One day, not so very long ago, I went over to a boy’s house to make out, and I brought along my copy of White Blood Cells. He thought the White Stripes were boring and I had to force him to put the record on. It was business as usual for three tracks, until we got to ‘Fell in Love with a Girl’. I rolled onto my back and, ignoring the boy next to me, I let myself get worked over by the most perfect pop song I had maybe ever heard. When it was over – that final thrust, that final chord – I caught my makeout partner with all the signs, the same condition that I knew he could see on me: mouth agape, eyes bleary, limbs limp. “I must be fine ‘cus my heart’s still beating…”
I watched them every night they played the Conan O’Brian show. I saw it with my own eyes, yet it felt like a vision. I saw that sweet little girl beating the hell out of her drum kit, like a convict attacking his last bucket of chicken. I saw that ghostly white man-child ripping his guitar to shreds like his life depended on it. And I saw the way they looked at each other. Like he was silently controlling her every move. Like she was defenceless, but like she liked it. I saw what was going on up there. I’m ready to testify. I don’t like to mix my metaphors this much, going back and forth between religion and fucking, but The White Stripes sort of demand it.
They were married, you know. They’re not really brother and sister. As Trevor Lord of the BBC put it, “splitting up has never sounded so good”, and dear god, has any divorce ever looked so sexually active? The TV close-ups betrayed what the live show could never reveal: the ex-Mr. And Mrs. White in a mind-meld, inventing a whole new kind of sex up there on the TV stage. When the lumbering Conan would go out to shake their hands, the Whites seemed a bit embarrassed, like kids caught making out in the basement when they were supposed to be studying chemistry.
The White Stripes make music like the way I thought sex would be like, at 13, when I had only made out, and when making out was simply enough. Maybe that’s sort of it. I think making out, as part of the ironic/nostalgic hipster lifestyle template, has had a popular resurgence of late- it’s almost like the kids aren’t even having sex anymore because it’s, like, too much, it’s like, trying too hard. It seems that the only cardinal sin in all the hipster world is intentionality, and hey, like, why can’t it just be like junior high, when, like, making out was on its own like totally transgressive and there weren’t like, expectations or whatever? Jack White continually makes the best make-out records of our era because he’s continually locked in all kinds of adolescent battle. Everything about this 28 year-old man suggests that he’s still trying to figure out how his dick works and what kind of responsibility it beckons. Same boy you’ve always known – well I guess I haven’t grown… I guess not. At least he’s conscious of it.
They were working the brother and sister act from the beginning – and as late as the first full length record, they’re still married – but it gets progressively regressive, just as it gets slicker, more cohesive. It devolves from a vicious hoax to sweaty teenage fantasy. It’s all there on White Blood Cells. now, now, Now, NOW, NOW, Meg and Jack lazily chant at the end of the album, and it sounds like a couple of kids forced by the ‘rents to sing ‘round the piano for company. It’s palpable: the wink, tossed off from Meg to Jack, the signal that they can go sneak up to her room when this is all over. And this all has to be part of the appeal, don’t you think? How sexy is incest? I guess I don’t know, and that’s why it turns me on. That’s why it seems so hot to ask your wife to pretend to be your sister, to sing these trauma songs that dissect your relationship and be able to shrug it off, with a wink and put-opon back-woods drawl, “we’s just kinfolk.” To playfully cover a dirty blues song like “Your Southern Can is Mine,” to have her bang her tambourine to lyrics like,
“Now baby, ashes to ashes, sand to sand
When I hit you momma then you’ll feel my hand
Give you a punch through that barbed wire fence …
Well if I catch you momma down in the heart of town,
I’m gonna grab me a brick and tear your can on down,
your southern can belongs to me.”
How many rock bands reference sexual taboo – even sexual violence – in such a palatable, literally candy-coated manner? Say what you will about the matching outfits, but The White Stripes have a subtlety of design that lets them get away with stuff that a freakshow diva like Marilyn Manson could only dream of. And I never had fantasies about Marilyn Manson, but Jesus Christ, those White kids …
I put on Elephant when I want to man eat. As in, behave like a man eater. I put it on while I decide what to wear. I put it on and have a drink and get ready to go out and put myself in this world where I have license to behave extremely badly. And my mind starts to race … I want Jack to buy me a scotch, like we both know what that means, like we both know what is going to happen. Like he’s gonna take me down to the basement of his parents’ house. Like he’s gonna flick on a lamp that just barely casts a spot of light on a twin bed with a crotched white cover. Like he’s gonna push me down on the bed, and from underneath him I’ll look up and I’ll just barely spot out Meg, curled up in the corner, in a white eyelet-trimmed cotton nightie, hands over her eyes and yes, she’s peeking from the space between her fingers, catching my eye from beneath her brother. Husband. Brother. Definitely brother.
I sit and I drink my scotch and I play this out in my head, just to get it out of my system. The record gets me out of the house, at least, but at the same time the fantasy spoils my oft-compromised reality. There are times when my sexual escapades are like living inside a White Stripes song, but these are the best of times, and I get spoilt by this record for the rest of times. I have to keep reminding myself that living inside an ELO song is maybe good enough.
So what happened to their marriage? I lie awake at night trying to figure it out. Why would he leave her – I mean, look at her. And what could he have done to make her go away? Who do you think you’re messing with, girl? Who do you think you’re trying to fool? God, it was her! I thought you made up your mind. She found herself another man. “You think I care about me and only me – well you know it don’t take much to satisfy me”. There was only one way to send Jack White out the door, and it looks like Meg’s done gone and done it. But you know, maybe Jack just didn’t want try so hard, or whatever. Maybe being in a band with your wife was just like, too much. Maybe he had an inkling they weren’t going to stay married for long. From their first, pre-divorce record: “Is this really love? Is she the one I love?” Ouch.
Jack White is just a junior-high tease – but watch out, because adolescent sexuality rules the world, and Jack and Meg know how to use it.