This list of songs is inspired by lists published by radio station KEXP-FM from Seattle in 2010, as well as the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part I will faithfully countdown from their lists, starting at Song #500 and going until I reach Song #1. When you see the song title listed as something like: Song #XXX (KEXP)….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. Song XXX (RS) means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: Song #xxx (KTOM), it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In any case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, just so everyone is aware, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Here is the story behind today’s song. Enjoy.
KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.
Song #464: Seven Nation Army by The White Stripes.
For as long as musicians have been arranging notes to create music, they have done so with the reaction of their audience/listeners in mind. For example, if a performer wants to bring energy to a song, they may play harder and faster. If they want something more atmospheric, maybe they will slow things down, add some romantic violins and so on. As consumers of music, we often like the artists we do because of the way their music makes us feel. This relationship….this partnership….between performer and audience is often quite out in the open and obvious and welcome. But, what if it not so obvious why we react to a song as we do? What if there is something so visceral and primal embedded within the structure of a song that we are unaware of how our emotions are being manipulated? That is the subject of today’s song, “Seven Nation Army” by The White Stripes.
Released in 2003, “Seven Nation Army” is unique among songs that have reached #1 on the charts. For starters, this song has no chorus. Secondly, the opening guitar notes sound deep like they are made by the thick strings of a bass guitar. Those notes are not made by a bass guitar. Finally, aside from the opening two lines, the lyrical story told by this song has absolutely zero impact on audience reaction. “Seven Nation Army” is a song that is built with a structure laden with psychological tricks that have transformed a story about the price of fame into a modern day battle anthem known the world over. Let’s dissect the opening of the song to see how this effect was achieved.
The White Stripes are comprised of singer/guitarist, Jack White and his sister, Meg, on drums. When “Seven Nation Army” begins, it opens with Jack playing seven distinct notes on his guitar. The sequence of these notes repeats several times. Each note played increases by one up the musical scale. So, you have this repetition of seven rising notes played, again and again. As an experiment in your home, if you were to say the word, “Oh!” seven times in a row, raising the octave level by one each time, you would see that the effect is to create an anticipatory sense of urgency. So, as Jack White plays these guitar notes he, then, starts to stomp his foot to establish a beat. Then, Meg White begins to echo that beat on her drum. If you know much about Indigenous culture then, you will know that a drum beat is often symbolic of a heartbeat. Psychologically, your mind tells you that something urgent is about to happen, you have been drawn in emotionally because of the drum/heart beats and then, Jack white lets everyone know what this is all about by uttering the opening two lines….”I’m gonna fight ’em off! A seven-nation army couldn’t hold me back!”
We have been primed by this song to fight so, let the battle begin. It is little wonder that “Seven Nation Army” appeals to the gladiator within an audience. This song has long-ceased to be a simple song on the radio. It has taken on a life of its own and is now a staple at sporting events around the world. It is a song used to introduce combatants and to pump up supporters. It is a battle anthem built upon a structure of psychological tricks designed to elicit a primal response. It works well. Audiences love it and happily play along, even if they don’t always know why.
I am including four (!) videos for this post. The first one is the official video for this song. This video is yet another example of the ingenious/nefarious nature of “Seven Nation Army”. While the song, itself, induces a willingness to engage in battle, this video induces motion sickness in many who view it. The perpetual-motion element of the video makes it difficult to concentrate and serves to disorient you as you watch. Like the song, the video manipulates your senses and causes a visceral reaction. This video won the award for Video of the Year because of the unique and original construction. I would encourage you to watch as much of the video as you can manage. But, at the same time, YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!!!! Viewer discretion advised.
I will explain the other three videos in the comments section below. But, please check them out. They each bring something different that will help you understand and appreciate what makes “Seven Nation Army” so special. As songs go on this list of the 500 greatest of all time, “Seven Nation Army” holds a unique place. It is a song rarely, fully sung by audiences yet one that everyone loves to sing to when it starts. It is a song that possesses a simple, repetitive structure yet, the song structure is unique among a majority of hit songs. It is a song better suited for combat octagons and sporting arenas than concert stages. It is a song with an opening riff as recognizable as legendary songs like, “Satisfaction” by The Rolling Stones but yet, a riff that is now used to teach children how to play the guitar in the same way that “Smoke on the Water” by Deep Purple is used for the same purpose. It is a song about the price of fame that has made The White Stripes famous. It is “Seven Nation Army”. Try not to enjoy. I dare ya.
The link to The Whites Stripes website can be found here.
***Bonus video #1:
Seven Nation Army used as a motivational chant at a US College football game. This is an example of the group frenzy that the song inspires and also the fact that it is a song rarely, fully sung by those who sing it. In this case, the crowd ignores the lyrics being played and, instead, get lost in the repetitive structure of the opening riff. The link to this video can be found here.
***Bonus video #2:
Jack White dissects the opening riff for fellow guitar legends, Jimmy Page (from Led Zeppelin) and The Edge (from U2). I have always liked it when craftsmen share the tricks of their trade. In this case, what I want you to look for is how visually easy it is to see the rising octaves of the seven opening notes. As each man plays the riff, you will see their hand slide up the neck of the guitar in complete relation to each note of the riff. The link to this video can be found here.
***Bonus Video #3:
Homer Simpson plays “Seven Nation Army”. A guitar shop staple now. The link for this video can be found here.
Thanks, as always, to KEXP, for helping to inspire the writing of this post. The link to their wonderful website can be found here.
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