I Never Said I Wanted to Be a Man: The Jack White Navigates His Masculinity, Publicly, Project
A White Stripes Gender Studies Primer, 1999-2004
My growing up was a Jack White growing up at least as much as it was a pop-punk growing up. Where Screeching Weasel songs taught me (and reinforced over and over again) how I was supposed to look and act as a Girl Punk, it was Jack White’s parabolic posturing that stretched those threads of socialization until they tore open. Until I could see could see all its stuffing. I don’t want to make Mr. Gillis out to be any more of an omniscient prophet/pedagogue than he would already give himself credit for, but I will say that a poor little punk girl, Biggest White Stripes Fan of the Midwest 2001-2004, learned a whole lot of things about gender from the White Stripes. And I will also say that when we look at these broken seams of gender construction in White Stripes songs, I’m not sure that we’re looking at the calculated mythos we’re used to talking about when we talk about Jack White. Instead, I think we’re looking at his tool marks in the process of constructing that mythos.
I would argue that Jack White used blues standards and early country tracks much in the same way that Emily and I are using Billie Joe Armstrong and Ben Weasel tracks when we cover them to play at co-op bro parties. He sought to re-contextualize and reconcile those pieces that formed his concept of music and of himself, and mostly his conception of masculinity. The White Stripes project, maybe more than anything else, was the Jack White Explores What It Means to Be a Man project.
Jack White loved and covered blues tracks in which violence—toward women especially—was neither glorified nor condemned. It was just part of masculinity. The Robert Johnson/McTell tradition is strong in so much of Jack’s songwriting, tracks like “Broken Bricks” are ultimately just re-envisioned Blind Willie fables set in a post-big-three Detroit. But while Jack White was covering “Your Southern Can is Mine” (look here woman, don’t get hard, gettin’ me a brick out of my back yard) and beating Jason Stollsteimer’s face in (according to one of my friends who was there, the fight was over Marcie, but that’s irrelevant except in perpetuating the Jack White Violent Chivalry Myth as witnessed in “Hand Springs”), he was also dropping weakly moralizing reflections on City Violence and Who Will Think of the Kids, like in “Candy Cane Children.”
What I mean is that Jack White’s masculinities of violence in those first three years were less a segment of his design and more an artifact of his process. The man who was playing marriage-tease Marlene and divorcée-libéré Loretta and housewife-besieged Dolly without a hetero-flinch, was a year or two later back in the Robert Johnson woman-beating role. (Compare the sexualized brutality of Johnson’s “Stop Breakin’ Down,” the stuff I got’ll bust your brains out to “Ball and Biscuit’s” my strength is ten-fold, girl, I’ll let you see it if you want to before you go.) The juxtaposition of these venerated Delta-masculinities and auto-masculinities—especially in conjunction with the ambiguous sexualities and characterizations of girls and women—are a kind of a sneaking peak at this man’s process. It’s a testament to his own attempt to figure it out.
Jack’s assumption of women’s voices was sometimes an assertive act, I’m sure. For him to airily sing about envying other men, or being desired by other men, or even the proposition in “Pretty Good Looking” that boy-girl attraction isn’t necessarily the only attraction, was an act that allowed him to extend his sexual mystique (and the conversation about his relationship with Meg) in a way that reinforced his control and his comfort with his masculinity.
“Jolene” is such a compelling conversation between masculinities and femininities, in some ways an infinite subversion of subversions of the gaze. It’s a song about women tearing each other apart, even though the pivot point is, obviously, a man. When Jack re-inserts that male voice, it’s both appropriative and reflective. But for pre-teen me, a mostly-straight rock star man singing about his man, and that “us women don’t have a chance,” was, like, a huge deal. To even bring up the question. To expand the terms.
You cannot discuss Jack White’s mythologies without discussing Jack White’s furtive/fervent Catholicism—he who allegedly kissed the ground every year on the last day of school like the pope himself, he who almost went to seminary. (The latter, at least, is only part of his own mythology—we have no reason not to believe him when he claims that he turned down the seminary for a new amp, but I think the fact that White recounts its as important to his origin story is relevant enough). There is no Jack White masculinity without folkloric, catholic and superstitious conceptions of gender. In “Red Death at 6:14”:
Was that her dad with the magic marker writing little angel on her head?
She must be dead if the only sound I hear are the devils by her bed.
Jack’s Catholic-cum-Welles Motor City mythologies reinforce his masculinities. In “Ball and Biscuit,” maybe most notably, he uses his own power/piety to squelch a worldly feminine sexuality: it’s quite possible that I’m your third man, but it’s a fact that I’m the seventh son. “The Union Forever,” an entry in the “Jack White States Pretty Clearly What a Man Is” canon, he draws from Citizen Kane. Remember, Orson Welles himself was raised Catholic—a tradition of overwrought, superstitious, patterned symbolism to which both men belong.
In “Broken Bricks,” just like in “The Big Three Killed My Baby,” the ruins of the auto-industry become the site for reflecting on the roots of Detroit manliness as well as a site for transformative spiritualities (the potential connotations of the auto-trinity were never lost on Jack White). “Broken Bricks,” in my view, is almost a magnum opus of synthesized understandings of gender: it’s basically a story about a girl’s exploration of a soon-to-be-demolished plant and how she uncovers the histories of the men in her life through interacting with the remnants of their material realities. And, not surprisingly, what she discovers is violence and working-class men’s quotidians. In some ways, placing the girl in the site of experience is another form of Jack White’s play with gendered subjectivity, but it’s also a reinforcement of the almost-religious, embodied-domestic means that gender is learned and understood in Jack White’s world.
In “The Air Near My Fingers,” “A Boy’s Best Friend,” and “I’m Finding It Harder to Be a Gentleman,” he more explicitly tears into what it means to be a man, but the site for these explorations is the maternal and domestic. Both of the former discuss how Jack’s understanding of himself as a man are rooted in a love of/learning from his mother. In “Air,” all that day-to-day gendering is laid bare:
Don’t you remember?
You told me in December that a boy is not a man until he makes a stand.
Well, I’m not a genius but maybe you’ll remember this,
I never said I wanted to be a man.
Again, in “I’m Finding It Harder,” we watch him learn and negotiate his masculinity, looking for it in his socialization (presumably all those manners that he’d been taught came to him from his mother), and finding it in a stoic paternalism which he learned from his father:
Well I never said I wouldn’t throw my jacket in the mud for you
But my father gave it to me so maybe I should carry you.
I decided to stop at 2004 for two reasons. The first is that I pretty much have a fully accessible brain-encyclopedia of absolutely everything there is to know about the White Stripes through approximately 2004. After Elephant is where I fizzled out as a fan, but I’m sure that this conversation could be continued on the last two albums. Second, though, I might argue that after Elephant, even as the stylized, tight grip on White Stripes Mythology loosened, the complexity of the Jack White mythos expanded a lot. On those last two albums I think there is a much heavier awareness of the Jack White myth but at the same time there is a much wider and more complex application of it, and it is much more difficult to discuss his works in such easy categories.
In the end, this mix covers a lot of themes: violent masculinities, dead and dying girls, ambiguous sexualities, working-class paternalism, possession, the maternal mark, Jack Sings Songs About Women’s Sexualities, Jack Covers Blues Standards About Beating People Up, Jack Covers Blues Standards About Beating Women Up, Jack Models That Behavior, Jack Tells Us What It Means and Doesn’t Mean to Be A Man. I could easily also make a companion mix called _______ Killed My Baby: the Jack White Sings Songs About Dead and Dying Girls Project or Every Single Girl Needs Help Climbing Up Her Tree: The Jack White Saves Ladies, Because Ladies Need a Lot of Things, or Sometimes He Doesn’t Save Them and They Die Project, or the Nobody Knows How to Talk to Children About Gun Violence and Sexual Maturation Except Jack White Project. But this is a good start, no?
Pt. I, Angels/Sex/Girls/Dead
- “Red Death at 6:14”
(Sympathetic Sounds of Detroit, 2001)
- “Rated X”
(Loretta Lynn cover, live at the Hotel Yorba, from the Hotel Yorba single, 2001)
- “You’ve Got Her In Your Pocket”
- “Look Me Over Closely”
(Marlene Dietrich cover, b-side to “Let’s Shake Hands,” 2001)
(Dolly Parton cover, b-side to “Hello Operator, 2000)
- “You’re Pretty Good Looking (For a Girl)”
(De Stijl, 2000)
- “Lord, Send Me an Angel”
(Blind Willie McTell cover, 2000)
(White Blood Cells, 2001)
Pt. 2, A Man/A Certain Man/You’ll Feel My Hand
- “I’m Finding It Harder to Be a Gentleman”
(White Blood Cells, 2001)
- “Hand Springs”
(originally a 1999 split with the Dirtbombs, then released on the Japanese release of White Blood Cells in 2001)
- “The Air Near My Fingers”
- “The Union Forever”
(White Blood Cells, 2001)
- “Stop Breaking Down”
(Robert Johnson cover, The White Stripes, 1999)
- “A Boy’s Best Friend”
(De Stijl, 2000)
- “Broken Bricks”
(The White Stripes, 1999)
- “Your Southern Can Is Mine”
(Blind Willie McTell cover, De Stijl, 2000)
- “Ball & Biscuit”
I know, I know, tl;dr. Fine:
[Download it here]