Jack White’s Non-Beef With Lady Gaga, and the Pitfalls of Music Journalism

Here’s a tiny bit of inside baseball for the discerning reader who wants to know how your blog magic gets made. It usually involves trawling through dozens of websites, emails, and tweets at a time, trying to parse the internet’s daily load and figure out which stories are worth riffing on. Sometimes, this has to be done with a traffic goal in mind, so that said bloggers can’t be totally self-indulgent about their tastes. (Which is why you haven’t seen me writing more posts like “My Favorite Things About That One Issue of X-Men I read When I was 7, or Maybe 12.”) Then, a writer will look for the most dynamic bit of information from any larger story, and harvest it into its own piece so that the likes and reblogs might roll in, thus kicking in a bonus and enabling one to pay the rent.

Something like that sort of happened on the internet today, as it always does. Jack White, who you know from The White Stripes and everything else, was widely reported by everyone and their editor to have “dissed” Lady Gaga’s image, telling Esquire, “I don’t think she [Lady Gaga] lives it because it’s all artifice. It’s all image with no meaning behind it. You can’t sink your teeth into it. It’s a sound bite. It’s very of this age, because that’s what people want.” There wasn’t any context for the quote, what it was following in the flow of the interview or what it was answering; it was offered as a preview of the total interview, as is common for magazines to do when they want to hype up an upcoming article.

Now, you can guess the ensuing headlines: “Jack White Disses Lady Gaga” ;  “Jack White Slams Lady Gaga” (twice, actually); “Jack White blasts Lady Gaga” ; “Jack White Lashes Out at Lady Gaga” and so forth, all of which recycled the original quote without offering much context (because there wasn’t any) or analysis (because there wasn’t any to offer). A few hours later, White then took to his label’s website to issue a clarifying statement:

I’d like to address the recent tabloidesque drama baiting by the press in regards to Lady Gaga. I never said anything about her music, or questioned the authenticity of her songs in any way. I was in a conversation about the drawbacks of image for the sake of image, and that it is popular nowadays to not question an image in front of you, but only to label it as “cool” or “weird” quickly and dispose of it. I don’t like my comments about lady gaga’s presentation being changed into some sort of negative critique of her music. If you’re going to try to cause drama, at least get the quotes right. I think journalists should also be held accountable for what they say. Especially publications like the NME who put whatever words they feel like between two quotation marks and play it off as a quote. Maybe somebody with more lawyers can take them to task, but i’ll just use the Internet and Twitter instead. I also think that kind of tabloid drama encourages artists to not express their opinions in the press, and instead give polite soundbites that don’t stimulate thought about creativity and the consumption of art in its many guises.

Peace to Lady Gaga and I fully congratulate and compliment her on her championing of gay rights issues and the momentum it’s given to help create change.

What he wrote about is one of the things that continues to stifle any kind of meaningful music journalism, inasmuch as non-events like these become massaged into “controversies” by poor writers and editors just trying to snag a few more hits to clear their traffic minimum. White didn’t say anything about Gaga’s music, as many of the articles tried to state, nor were there any tonal cues to suggest he was “blasting” or “slamming” her (he seems a little terse, but anyone who’s ever picked up any interview with him over the last decade should realize that’s just how he speaks). And yet, any potentially reasonable point he might have made about the shallow depths Gaga’s image has to offer was quickly dismissed for the easily re-trafficked “he mad” implication.

It’s asinine on both levels, because it walls off the artist from being more open in interview—I can’t count how many musicians have held their tongue when I’ve asked them to speak on something that might even slightly be construed as adversarial or controversial—and it disadvantages the publication by forcing them to go for the lowest common denominator instead of saying something interesting or new. Lord knows I’m not the most perfect practitioner of avoiding the catchy headline because it makes for intriguing copy, but I at least try to make sure what’s being excerpted is interpreted and presented through any available context—the type of thing any writer should theoretically have to do if they’re going to be attributing opinions to people they haven’t talked to. I saw the Jack White quote this morning and thought about blogging something about it, but realized that without any bigger idea of what he was talking about, it would’ve come off more incendiary than I had any right to be over such an incomplete story. (I know, I’m such a hero. But I did consciously have this thought while mulling on it.)

The greater irony is that plenty of these sites are now running White’s clarifying statement while trying to bury their original “diss” story in the news carousel, so that they might have their cake and eat it too. The sad thing, though, is that everyone loses unless a concerned effort is made to cut down on this kind of buzz-baiting. That includes a recognition of when the artist is saying something in the flow of a larger conversation, and when he’s purposefully saying something shit-stirring just to get noticed. It includes figuring out when to give someone the benefit of the doubt and when to call them out on their nonsense; it includes not going along with the herd even if a story seems to be getting some heat. It includes giving more of a shit about your publication’s ethical and editorial priorities so that the question of “should I or shouldn’t I post this obvious non-issue?” doesn’t even come up, because you know better. More than anything, it includes acknowledging that it probably wouldn’t even matter if Jack White did hate Lady Gaga’s music.