- From the White Stripes concert doc Under Great White Northern Lights.
I was 15, and James* was the first boy I kissed more than twice with tongues. After the first soft-eyed, fidgety makeout session, we wasted no time in catapulting ourselves into the heady rush of a summer relationship. It actually only lasted two weeks, but those weeks would change me forever. James got me into the White Stripes.
Earlier this week, The Atlantic’s Jessica Misener highlighted an important and under-recognized aspect of Jack White’s music over the years—his control issues with women. Certainly, Misener had a large catalog of Jack White weirdness to reference—all the anecdotes of Jack White’s black magical, transformative effects on the women around him point to someone with a bit of an ego problem. No contesting that. However, Misener’s argument that Blunderbuss serves as an exercise in vitriol towards women is a severely shortsighted one. As I see it, Blunderbuss is a moment of self-recognition and reckoning. If there’s bitterness, it’s also directed inwards at Jack White’s own efforts to control them.
Allow me to briefly return to that summer of tongues. James and I were in his room watching a White Stripes concert DVD. He had taken to calling me “Apple Blossom” after the song, which at first I had found ill-fitting and annoying (my 15-year-old self exclusively wore cargo pants and ardently scrawled Nirvana lyrics on the bedroom wall), but I gradually learned to accept this as his way of expressing affection. Then, the event that would signal the beginning of the end of our relationship occurred. We were making out, and James grabbed my tongue between his teeth and bit down, hard. It lasted too long and didn’t feel good. “Why thdid you thdo that?!” I shouted, my hands covering my mouth and catching the pooling saliva. “I felt like it,” he said.
In some ways, Jack White has consistently surrounded himself with women issued by his own artistic will: Meg, who White sculpted into one mute half of his vision of a band that she later had to quit because of overwhelming anxiety; The Kills’ Allison Mosshart, the anti-Meg personality with the sorta-Meg looks; Karen Elson, who, somewhere in the midst of her modeling career became a bluesy country singer; and the ill-fated, kitschy apex of his strange obsession with southern Gothic pale chicks—the Black Belles, Jack White’s personal set of Spice Girls. Just like his aesthetic, Misener is not far off when she points out that White’s controlling lyricism “takes the traditional trajectory of wanting women to be quiet and submissive.”
But I don’t quite buy it. Perhaps Jack White’s influence on my own formative adolescent experience means that I desperately don’t want to see him cast as a woman-hater. Still, to reduce Jack White’s solo album to a culmination of immature, externalized blame at assertive women would also ignore Jack White as one of indie rock’s great and complex lovers. Who could forget that one hushed and sacred moment in “Dead Leaves And The Dirty Ground” when White sings, “Soft hair and a velvet tongue/I wanna give you what you gave to me/And every breath that is in your lungs is a tiny little gift to me.” White hasn’t only been the controller either. He’s been desperate to fix what’s wrong, but also confused as to what could be right. In “Forever For Her” off of Elephant, White sings that he “blew it,” but doesn’t know what else to do other than offer both his love and the prospect of change as a saving grace. “Just tug at my shirt and lay down next to me, “ he finishes. In “My Doorbell,” White takes the submissive position to wait for a “girl” to ring. It can come across as petulant at times, but White ultimately just wants to “make [her] feel at home, right at home.”
In fact, striving for a sense of home with someone else seems to be the most powerful lyrical theme throughout the Stripes’ albums, even moreso than control. But both are hopelessly intertwined: Like an overzealous interior designer who actually ends up disappointing the homeowner with his obsessive, desperate need to fulfill a vision, Blunderbuss may very well be Jack White expressing frustration with his own counter-productive actions. There’s a lot of vitriol directed at someone in heels, sure, but Blunderbuss also underlines White’s own sense of failure. On “I Guess I Should Go To Sleep,” White sings, “I guess I should go to sleep/To start standin’ on my own two feet/Been walkin’ too long on a dead end street.” White also acknowledges his blame in “Take Me With You When You Go,” when he writes, “And my hands could be robbin’ /without any knowledge/I know that helpin’ yourself /could be hurtin’ or harmin’ someone.” Blunderbuss may begin with anger, but it ends in White’s “head under a blanket of shame,” (“On and on and on”). While Blunderbuss may first appear like a simple lashing out at the woman who wronged him, it’s also the beginning of Jack White’s self-analysis. He doesn’t spare himself chastisement, or perhaps overdue biting down—hard—on his own tongue.
*False names will be used to protect the identities of anyone I’ve ever dated.