The White Stripes have always been critical darlings with a decent-sized cult following, but it’s hard to imagine any world where Jack and Meg White would produce one of the latest “jock jams” to join the pantheon along with We Will Rock You or Rock N’ Roll Pt. 2.
Even less so when you consider this big claim to fame started overseas.
The single from their 2003 album Elephant was received well enough as was the album itself. While not overwhelmingly successful in terms of chart impact (reaching only 76 on the Billboard 100), it was as impactful as you could get in the early 2000s, not the most rock-friendly of times.
It did well enough during a moment in music history when rock was still trying to find a new identity: rap metal was starting to wane, and some bands, like The Strokes or The Vines, were going for a sort of lo-fi retro garage sound. Then there were the mainstream “big” (but not always critically-acclaimed) bands like Nickelback.
In that context, The White Stripes probably didn’t find many complaints about their place in the industry.
And then, far away from home, in a sport still seen as something of an outsider (at least until the arrival of Ted Lasso), the song found new, stronger wings that would take it to unexpected heights.
In 2003, the song’s infectious guitar riff caught on with soccer fans, and that was its secret weapon: it had an anthemic quality, easy for any fan to chant along to. It’s a war-themed song, yet ambiguous enough to be adopted by the best next thing: professional sports.
The use of “Seven Nation Army” as a sports anthem exploded in 2006 via Italian supporters of the AS Roma team during a UEFA Champions League match against the Belgian team Club Brugge KV.
This was also the year of the FIFA World Cup, where the national teams of 32 countries faced off in a month-long confrontation to crown a champion. The cameras of the entire world were suddenly there at the right moment.
And the Italian national team, taking the big victory in the final, made sure the song was spread both by fans singing the unmistakable riff in the streets and then to every corner of the globe.
“I am honored that the Italians have adopted this song as their own. Nothing is more beautiful in music than when people embrace a melody and allow it to enter the pantheon of folk music, ”Jack White said about the song in an NME interview.
After its solidification in Europe as one of the most popular jock jams, it was time to claim new fame in America, as a walkout song for boxers and wrestlers, from hockey to the NBA. It was quickly adopted as if it was always there.
That might be one key to understanding its legacy; being a jock jam might be good, but “Seven Nation Army” might represent something bigger. Some have called it “the last folk song,” one that doesn’t belong to any genre or style as much as it belongs to the People with capital “P.”
The internet was already around, but this happened way before social media was the presence we know today. YouTube was one year old, and so was Twitter; TikTok was far away on the horizon. The song spread via old-school socialization and through big events. Perhaps in that way, “Seven Nation Army” truly is a folk song, in the most essential meaning of the term.
Photo: Jack White (Getty Images)
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