Contradiction is such a pillar of who Jack White is as a performer that it feels delicate to claim any of his thousand discrepancies “mean something”. If you’re so inclined—if you really like ambitious bluesy garage rock and don’t exhaust easily—it’s fascinating to consider. There’s that mythological-meets-barebones, Detroit-born-country-gentleman thing of his. And how he can put on a show that rivals ’80s glam in theatrics but in a way that relies on stripped instrumentation, facial contortions, grease, sweat, and primary colors.
Some of it can be reasoned out easily. The only thing it “means” that he could make a two-person band sound like a brawl or parade is that he mastered the use of the whammy pedal to thicken up the sound of a single guitar, even live. Other parts of the search for meaning in his music tap into such abstract territory that you reach meaninglessness from the other side. The lo-fi production feel of some of his early stuff, when contrasted to his literary, psychologically deep-diving, theological themes, floods the music with the paralytic peace of opposites canceling each other out yet also kinda not–and it just works. Or maybe that’s subjective jibber-jabber? I don’t know.
What is worth talking about in a career’s worth of contradictions across his myths and his music is that White, who looks exactly like whatever the hell we mean when we say all guy, was the engine behind the White Stripes’ “I’m Slowly Turning Into You”—which amounts to a man saying to a woman he is quite literally losing himself in her.
While at first he felt meh about it, the pluses have dawned on him—and appear in other songs like it. Songs that give us some of the most memorable music focus on a form of love-as-torture we typically hear about that are bound in the narratives of female protagonists, tragic romantic heroines. Because despite the vast individual-specific qualities that have been manifesting to sideline, overwhelm, combine unexpectedly with, stretch, extinguish, multiply, and most of all challenge gender roles for years now, you still primarily hear about violability—and with it the sense of needing to protect one’s core from one’s lover—being a woman’s cross to bear in romance.
In Garry Marshall’s 1999 film, Runaway Bride, Maggie had to eat eggs every way they could be prepared to isolate her taste buds from her resentful accommodation of however her man liked his eggs prepared. Years later, on Daniels and Schur’s sitcom Parks & Recreation (2009-2015), noble land mermaid Ann went through a spell of ordering a meal she would typically like and one she would normally never try so as to break her becoming-her-guy cycle. With Penny from Caspe’s sitcom Happy Endings (2011-2020), her accomodation was more about dressing in a way that complemented her fella nearly to the point of matching. Whether she corrected course or just realized she behaved this way is less the point than the fact that Happy Endings was way better than Crane and Kauffman’s Friends (1994-2004) and you should watch it.
Actually, the point is that in gender-typical storytelling, freedom in love, for a woman, is often freedom from becoming the man she loves. From the difficulty of holding on to her interests, opinions, and assessment of herself in the face of his. From the people-pleasing, self-deprecating psychological submission that a “perfect girlfriend” maketh.
Why this might tend to occur probably touches on things like the viscid convention of a heterosexual woman’s Big Day being the day she becomes Mrs. His Name, and the fact that female forms are associated with literally hosting–via sex and childbirth–other human beings. But the biggest part of it seems to be something Martha C. Nussbaum identified back in 1995: that one notable feature of objectification—something women historically have been and still are much more subject to—is violability, or “the treatment of a person as lacking in boundary-integrity.” Just as we internalize nearly any principle whose transgression will potentially result in cultural worthlessness, women have become adept at internalizing violability in order to survive.
This makes crises of how to keep external things external and vice versa–and generally speaking, securing the perimeter–no less natural than the struggle to disassociate your worth from your wallet in a capitalist society. But you try explaining that to your man.
I kid, don’t. Leslie Jones already has, to perfection, calling women’s capacity to take men inside them, and not just physically, “gangster”.
To look at what it means that Jack White is able to effectively perform the battle hymn of the violable, let’s consider the music video for “Lazaretto”.
There may not be snails and puppy dog tails to accompany the video’s snake, but there’s another succession of symbols that establishes the same thing: baseballs, bullet holes, broken glass, and literally a goddamn bull, for instance. These are elements that make, especially in black and white and aggressively interacted with, natural props for a total guy, who digs ditches like the best of ’em.
But he sells a perception of God as female in the same video where guyness bleeds from his every grayscale pore (“Even God herself has fewer plans than me”), just like he sells the so-called feminine desire to be pursued, openly thank you, in “Would You Fight for My Love?”
He sells the heart behind lyrics (“Like a summer rose / Needs the sun and rain / I need your sweet love / To feel all the way”) whose gooey candor could have gone so very wrong in the White Stripes’ cover of Dusty Springfield’s “I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself”. The main difference in their performances, by the way, being that Springfield plays it composed—as though she has emotionally deloused her pain into something dignified—and White lets the hysterics soar.
But never has he sold violability like he does in “I’m Slowly Turning Into You”, which credits him as sole songwriter and whose success as a live performance depended heavily on his mellow veering between keys, guitar, and electrically deranged vocals. The onus of it “meaning something” was on him exclusively, and he spun a memoir—detailing and following logical stages of progression—of a man you can’t call crazy ’cause when you call him crazy, you’re just calling him in love.
Here is the story the song’s narrator tells:
I can’t help adopting your self as mine but “you say I’m lying and I never really tell you the truth” because YOU DON’T GET IT DO YOU YOU NIGHTMARE CAPTOR DEVIL WOMAN?
But you love and need me too, because “your face is getting older, so put your head on my shoulder” and come off your high horse. Don’t take it as a sign of your superiority, or even a compliment, that I used to be all me and now increasingly I’m you. You’re not so perfect. All those little things of yours I’ve adopted are “annoying as hell in fact”. It’s unfair that they’re overtaking me and I hate it, hate you, hate being you because I can’t be you and keep my “shell intact” at the same time.
But I had a revelation that “made everything clearer”, made me feel more in control: maybe it’s not all bad, this dynamic of ours, your wants and habits floating into my control center like serotonin dots shimmying into a neuron in an antidepressant commercial.
Sometimes I forget I love you for reasons. But “you’re more beautiful, compelling and stronger”. Maybe if you’re a good person to be, that should be the focus instead of how open-door my once-secure self has become, how petrified by years and weather.
I don’t know how to in-between this me and you thing, but I swear to God herself, I do love you. So “it might sound a little strange for me to” own my subjugation to preserve some delusion of autonomy here, but “I’m proud to be you”.
It’s not a story with a hard center line on one side of which men forever fall and on the other side, women. It’s the story of having had your shell stepped on by the jackboot of something to the effect that now, love is war.
But back to whatever that “means”. What is it worth to be able to accurately get across the pain, thrill, and call-to-arms that come with being—no matter how confident, even dominant, you are in other areas of life—helplessly, spongy in love? Shouldn’t the only real takeaway from violability in art be a catalyst to, for real, dismantle objectification outside the bedroom? Quit acting like modern super-online feminism is its own legit little universe where it’s fine that the curve is set at looking glass-skinned at 20, and when you’re 50 in #nomakeup with #nofilter all thanks to #oliveoilandoptimism?
Should women get the fuck on with smashing the stupidity that, still—just like Nicki Minaj told us–being female means you “have to be dope at what you do, but you have to be super sweet, and you have to be sexy, and you have to be this and you have to be that and you have to be nice, and you have to—it’s like, I can’t be all of those things at once”?
While we’re at it, should we quit propping up the custom by which anyone skilled, ambitious, and fortunate enough to rise to prominence is socially contracted into such vicious predations of celebrity that mythologizing themselves gives the vultures something to circle? So maybe then, the real deal can just fucking make music?
Should we do such things especially now that politics has jumped its fence and feels everywhere all the time, such that the higher meaning of art that symptomizes some ill with a discernible cause probably is an impetus to another, stronger round of progressive riddance? I don’t know. I don’t listen to Jack White to set toppled things right. I listen to him for that paralytic peace I feel when things that look like opposites beautifully collide.
Papadaki, Evangelia (Lina), “Feminist Perspectives on Objectification”. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edward N. Zalta (ed.). Spring 2021 edition.
Still, Jennifer. “Nicki Minaj’s Words Can Inspire Anyone”. Bustle. 8 October 2015.