There’s no disputing that the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” is better known for its iconic guitar line than its lyrics. But we probably never would have heard that guitar line if Jack White hadn’t added some words to it and created a song. White, and drummer/ex-wife Meg White, recorded the song for their 2003 album Elephant, with the “Seven Nation Army” title inspired by White’s misunderstanding of the name of the Salvation Army as a child. In a 2010 interview with Robert Webb of The Independent, White explained how the guitar line came first.
“White stumbled upon the riff while warming up his hollowbody guitar. ‘I played the riff again and it sounded interesting,’ he said. White plugged in an octave pedal and wound his six-string down to a low twang. He had grand plans: ‘I thought if I ever got asked to write the next James Bond theme, that would be the riff for it.’ He devised a storyline in which a protagonist discovers that his friends are talking about him behind his back. ‘He feels so bad he has to leave town, but you get so lonely you come back,’ said White. ‘The song’s about gossip. It’s about me, Meg and the people we’re dating.’”
As is often the case with rock songs, it’s hard to know exactly what these three verses are about without an explanation, which White has thankfully given to interviewers over the years. Much of the lyric, though, is still subject to interpretation. For instance, many have surmised that his Catholic background may have played a role in his writing the lines And I’m bleeding, and I’m bleeding, and I’m bleeding/Right before the Lord/All the words are gonna bleed from me/And I will sing no more/And the stains coming from my blood/Tell me go back home.
White recounted in greater detail to Rolling Stone’s David Fricke where the song’s lyrics came from: “That song started out 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 a frustration of watching my friends do this to each other. In the end, 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 [I’m going to Wichita/Far from this opera forevermore] could be something from a hundred years ago. It won a Grammy for Best Rock Song. [Laughs] Maybe it should have won for Best Paranoid Blues Song.”
Most writers can only dream of a copyright like this one. It’s not just a rock classic and a Grammy-winning song from an album that went gold and platinum all over the world, but one that is used extensively by sports teams worldwide to rile up fervent fans, as chronicled in the Independent article. “Italian football fans adopted it for their 2006 World Cup win, to White’s delight: ‘Nothing is more beautiful in music than when people embrace a melody and allow it to enter the pantheon of folk music.’”