On September 21, 1998, Jack Gillis and Meg White were married in Detroit. There are few details around the wedding, if there even was one, and the only tangible proof of the union is a marriage certificate that was unearthed shortly after the release of their breakthrough album White Blood Cells. Up to that point, Jack and Meg had publicly claimed to have been siblings.
If this were the only facet to the story, then it would be overwhelmingly, off-puttingly strange and would almost certainly overshadow whatever music the duo had been making up to this point. But because The White Stripes were making some of the most exciting and vital music of the 21st century, and because other obsessions like a strict red-white-black colour scheme and a preoccupation with the number three also came to the fore, it was simply lumped together and accepted as part of the band’s “eccentricity”.
With over two decades of hindsight and a full decade of space since the band broke up, it’s still hard to point to why such an elaborate ruse was necessary. According to Jack, it was to focus on the music. To him, the image of a husband and wife, even a divorced husband and wife, making music together portrayed something contrived and obvious. With a brother and sister group, much like The Carpenters before them, Jack and Meg could subvert any inherent stigma that would be levelled against them.
And yet, the duo’s concealed marriage takes a large amount of attention away from the music and specifically forces you to focus on what kinds of people are putting together these elaborate lies in order to trick the public. Here are some things we know: Jack and Meg were married, then they divorced in 2000. It was Meg who insisted that the band continue. They decided before their divorce to portray themselves as siblings and even created an origin story for themselves to add legitimacy.
The rest has to be culled mainly from Jack’s public comments in the subsequent years following their dissolution. According to Jack, Meg held on to most of the power within the group. That might seem contrary to reality, where Jack wrote the band’s songs, produced their records, sang the vast majority of their songs, and did most of the talking during interviews. Despite this, if Meg wasn’t excited about a project, or was feeling reservations about something, it had a significant effect – perhaps the most prominent example being Meg’s struggle with acute anxiety that led to the cancellation of their final tour.
Despite her reserved nature, Meg’s actions, or lack thereof, held just as much sway within the delicate balance of The White Stripes as Jack’s did. Jack could write all the songs, book as many shows, and make as many plans as he wanted, but if Meg wasn’t on board, they wouldn’t happen. Perhaps if they were viewed as a couple, specifically a divorced couple, some of these actions could seem antagonistic. Maybe if they just continued insisting they were siblings, it would at least act as a smokescreen for people to not dig too far deep into the true dynamics between the two.
Every time you saw them slow dance at the end of a concert, or share a microphone during a show, or look pissed at each other while playing ‘Blue Orchid’ during their From the Basement session, or bristle at the exact nature of their relationship during an interview, you couldn’t help but wonder what exactly the relationship between Jack and Meg White was. The truth was that the two had a specific chemistry together that produced something that neither could accomplish – or thoroughly explain – on their own. Whatever way they could preserve that energy and not internally combust along the way was necessary because neither wanted to lose that special thing. Whatever way they could save that relationship, they were going to do it.
Of course, in the end, they couldn’t sustain it. Maybe they knew that all along. It took a decade, but Jack finally found the confidence to strike out on his own. It took some detours with bands like The Dead Weather and The Raconteurs (some critical acclaim and commercial success didn’t hurt either), but eventually, Jack reached a crossroads where his and Meg’s relationship had reached an endpoint. She was reticent to do much of anything, even if it involved the one thing they both cared about most, The White Stripes. She was struggling, he was struggling, and the relationship that was so bizarre and strange to the rest of the world had finally reached a point where not even the two involved could figure it out anymore. So they called it quits.
According to Jack, Meg’s solidarity means that they rarely speak to each other anymore. If nothing else, the atypical nature of Jack and Meg White’s relationship illustrates the inherent oddness of the human condition. If put in a similar situation, where the chemistry and music you produce with someone is so powerful that you’ll say or do anything to preserve it, who’s to say you wouldn’t do something just as peculiar? If saying they were siblings, even as the entire world knew they weren’t, allowed them to make as much music as they did and survive as long as they did, then who’s to say it wasn’t worth it? It’s forever part of The White Stripes story, but in the end, the story rarely gets mentioned before ‘Seven Nation Army’ or ‘Fell In Love With a Girl’ or ‘We’re Going to Be Friends’. It really does always come back to the music.