It’s wild that we ever knew a time before “Seven Nation Army.” Rock was moribund, long in the tooth, a phenomenon that existed in quotation marks and was in need of reviving. And yet nobody had ever put those specific notes in that specific order before Jack White, fucking around at a Melbourne soundcheck one evening, was struck by metaphorical lightning. “Seven Nation Army” is an angry, paranoiac song with no fixed meaning, but it sure sounds like Jack White raging against his own encroaching fame and fantasizing about going to Wichita, far from this opera forevermore. And yet “Seven Nation Army” rocked hard enough to ensure its own immortality. Even if he did go to Wichita, Jack wouldn’t be able to escape his own marvelous big-room banger.
Elephant, the White Stripes’ fourth and biggest album, came into the world on April Fools Day 2003, 12 days before a several-nation army launched the Iraq War. Like that war, the White Stripes had a fraudulent backstory. In the case of the White Stripes, the backstory was harmless, if distracting. The whole situation with ex-spouses pretending to be siblings, the insistence on vintage equipment, the spartan candy-cane color scheme, the inscrutable liner notes about the death of the sweetheart — it all sucked up a lot of the oxygen in the little room. But that “Seven Nation Army” riff transcended those distractions. Saturday marks the 20th anniversary of Elephant. Somehow, it feels like it’s been a lot longer than that.
Today, two decades later, “Seven Nation Army” might as well be public domain. The White Stripes knew that they had something with that riff. The riff was so powerful that the song didn’t even need a chorus; the riff is the chorus. Today, two decades later, stadiums full of people chant that riff as a gesture of dominance, of the fun of mob power. I can only imagine that millions of the people who regularly sing the “Seven Nation Army” riff have never heard “Seven Nation Army” itself — that they have no idea who the White Stripes are or what gimmicky personas they might’ve invented for themselves. After 20 years, the distractions melt away, and the riff remains.
Jack White knows that “Seven Nation Army” has long eclipsed whatever intentions he had when he wrote the song, and he loves it. That’s to his credit. The White Stripes’ grasp of music history — of the everlasting power of a big musical moment — has always been key to the duo’s power. The retro affectations, the cover songs, and the album dedications were the band’s ways of nodding to history. But the White Stripes also rocked ridiculously hard, and that was their way of making history. Elephant may or may not be the White Stripes’ best album; that will always be up for debate. (Me, I’m a White Blood Cells man.) But this much is not in dispute: Elephant was the White Stripes’ show-and-prove moment. They showed, and they proved.
Two years before Elephant, the White Stripes were already exhibiting a little anxiety about the attention that would soon come their way. You can see that in the White Blood Cells cover art and in songs like “Little Room.” But nobody — not even the Stripes themselves — could’ve anticipated the hype-tsunami that would accompany the duo’s third album. White Blood Cells came along at a perfect-storm moment. The music press, tired of trying to take Papa Roach seriously and not yet sure how to properly discuss Jay-Z, needed something to get excited about. And poof, there they were — all these elegantly glowering hot young rock bands with insouciant poses and artfully tousled hair. The White Stripes barely had anything to do with those guys, but they looked cool and sounded cool. It was a right place/right time situation, and the Stripes soon found themselves in bigger rooms than they’d ever envisioned, opening for fellow blues enthusiasts like the Rolling Stones.
The White Stripes always had a conflicted relationship with the entire idea of rock stardom. Meg White radiated the impression that she was dreadfully bored and that she’d rather be anywhere else, doing anything else. That’s what was so cool about her. Jack stomped and preened and pouted his way across arena stages, but he also delighted in coyness, feyness, loopy insularity. When Jack raged against technology, that was its own kind of pose. If Jack really hated computers that much, then he wouldn’t have lent out his uncredited electric-shock yelp, bawling about fire in the disco and fire in the Taco Bell, to his Detroit buddies’ Electric Six’s 2002 dance-rock anthem “Danger! High Voltage.” But if White was going to become a rock star, then he was going to do it on his own terms.
Elephant spells out those terms in coy, fey, loopy, insular ways. Jack White could play the arena-rock sex-god when he wanted; that’s the only way we end up with all seven molten minutes of “Ball And Biscuit.” But Jack could also be as twee as a whole family of church mice wearing knit scarves and living in Belle And Sebastian’s guitar cases. Elephant might be the world’s greatest arena-rock album ever to include multiple love songs to mothers. I’m not a genius, but maybe you’ll remember this: Jack never said he ever wanted to be a man.
After the mighty “Seven Nation Army,” the second single from Elephant was “I Don’t Know What To Do With Myself,” a take on a Burt Bacharach/Hal David oldie that had been a hit for Dusty Springfield and Dionne Warwick a decade before Jack White was born. In the Sofia Coppola-directed video, an underwear-clad Kate Moss wraps herself around a stripper pole. It almost sounded like this vision left Jack White flustered and confused, sputtering about post-breakup blues while coaxing enraged weasel-snarls out of his guitar. There’s probably a term paper’s worth of psychodrama in that combination, but the song rocks hard enough to make anyone chuck their prospective term papers into Mount Doom.
They sounded glamorous. Nobody knew how to talk about that. The White Stripes came from a garage-punk underground that smelled like ashtrays and stale hair-grease, and they spoke in confounding art-kid riddles, but they also carried themselves with the foxy confidence of Golden Age movie stars or late-’80s Sunset Strip poodle-gods. They could be as childlike and homespun and elliptical as they wanted, and the sexiness still rang out like the chimes of freedom. There are moments on Elephant where the Stripes’ affectations get the better of them. For 20 years now, I have been lunging to hit stop before subjecting myself to the cornpone banter of the album closer “It’s True That We Love One Another.” But the vast majority of Elephant holds together as a mean, surly, pretty statement of rock dominance. The pressure was on, but they weren’t gonna crack.
The White Stripes banged out almost all of Elephant in a two-week burst in London, on the museum-piece equipment that Jack White so lovingly fetishized. For the first time, the White Stripes had expectations staring at them — a whole slavering nation of potential haters that couldn’t wait to declare them messiahs or funk-fakers. They responded by rocking even more savagely than they’d done on any previous album. Only a couple of other voices even appear on Elephant — veteran garage-punker Holly Golightly, anchorman Mort Crim, absolutely nobody else. The rest of the time, it’s just Jack and Meg White pushing each other into juggernaut mode.
Consider the overwhelming bloodthirst of “There’s No Home For You Here.” It’s a haughty breakup song, Jack using all his precisely florid linguistic skills to get a woman out of his life — “I’m only waiting for the proper time to tell you that it’s impossible to get along with you” — while singing his own backup choir. But by the song’s ending, Jack’s eloquence has failed him, and he’s just barking out hacked-up images of domestic mundanity with increasing horror and disgust: “Waking up for breakfast! Burning matches! Talking quickly! Breaking baubles! Throwing garbage! Drinking soda! Looking happy! Taking pictures! So completely stupid! Just go away!” The specter of a normal life terrifies him, and all he can do is lash out incoherently, so he lashes out incoherently in magnificent fashion.
There are quiet, pretty moments on Elephant, and they bring their own sense of mystery. Jack White goes solo-acoustic on the florid possessiveness lament “You’ve Got Her In Your Pocket,” a song he’d had kicking around for years. Meg, meanwhile, brings a magnetic remoteness to her seduction song “In The Cold, Cold Night.” A few years later, I saw Meg sing that song onstage at Madison Square Garden, and I wrote that “it was like we’d been launched into an alternate reality where Beat Happening was an arena band.” (The recently-resurrected gibberish about how Meg White was a bad drummer remains the dumbest argument in rock history. Maybe other drummers could do more complicated things, but none of them ever had more presence, and we now have a whole pile of solo albums as evidence that Jack White just isn’t as good when playing with technically gifted drummers. The straightforward stomp keeps him anchored, and he needs that anchor.)
Mostly, the White Stripes leave the quiet prettiness alone on Elephant. Acoustic hoedowns simply don’t belong on an album like that. Instead, Elephant goes into beast mode in its second half, stringing together a whole barrage of merciless facewreckers, “Little Acorns” into “Hypnotize” into “The Air Near My Fingers” into the oddly topical “Girl, You Have No Faith In Medicine.” Those songs don’t sound alike, but they all kick impressive levels of ass. By the time that run is over, you might find yourself too breathless to hit restart before “It’s True That We Love One Another” starts up.
Elephant has bangers on bangers, but today, all those great songs almost sound like icing on the cake. The album makes its point in its opening seconds. An elephant is a noble beast with a long memory, and maybe that’s how the White Stripes saw themselves — history-minded congregants carrying the flame for dying traditions on a crass and heedless age. But an elephant is also a big motherfucker who will stomp you to death, and that’s what we hear on “Seven Nation Army.” That heaviness is now part of our cultural inheritance. Everyone knows about it, from the Queen of England to the hounds of hell. (Maybe the Queen of England and the hounds of hell are somewhere singing that riff together right now.) “Seven Nation Army” has already outlasted the White Stripes themselves. Soon enough, it’ll outlast the rest of us, too.