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Artist: The White Stripes
Labels: V2, XL, Third Man
Writer: Jack White
I read a curious line about the White Stripes song Seven Nation Army on American Songwriter: “There’s no disputing that the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” is better known for its iconic guitar line than its lyrics.” (1) Now, I’m not aware of any statistical database from which you could mine such revelations, but are you telling me that putting the words ‘seven nation army’ in a rock song doesn’t kind of knock you upside the head and make you notice what the guy is singing about? A pretty good lyric, being that it was inspired by a childhood mishearing. But, what’s the meaning of the song?
Jack White got the idea for the title ‘Seven Nation Army’ from his childhood mishearing of ‘salvation army.’ And really, he does draw from his childhood a lot. The man seems to be on a quest to recapture the blues records he devoured as a child and he still may be inspired by that child as well. Something we could all aspire to, since, as children, we understood more, at times, than we do now. There is a clarity in innocence that gets muddied by worry and wear. Seven Nation army is about worry and wear. The riff, however, came first, and Seven Nation Army was a working title until White figured out what the song was about.
I’ll admit that I’m not a huge fan of The White Stripes. I find the guitar tone grating. I find the drumming intolerable, and I don’t find Jack White’s guitar playing to be innovative or all that listenable. He spends too much time trying to be ‘blues.’ Confession aside, Seven Nation Army is a brilliant song. But what is it about?
Seven Nation Army Meaning
The songwriter himself has been generous and clear about the inspiration and meaning of the song. He came up with the riff during a soundcheck for a show in Melbourne, Australia. The lyrics are about a man finding out that his friends are gossiping behind his back. The man is so distressed and overwhelmed by this gossip and lies that he leaves town, only to feel lonely and compelled to return home.
White said it was particularly inspired by two friends of his and one’s reaction to lies being spread about him. Although it touches on things White himself was going through, he wasn’t really trying to sing about himself.
He has stated different things at different times, though. This is not surprising, as a song can have different inspirations and one particular inspiration may be foremost on a writer’s mind at any particular time, while at other times, a famous musician may feel the need to downplay how personal a song is. However, White stated that the song was about him and Meg (ex-wife and drummer) and the people they were dating, and also that the song was about a man who rides into town and finds out all his friends are gossiping about him, causing him to leave town, become lonely, etc. Both stories ring true and it’s quite possible that the ‘people we were dating’ were the people with the gossip trouble.
It has also been said that the song is about, no surprise, the pressures of fame and the intense scrutiny he and Meg White were under. I’m sure that is a huge part of it. Says white:
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.
There are of course, overtones of revenge or, at least, giving someone their comeuppance, at the beginning of the song, but it does not appear that revenge is the central theme of the song, despite the title. Remember, the title was a placeholder title before the song was written. No doubt, White fit the lyrics to the title/chorus to some extent. This doesn’t mean that ‘revenge’ was foremost on his mind when he wrote the song. Instead, the first few lines seem to be setting the stage for the protagonist leaving town and then grappling with the feelings that occur when he is alone.
The best lines of the song, for me, are the third verse, just mentioned:
I’m going to Wichita
Far from this opera forevermore
I’m gonna work the straw
Make the sweat drip out of every pore
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
These are brilliant and evocative lyrics in a song full of good lyrics. And as White’s singing is always clear and enunciated, albeit distorted, I don’t know why anyone would only notice the guitar riff, great as it is, and not the melody and lyrics. I certainly did the first time I heard it. But these lines in the third verse may be the ones that give people the most trouble.
I don’t profess to know exactly what he was thinking, but the general vibe brings to my mind Aaron’s sacrificial goats from the bible when Aaron was instructed to purify himself and his family before the lord:
“…the goat, on which the lot fell to be the scapegoat, shall be presented alive before the LORD, to make an atonement with him, and to let him go for a scapegoat into the wilderness.”
I imagine the singer as the sacrificial scapegoat, carrying his sins and the ‘sins of the people.’ He’s standing before the Lord, bleeding out his sins:
All the words are gonna bleed from me
And I will sing no more
Seven Nation Army is the first song on The White Stripes’ fourth album, Elephant. It’s often identified as garage-rock, which is about as useless an identifier as I can imagine, but music writers need handy labels. The band never used a bass player (unlike your typical garage band, I mean, there is always the friend who is picked to play bass) but the central riff is bass-like, created by running White’s semi-acoustic Kay Hollowbody guitar through a DigiTech Whammy pedal set an octave down.
The song never cracked the top 40 on the Billboard Hot 100, reaching no. 76, but it was no. 1 on the alternative songs chart. It also reached no. 7 in the UK and no. 4 in Germany. It has become their defining song.
Seven Nation Army won Best Rock Song at the 46th Grammy Awards and has since become a sports anthem. I’m not sure if it has replaced Another One Bites the Dust, though. I’m more a music fan than a sports fan.
- Moore, Rick. “Behind the Song: The White Stripes, ‘Seven Nation Army.’” American Songwriter, 10 June 2021, americansongwriter.com/the-white-stripes-seven-nation-army/.