps changing tempo song to song to match Meg White’s steady percussion, walking to and from school every day, listening to Elephant on a bright yellow Discman. I listened incessantly until all the sound that once crashed me like a cymbal dissolved into background noise, until I made it familiar. The album was, in turns, tender and violent, like a kid who scribbled crayon on a white wall. It contained its opposites. It made me feel braver than I actually was.

I particularly loved “I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself”—though it’s meant to be a breakup song, it was for me a song about identity, a concept I didn’t understand how to navigate. To me the lyrics reinforced that it was okay not to know, and that it was permissible to be restless and uncomfortable with not knowing. It’s a Burt Bacharach cover, and it doesn’t totally surprise me to learn now that it was Meg’s idea to include it.

We replay music we love over and over, and once we’ve moved past the possibility of possession, the repetition has turned it into something different—a little boring, a little tired, but sweet—a shadow of ourselves.


In high school I was cripplingly shy around people who didn’t know me well. I couldn’t look new acquaintances in the eye. Whenever I gave presentations, my notes shook in my hands, which in turn caused my knees to tremble, which in turn prompted me to speak so fast no one could understand me.

All the words are gonna bleed from me and I will sing no more.

Meg White is perhaps as famous for her shyness and her anxiety—her anti-public profile—as she is for her drumming.

Even writing this feels like an intrusion.


In middle school I’d watched what happened when people made themselves public, which is to say, vulnerable. Someone printed out a series of AIM conversations with a girl who divulged a lot of personal information. The conversations were quickly circulated throughout the school, the girl’s social life ruined. Early versions of blogs sprang up, devoted to trashing different students—essentially online smear campaigns. It wasn’t lost on me that girls were mainly the ones in the line of fire.

But my cautiousness also kept me too reserved, too unwilling to share anything about myself. Once when I mentioned one of my favorite albums was Elephant, one of my best friends stared at me and said, “You know that album?” as if it was beyond her recognition that I even had taste in current music. I had no idea how to articulate myself to myself, let alone to other people.

I don’t what do with myself, just don’t know what to do with myself.


Around the time Elephant came out, some friends and I made LiveJournals for fake personas so we could follow the journals of other people at our high school but avoid the vulnerability that came from writing our own. We created entire narratives—fake crushes, fake friends, fake parents. Fake (but very palatable) drama. We masqueraded as these fabricated friends to comment on each other’s posts to more thoroughly build this pretend social circle.

Eventually, the entries turned into a LiveJournal parody, and then, an Internet-diary soap opera. Damien, one of many love interests, was murdered by Jamie’s grandmother’s aunt’s daughter’s cousin’s grandchild/mailman. Jaime writes that Jenna is pregnant, though Jenna refutes this via comment on the accusatory post. The principal is sleeping with someone’s mom.

It did not occur to me then that I could modulate my own identity—and therefore, how others saw me—through writing my own blog, perhaps because I thought “being seen” would allow misinterpretation, which conversely led, in my mind, to a loss of authority over myself. The lines between the interior world of the self and the exterior world of anonymous perception were too confusing, and I didn’t want those spheres to cross-pollinate. So I kept those worlds too definitive—which is to say, limited.


YouTube video, “Meg White – I’m Quiet,” uploaded Feb. 24, 2013

Jack White: “Meg, can you finally tell the whole world, once and for all, that people who think I never let you talk during interviews, can you tell them? . . .”

Meg responds, “I’m quiet.” She’s almost inaudible, and Jack laughs, saying, “She can’t even answer this question!” (Though she did.) Her speech is marked with subtitles. I find this somewhat insulting though it’s true I wouldn’t be able to understand her otherwise.

“So for the record, you mean to say that Jack doesn’t always hog the interviews . . . or talk over you?” Jack refers to himself in third person as if Meg is a child watching Sesame Street, and as Meg attempts to respond, “I will say that for the record, I will say that for the record,” Jack, incredibly, raises his voice over her and continues, “What would you say about this—”  here he touches her on the shoulder in a gesture of I’m talking, stop responding to my question—“people who say Jack won’t ever let Meg talk, what would you say to that?”


“I would say that you have nothing to do with it,” she laughs.


A pause—a stretch of silence—is another kind of beat, of percussion. When used well it can communicate as much as a noise can. (Though of course, the intent of that silence can be dangerous—more open to interpretation than words are.)


Because as a kid I thought I wanted to be a musician, I was in a couple pretend bands growing up. By “pretend,” I mean that these bands had names and I recruited my friends for different roles and we wrote weird songs for fun, but didn’t take it seriously since none of us actually owned the required instruments. In my fourth-grade band, the Sisters, I played drums using chopsticks on an exercise ball. I long now for this sort of play, this sort of performative indulgence in whims, which is no longer as acceptable, or perhaps just no longer enjoyable in the same way.

I always wanted to play the drums—drummers were the loudest members of the band but the least visible. The spine of the band, the glue, the one tucked in back that got the least attention.

The least attention, unless you’re a really fantastic drummer.


John Bonham always appeared to be losing control during his drum solos: in videos of old Led Zeppelin concerts, his jaw seizes open and shut, his head tosses like a flower on a stalk in a storm, his arms flurry over the set. But of course, what he’s really doing is keeping the beat precise, controlling the rhythm.


Many people have criticized Meg’s drumming as “primal,” minimalistic. In response, she’s said: "That is my strength. A lot of drummers would feel weird about being that simplistic."


If Meg White is on one end of the spectrum of public profiles kept by famous musicians, Taylor Swift is on the other.

In a recent piece on Swift’s 1989 World Tour for the New Yorker, Curtis Sittenfeld wrote, “If there was a single millisecond of spontaneity in Taylor Swift’s live performance, I missed it.”

I’m fascinated by female performance, because I feel on some level we’re always performing. And what’s wrong with an absence of spontaneity? I guess I’m uncertain if true spontaneity exists in performance, when often the way we enact it becomes its own kind of choreography.

As a former figure skater, I think about this a lot. Through rehearsal— repetition—complicated steps turn to familiar ones. The challenge is keeping something familiar imbibed with energy. Michelle Kwan did this so well, especially in her highly-choreographed footwork—by the time she performed these sequences in competitions, they were pure rote movement, but the joy she experiences while skating them is so genuine that it almost makes her performance seem improvised. Her intimacy with her choreography allowed her to let some part of herself go.

In high school, spontaneity was valued above all else. Pulling over in a parking lot, throwing the car doors open, and having a dance party. Swimming in a public fountain at three in the morning. Spontaneity has a certain Kerouac-ian charm. If used well, it makes one irresistible. But I’m suspicious of spontaneity. When I think back at the times I have done something spontaneous, it arose out of a desperate boredom, an urge to be spontaneous—spontaneity is so often a curated impulsivity.

Like stars that are only really bright when you look at them askance, an action ceases to be entirely spontaneous once it is named so. Otherwise, it’s just a beautiful moment.

One of the most powerful things a performer can do is give the illusion of spontaneity when they’re actually in control.


“When [Swift] floated above the audience in her high, high heels on that lighted dock, facing a stadium of sixty-eight thousand people,” Sittenfeld writes, “how could she feel anything except either a messiah complex or profound loneliness?”

Many things perplex me about Taylor Swift, but this passage seems misdirected at best. Those are really the only two emotions one could imagine her feeling? What about pride at the image she’s built for herself? Can a woman be powerful and proud without being accused of the highest form of narcissism?

And can she be reserved without being equally shamed?


YouTube video, “Jack White urges Meg to speak louder,” uploaded January 1, 2012

Backstage after a show, Jack sits on a couch wrapping cords back up. Meg says softly from the other room, “Sorry, I wasn’t really on top of my game tonight.”

“‘Sorry,’ WHAT?” Jack asks. She repeats herself, softer this time, as she walks into the room. Jack yells, “Nobody can hear a goddamn thing you say!” He’s smiling, like maybe he’s sort of teasing her, but the whole exchange is cringe-worthy. The clip is from a documentary, and he’s clearly putting on a little act for the cameras.

“She doesn’t say it loud enough, then you ask her to repeat it, then she won’t repeat it,” he says to whoever is filming, throwing his hands up.

“So . . . I can tell there are two cameras here,” Meg says, and it’s unclear whether she means she doesn’t have to repeat herself because the cameras will have picked it up, or if she doesn’t want to repeat herself because she feels vulnerable with cameras around.

“When there’s cameras on you and someone asks you to repeat it, you even MORE SO should repeat it,” says Jack.

There’s no home for you here, girl, go away. There’s no home for you here.


Like Meg, I’m usually not a loud talker, largely because I don’t want to be overheard by someone for whom the conversation isn’t meant—I feel like it trivializes it.

It’s true there is a joy in learning how to be loud, how to share yourself with others, to accept misinterpretation—of course, all of this makes you stronger because you learn how you can see yourself despite how other people see you. This is what I’d tell my shadow, that fifteen-year-old girl walking to school, wearing out the White Stripes on her yellow Discman. But of course there’s a joy, too, less acknowledged, in keeping yourself for yourself, in removing intention or obligation to perform your self for other people.

I’m glad that I listened to Elephant so much. I’m glad my body so thoroughly absorbed Meg’s drumbeats. For such a quiet person she was so loud, so fierce and steady. Steady, which can also mean: confident. Reliable. There is power in that. This is why I loved figure skating, too: it allowed my body to be loud. It was another way of talking.

Just now I curled my hand under my jaw, and my pulse announced itself against my knuckles. Oh, I thought, no wonder I love the drums.


But there’s this image that endures. The cover of Elephant features Meg wearing a white dress, facing away from Jack, who looks in the other direction up and off to the distance, like some Meriwether Lewis figure dreaming of westward expansion and the power that comes with it. Meg has her hand to brow, as if she’s crying. A length of rope tied to her ankle.

—Lena Moses-Schmitt