The White Stripes: "The Nurse" (2005)
From the album Get Behind Me Satan
"Get Behind Me Satan," the gloriously off-kilter new album from Detroit garage rock duo The White Stripes, features more weird tales of alienation and lost love from alternative It Guy Jack White. But the second track, "The Nurse," uses an unholy mix of nursing imagery, complete with maid and mother references, to make a seemingly banal complaint about betrayal that isn't worthy of White--to say nothing of the skilled nurses who might be called upon to save his life if he gets into another serious bar fight.
"The Nurse" does not rely on the sonic attack heard on the galvanizing single "Blue Orchid" and much of the band's prior work, which suggests what Led Zeppelin might have done had they spent their formative years at a Montessori school. Instead, the tone here is set mainly by White's cheerful marimba (!), which forms an eerie contrast with the lyrics and unpredictable stabs of his guitar and Meg White's crashing drums. Meanwhile, Jack slowly and clearly sings:
The refrain consists of Jack intoning: " No I'm never, no I'm never, no I'm never gonna let you down." The second verse:
White is presumably comparing the faithful care one would expect from a nurse to that of a family member or friend, and I'll go out on a limb and suggest that it's probably a female lover. Wouldn't it be tragic if a "nurse," rather than taking care of you no matter what like she's supposed to, like she promised to over and over, instead put salt in your wounds, conspired to kill you, fed you poison, smothered you, and then took off? Yeah, man. In fact, maybe the "nurse" act was just a ploy all along, since it's "always with trust" that the bad ones strike. It's not paranoia if they really are out to get you. And unlike in the record's later fan evisceration "Take, Take, Take," it doesn't seem likely that many listeners will find dramatic irony here.
It's true that nurses are professionally obligated to protect their patients. But nurses have had more than enough of their expert care being associated with romantic relationships, a cliche that continues to undermine efforts to have their vital clinical skills recognized. It's also not hard to see some of the male vulnerability that has fueled the battleaxe nurse stereotype here, as the narrator stresses how "helpless," "alone" and "most ill" he is. What man wants to be at the mercy of some "suspiciously dusting" woman at a time like that? Even the ways this "nurse" betrays our narrator display no clinical expertise. I mean, salt, poison, smothering? You'd think she could at least go for some plausible care-related method that might escape detection, like Charles Cullen and his digoxin, if she has to be so darn evil.
The second stanza packs a real anti-nurse wallop, as the "maid you've hired," who's supposed to "mother" you, instead smothers you while you're "most ill." Clearly these roles--nurse, maid, mother--all run together here. But contrary to decades of the kind of handmaiden and maternal stereotyping in "The Nurse," modern nurses are skilled professionals with years of college-level education. A man may need a maid, as Neil Young once suggested, but not for nursing.
Could "The Nurse" be a political allegory, a post-9/11 vision of government or political forces promising protection but actually delivering something more insidious, perhaps with the repetitive "never gonna let you down" refrain as a parody of campaign promises? That would explain the seemingly trite lyrical themes from the usually inventive Jack White. A comparison of nursing and government would be an interesting one--both can be seen as institutions that developed to help citizens do vital things they cannot do for themselves. But it seems unlikely many listeners will get that out of the song, as there are no clear hints of it. And regardless, the unskilled care imagery as well as the maid and mother references remain serious problems.
"The Nurse" is probably too odd to get much independent attention. But the album sold over 250,000 copies in the U.S. in its first two weeks. And because of its overall strength and the respect the band commands among music types worldwide, its influence may be considerable.
We'd just like to get that song behind us. Satan.
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