Why 'Seven Nation Army' Is The One Jock Jam To Rule Them All From the Queen of England to the hounds of hell, just about anyone can sing its hypnotic riff. Here's why The White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army" is the world's biggest sports anthem.
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Why 'Seven Nation Army' Is The One Jock Jam To Rule Them All

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Why 'Seven Nation Army' Is The One Jock Jam To Rule Them All

Why 'Seven Nation Army' Is The One Jock Jam To Rule Them All

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Now as Croatia and France head to the World Cup final on Sunday, we have the story behind a familiar soccer anthem.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh.

CHANG: "Seven Nation Army" by the Detroit band The White Stripes is played over stadium speakers every time teams take the field, and fans chant along. It's also a perfect subject for our new series American Anthem where we explore songs that tap into the collective emotions that listeners and performers have around an issue or belief. As Rick Karr reports, "Seven Nation Army" was never intended as a sports anthem, yet that's what it's become.

RICK KARR, BYLINE: It's all about the riff.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE WHITE STRIPES SONG, "SEVEN NATION ARMY")

KARR: It sounds like a bass guitar, but it's actually one of Jack White's electric six-strings run through an effect pedal that tunes it down an octave. Then Meg White comes in on bass drum and tom, and the vocals kick in.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SEVEN NATION ARMY")

THE WHITE STRIPES: (Singing) I'm going to fight 'em all. A seven nation army couldn't hold me back.

KARR: But the only thing that matters to sports fans is the riff.

ALAN SIEGEL: If you hear it now at sporting events, they don't even sing the lyrics.

KARR: Alan Siegel is a Washington, D.C.,-based journalist who tracked down the history of "Seven Nation Army" as a sports anthem for the website Deadspin.

SIEGEL: It's just oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, and that's it. It's over and over and over and just gets hypnotic.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh.

SIEGEL: It's simple, catchy and aggressive, so it's perfect for a sports anthem.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh. Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh.

KARR: In spite of all that, "Seven Nation Army" didn't catch on right away. It only made it to number 76 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart when it came out in early 2003. And it wasn't until six months later that it first became a soccer anthem. It started in Europe. Belgian fans traveled to Italy to watch their team Club Brugge take on one of the giants of European football - A.C. Milan.

SIEGEL: Some supporter groups were having some drinks before the match and "Seven Nation Army" was playing.

KARR: The Belgians started singing it during the game.

SIEGEL: Then Brugge, which is not a traditional power, ended up upsetting Milan.

KARR: The Belgians adopted "Seven Nation Army" as their unofficial anthem and took it back home.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh.

KARR: They had this song to themselves for the next three years until another Italian team, A.S. Roma, went to play Brugge. The Romans won, and their fans brought the song back to Italy in the run-up to the 2006 World Cup.

SIEGEL: At that point, it sort of becomes the anthem of the Italian national team and Italy wins the World Cup, so it just takes off there.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh. Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh.

KARR: The song jumped from European soccer to American football starting with fans of Penn State's Nittany Lions.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh. Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh.

KARR: Other universities picked it up; so did NFL fans. NBA and NHL teams blared the recording during games. Music publishers sold thousands of arrangements for marching bands.

(SOUNDBITE OF PERFORMANCE OF THE WHITE STRIPES SONG, "SEVEN NATION ARMY")

KARR: Now, remember; "Seven Nation Army" didn't start out to be a sports anthem. It was fans who took it up, and they've adapted it. New York City FC fan Neil Govoni was at Yankee Stadium for a recent match against Atlanta. He's a member of the club's supporters group The Third Rail, which gathers in the bleachers behind one of the goals to sing and beat on drums through every home match. Govoni says if a player's name has five syllables, he can get the "Seven Nation Army" treatment.

NEIL GOVONI: We'll do it with Maxi Moralez, our number 10, El Fresquito as he's known for some people.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Oh, Maxi Moralez, oh, Maxi Moralez.

GOVONI: When Andrea Pirlo was here, that was also used for him. It's just - that cadence works with many different players.

KARR: But most players don't really pay attention to what the fans are singing. NYCFC defender Sebastien Ibeagha says he's too busy to listen when he's playing.

SEBASTIEN IBEAGHA: Half the time, I don't really hear them. I can't say I've heard one yet that I've really picked up on. Sometimes I don't even know what they are saying because they're just so loud.

KARR: As for "Seven Nation Army," NYCFC fan Neil Govoni says the song's been around for so long that he and other fans are kind of getting sick of it, especially after all the exposure it's been getting at this summer's World Cup. Fan culture, he says, is a living thing.

GOVONI: It evolves. Like, there are some songs that we sang in the first season that aren't really sung as much anymore because you've come up with new ones gradually.

KARR: But there's something about that riff that keeps fans coming back to "Seven Nation Army." For NPR News, I'm Rick Karr.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SEVEN NATION ARMY")

THE WHITE STRIPES: (Singing) Don't want to hear about it. Every single one's got a story to tell...

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