20 Years Ago: ‘Seven Nation Army’ Becomes the White Stripes’ Unlikely Smash
“Seven Nation Army” launched White Stripes into the upper stratosphere of stardom, cementing their place as one of the world’s most important post-millennium rock groups. Not bad for something that was initially shrugged off.
The track’s roots can be traced back to an unlikely source: The Corner Hotel, a pub and live music venue in Melbourne, Australia. The White Stripes were set to perform there in January 2002 when Jack White stumbled upon the tune’s distinctive riff during soundcheck. Something about it caught his ear.
“I started playing that riff and I thought, ‘Oh, this is really cool,’” he told Jimmy Page and the Edge in the documentary film It Might Get Loud. He played it for roommate Ben Swank, “and I said, ‘What do you think of this?’ And he’s like, ‘Eh, it’s alright.’”
This ambivalence fueled White to keep pursuing the song idea. “It’s almost great when people say that – because it almost makes you get defensive in your brain and think, ‘No. There’s something to this. You don’t see it yet. It’s gonna get there.'”
Watch the White Stripes' 'Seven Nation Army' Video
White called the tune “Seven Nation Army,” after his mispronunciation of the Salvation Army as a kid. The title was not supposed to stick but was simply intended as a placeholder until he crafted some lyrics. Eventually, the song developed an identity, built around themes of betrayal, celebrity and resentment – all things the White Stripes were experiencing during their rise in fame.
“The song’s about gossip,” Jack later told The Independent. “It’s about me, [bandmate] Meg [White] and the people we’re dating.”
Jack White told Rolling Stone that “Seven Nation Army” was initially “about two specific people I knew in Detroit. It was about gossip, the spreading of lies and the other person’s reaction to it. It came from the frustration of watching my friends do this to each other.
In the end,” White added, “it started to become a metaphor for things I was going through. But I never set out to write an expose on myself. To me, the song was a blues at the beginning of the twenty-first century. The third verse could be something from a hundred years ago.”
The results didn't garner much little attention at first. “Seven Nation Army” was “not considered anything interesting” by those in the White Stripes camp during sessions for 2003’s Elephant. Part of the reason could have been the song’s structure, which isn't built with a traditional verse-chorus-verse framework. “Seven Nation Army” doesn’t contain a chorus, instead relying on a key-changed version of its riff for the refrain.
Watch Jack White Perform 'Seven Nation Army' at Glastonbury
“The labels didn’t want to release it as a single when we were coming out with the album,” White later said in an interview with Conan O'Brien. Still, White championed the song, and it was ultimately issued as the first single from Elephant.
Released on Feb. 17, 2003, “Seven Nation Army” received widespread acclaim. The track hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Alternative chart and later earned a Grammy for Best Rock Song. Meanwhile, the accompanying music video, with its hypnotizing kaleidoscopic visuals, was put into heavy rotation on MTV. The cultural impact struck even deeper: The riff of “Seven Nation Army” has become a rallying cry at sporting events across the globe and remains ubiquitous decades later.
“Nothing is more beautiful in music than when people embrace a melody and allow it to enter the pantheon of folk music,” White told O'Brien. “It’s not mine anymore. It becomes folk music when things like that happen. It becomes something that, the more people don’t know where it came from, the happier I am.”
There was a lesson for White in all of this. “Just goes to show you, even when you’ve got it right in front of your face sometimes, you still don’t know,” he added. “Really, you can market something or you can brand something or you can push it or you can try to support it and build it into something bigger, but you really have no idea what’s going to connect with other people.”
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