Profile writing 101

Jack White Keeps the Freak in Control Freak

The recent profile of Jack White in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, by Josh Eells, provided a welcome 30 minutes of distraction on a lazy-ish Sunday afternoon. In addition to reminding me how utterly uncool my life is, it also deepened my appreciation for what it takes to maintain a relevant creative vision for as long as young Mr. White has done. What I gleaned from this profile is that it takes a lot of work, talent, money, and a steely certainty about what you’re building.

I am a fan of White Stripes, and love White’s work on Loretta Lynn’s and Wanda Jackson’s recent albums. The Times profile didn’t add much to what I know about White as a musician, but did reveal a bit about the person. For me, profiles are a somewhat mystifying breed of writing. For this one, Josh Eells spent 6 months researching and hanging out in Nashville to get to know White a bit. I’m not sure he succeeded in really getting to know his subject, but I’m not sure anyone could have done better given the raw materials. White talks about Bob Dylan in the piece—the original “jester on the sidelines in a cast.” Dylan, of course, is infamous for canny manipulation of his persona, and White seems to be following in the tracks of those wandering boot heels. And that’s fine as far as I’m concerned. I think of it as an extension of his artistic vision—I don’t know Jack, and never will. But at the same time, a sliver of his real self shines through the music, the tight control on all he cares about, and the cagey posturing. As long as he doesn’t truly believe his own b.s., he should be able to maintain some authenticity. We’ll see.

But back to the writing. I think Eells did an OK job with an enigmatic subject. It’s hard to tell where his sympathies lie, and maybe that’s good profile writing. In describing the Third Man offices, he does seem to sort of sneer about the number of redheads in the office, the threat to levy a fine on one worker for not being in uniform, and the obsessively strict design aesthetic. But that could have been me rolling my own eyes.