Autobiography’s White Lies

August 22, 2016 | Niki Holzapfel

 “Here’s the deal—all the books and all the movies and documentaries and all that stuff that are made about these people that we are interested in or that we think that accomplished something amazing—you know, who wants to hear they took the easy way out?”

-Jack White

Those closest to me know I am quite fascinated with Jack White—for good reason. Formerly fronting The White Stripes, he’s currently sending vinyl records into space and hanging with Beyonce, featuring on her 2016 track “Don’t Hurt Yourself.” 12-time Grammy winner, voice of a James Bond theme, youngest of ten children. He can also upholster furniture. I’d love to have a conversation with him.

Since that might never happen, the next best thing is watching filmed conversations on YouTube, like one that features Jack White in conversation with another of my favorite performers: Conan O’Brien. A late night talk show host and former writer for The Simpsons and Saturday Night Live, Conan managed to keep his career going after NBC showed him the door. Plus he’s one of the few people who can get by with a first name alone. You can imagine my delight when I saw “Rocker Jack White—Serious Jibber-Jabber with Conan O’Brien” in the sidebar on YouTube.

“Serious Jibber-Jabber” is just that: surprisingly serious with a handful of jokes from Conan and an all-black set similar to Charlie Rose’s. It wouldn’t work as well as it does if Conan didn’t ask such unusual questions. One example: “What about upholstering has helped you in your musical career?”

A few minutes into the hour-and-fifteen-minute video, it becomes apparent that it’s valuable for more than Jack White and Conan O’Brien fans. The result of the two artists in conversation is comparable to a two-person TED Talk on creating art, regardless of the discipline. The two repeatedly return to a fairly fundamental ideal. White shares his belief that “people who push and push and push” will succeed at something, regardless of talent. Conan agrees. He tells White, “I believe in hard work and I think that’s the hardest thing . . . I think talent’s important, but the real accelerant . . . is hard, hard, freaking work.”

Plenty of people have said similar words, but I think it’s precisely because they turn to platitudes that this interview is so interesting. Of celebrity heroes, White asks, “who wants to hear they took the easy way out?” and that’s exactly it: what we want to hear when notable people tell their own stories. He offers relatable wisdom about hard work, but there’s still something exaggerated about his self-characterization that makes for a good story and makes us pay attention. He tells Conan, “I want to create something every day. Every day when I wake up, that’s what I want to do. It’s not busywork, it’s not anal-retentive behavior, or anything. It’s, I cannot wait to catch up to this idea I had three weeks ago that I haven’t gotten to do yet.” Of course, Jack White has the money and resources to do whatever he wants, which he acknowledges, but it’s interesting to consider what he doesn’t acknowledge. He doesn’t describe the moments when it all just fell in place for him. He doesn’t talk about the days when it’s much more appealing to lie in bed, watching Netflix. He gives insights into his best self, the self we want to find inspiring, the self that earned an audience for his story.

This is what interests me most about autobiography: how we tell our own story when we know we have an audience. I wonder what viewers would learn from the moments of autobiography in this interview if they knew nothing of Jack White and Conan O’Brien, but I wonder more about what the two would want us to believe.

About Niki

In my mother’s words, I was her only child who actually wanted to see how the story ended. After earning degrees in English and creative writing, the same can be said today. I am most interested in considering how people tell their own stories in the controversial world of creative nonfiction.

Edited by Bridget Moynihan.


Image and Video credit: Team Coco. “Rocker Jack White – Serious Jibber-Jabber with Conan O’Brien.” YouTube. YouTube, 15 Jan. 2013. Web. 5 Aug. 2016.

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