On the 20th anniversary of The White Stripes’ ground-shaking album Elephant and their inclusion in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame nomination longlist, Elle Magazine journalist Melissa Gianni reflects on the legacy and disappearance of the band’s enigmatic drummer Meg White.
In the years since the White Stripes announced their dissolution in 2011, curiosity over Meg’s disappearance has reached the status of one of rock’s most enduring mysteries. Elle Magazine was granted the privilege of a rare interview with White. During the White Stripes’ heyday, it was taken for granted that Meg was more a gimmick than a creative contributor to the band. With her simplistic playing, the girl drummer was a visual signifier of their quirkiness, much like the band’s peppermint drop candy color palette. Even those who recognized the inherent misogyny in such an assumption still took it for granted that she wasn’t a skilled musician.
When the White Stripes disbanded, all eyes were on her bandmate, the polymathic Jack White, and what his next move would be. Curiosity about Meg was a slow burn that gained momentum over the ensuing decade. With it, a reassessment of her abilities and contributions to the band also gained momentum.
But Meg White was always famously introverted and rarely spoke in interviews. Of course, a silent woman next to a man who does all the talking inevitably leads to the reasonable assumption that she’s being silenced, either being subjugated or being talked over. Under Great White Northern Lights, The 2009 documentary film that chronicled the band’s Canadian tour showed evidence both for and against this assumption. “What can I say? I’m quiet,” she says when asked to clear the matter up… “I’d say it’s got nothing to do with [Jack White].” But then there are moments where Jack becomes visibly angry at her over her introversion.
Meg White has lived a life of anonymity.
As we’ve come around to appreciating her role in the band more, her absence from public life has grown more conspicuous. The beginning of the end for The White Stripes was when they canceled a North American tour due to Meg’s anxiety. As the writer of the Elle piece points out, it’s now common and accepted for famous people to step away from the spotlight for their mental health, but in 2007 it was unheard of.
But there’s a tradeoff for that better understanding and acceptance of mental health. When a celebrity prioritizes their mental health, the unspoken expectation is that we’ll respect their privacy and journey to recovery only if that journey conforms to a certain narrative. We want to see a full recovery, followed soon afterward by an inspiring comeback, a tell-all memoir, or an album of songs inspired by their struggle.
By that arithmetic, Meg White owes us at least a decade of interviews and social media posts about how it’s okay not to be okay. But her last public appearance was with The White Stripes on Late Night With Conan O’Brien in 2009. She’s not on social media and does not grant interviews. She understands that she owes us nothing.
In much the same way that her right to self-care is contingent on maintaining a public presence, there’s also an unspoken expectation that reassessing her abilities should accompany her publicly defending herself. She does not owe us this either. She proved herself by being one-half of the 21st century’s greatest rock band; if we weren’t listening then that’s on us.
She may not be speaking publicly about her mental health journey, but I find what we do know to be an inspiring story. The pressure placed on her to answer all our questions and to keep making music must be immense. She’s the ultimate example of radical self-care. …With an emphasis on ‘radical,’ resisting the expectations placed on her is just so punk.
Where this Elle article rises above all the other ‘where is Meg’ pieces written over the last decade is that it addresses some of our less invasive curiosity. Gianni interviewed The White Stripes in 2001, and through that connection, she got closer to Meg than you’d expect. Her request for an interview was delivered to Meg, and Meg declined with a personal message (delivered second-hand, of course). Gianni also reports that Meg has been seen at Jack White shows over the years, and is open to chats with fans about pets and John Bonham. She’s not a shut-in, she’s just living her best life.