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Boy, you have no faith in nursing

April 21, 2006 -- White Stripes leader Jack White, arguably the foremost rock music figure of his generation, has just given the Center for Nursing Advocacy a "Metaphorical Ignorance Award." This was a tit-for-tat response to the Golden Lamp Award we gave the band for one of the worst 2005 portrayals of nursing for its song "The Nurse," from the Grammy-winning album "Get Behind Me Satan." In our analysis, which we sent Mr. White along with the Golden Lamp award, we noted that his song "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." White's counter-award cited Truth executive director Sandy Summers for her "outstanding inability to recognize metaphor." But we did not suggest that the song was about an actual nurse. We said that it reinforced enduring stereotypes by comparing nursing to romantic love, mothering, and housekeeping--things that do not require years of college-level science training. In short, White's use of metaphor was itself the problem. White also decried our "ridiculous sense of ownership of the word 'Nurse.'" But that's like defending a misogynist song by saying that female critics don't own the word "woman." White has the right to talk about nurses, and even literary devices, but we have the right to explain why his lyrics 'offend in every way,' as he put it in a prescient earlier song. White signed his award as "president" of the "Center for Lyrical Advocacy," with the tag line "Increasing public understanding of poetry," a mocking play on the Center's own tag line. But the stereotypes in "The Nurse" feed the nursing shortage that is taking lives worldwide. We thank Mr. White for taking our views seriously enough to attack us. But before he started struggling with his computer graphics program, he might at least have found out why we disliked his song.

Here is a reproduction of Mr. White's "Metaphorical Ignorance Award for 2005":

Here are the relevant lyrics from Jack White's "The Nurse":

The nurse should not be the one who puts salt in your wounds
But it's always with trust that the poison is fed with a spoon
When you're helpless with no one to turn to alone in your room
You would swear that the one who would care for you never would leave
She promised and said, "you will always be safe here with me"
But promises open the door to be broken to me   ...

The maid that you've hired could never conspire to kill
She's to mother, not quietly smother you when you're most ill
The one that you're trusting suspiciously dusting the sill

And below are excerpts from the Center's analysis, which we forwarded to Mr. White with the Golden Lamp award (right) and which has been available on our web site since July 2005 (the analysis was actually written by the Center's senior advisor Harry Jacobs Summers, who says he is disappointed that Mr. White did not include him in Sandy Summers' Ignorance Award):

White [in "The Nurse"] 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. ...

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? ...

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.

We'll omit our discussion of the possibility that the song is a political allegory. Suffice it to say that we don't get how anyone could fail to see that our entire analysis assumes the song is metaphorical, but argues that its imagery is damaging. Did we need to use the actual word "METAPHOR," maybe in all capital letters, so it could be seen from space?

We realize it's possible that White did not even read the analysis we sent. But you'd think that if someone went to all the trouble of creating his own counter-award, he might at least find out why we have a problem with his song. Of course, White is famously obsessed with recording albums quickly, to capture the rough essence of his vision. But he might consider whether some things--well-founded criticism of his work's harmful effect on public health, for instance--merit a little more of his time.

The Center had sent its Golden Lamp Award to the White Stripes' agent at The Agency Group. White's counter-award came in an envelope with the return address of his managers, Monotone Management in Los Angeles. But the envelope was hand-addressed in writing that resembled White's signature on the award, and it was postmarked Nashville, where White has a new home. This suggests that the D.I.Y.-oriented rocker simply created the Metaphorical Ignorance Award on his home computer and stopped in at a nearby post office to mail it.

Jack White is a great pop musician who has written some fine lyrics. But we suggest he avoid claiming that his "poetry" somehow confers immunity from nurses' concerns, especially given the awkward, shallow lyrics in "The Nurse." It's "always with trust that the poison is fed with a spoon"? And "promises open the door to be broken to me"?

Quick. Someone call the Center for Lyrical Advocacy.

Press coverage

May 3, 2006 -- Today The Los Angeles Times covered the exchange of mock awards between the Center for Nursing Advocacy and Jack White, of the band White Stripes, with the piece "A Stripe nursing a grudge?" The Detroit Metro Times wrote about it in "Nursing a grudge," on May 3. And Salon covered it on April 26 with "Jack White in slap fight with nurses."

You can see our press relase on these awards here.


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