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The Iconoclast: Jack White

Jack White was once an unlikely match for sports. Not anymore. Seth McConnell/The Denver Post/Getty Images; Illustration by Gabriel Moreno

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Feb. 2 Music Issue. Subscribe today!

IF YOU CAUGHT Jack White during his 2014 summer tour, some of the last sounds you likely heard were: OH ... oh-OH-oh-oh-OHH ... OHH, the ubiquitous seven notes of the White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army." But they weren't coming from the stage. They were coming from the crowd, belted out like a menacing, off-kilter soccer chant on an endless loop. By the time White kicks into the default encore himself, fans have already done most of the work for him.

The unlikely similarity of "Seven Nation Army" to a sports rallying cry is no accident -- it is a sports rallying cry. The band's 2003 hit first found sports life among patrons of a bar in Milan, Italy, during a Club Brugge KV vs. AC Milan soccer match that same year and has been growing in popularity since.

Growing too is White's standing as a figure in the sports world. Once a red-and-white hero to the country's disaffected garage-rock scene, White is now embraced by the jersey-clad masses. His glowering "Sad Jack White" visage at a Cubs game rose to briefly popular meme prominence in 2014, and the crowds at his shows boast just as many baseball-hat-clad 20-somethings as graying ex-punks. In turn, the Detroit native has let his inner sports pennant fly, throwing out the first pitch at a Tigers game last July and stealthily donating nearly $170,000 to restore his childhood baseball diamond in southwest Detroit. He's also softened to on-air licensing. His 2014 instrumental track "High Ball Stepper" appeared in an NBA playoffs teaser, "Seven Nation Army" was used during the World Cup, and music from the Dead Weather, a White side project, aired this winter during an NFL game. This from the man who named his record label -- Third Man Records -- after a 1949 film noir thriller starring Orson Welles.

When the White Stripes were at their early-'00s peak, the image of Jack White, rock's most idiosyn­cratic indie superstar, was of a blues-channeling Charles Foster Kane (or would that be Harry Lime?) lording over his vintage recording equipment. Adding sports to that mix would have seemed jarring, like spying a glass case of boxed Starting Lineup figures in Pee-wee's Playhouse. But sports and music have long enjoyed a symbiotic and prosperous relationship, even if the marriage of sports and indie-leaning music is a rather new phenomenon. In that regard, White has been an innovator, dragging vintage forms of music into the indie scene and outdated delineations of fandom into the 21st century.

The Venn diagram of sports and indie rock is no longer a cordoned-off twilight zone where left-of-the-dial artists dust off their copies of NHL '94 under the cover of darkness. It's now a place where the Hold Steady can wax poetic on the Twins, where Bon Iver and Arcade Fire can play basketball together, where Eddie Vedder can don a customized No. 10 Packers jersey in Wisconsin and not be mercilessly mocked. And 
in this brave new world, it makes sense that White is a co-headliner with Drake and AC/DC at this year's Coachella festival, the indie-blowout-turned-two-weekend-frat-party in the Indio, California, desert. Whether with the White Stripes, the Raconteurs, the Dead Weather or on his own, White has always occupied a strange crossover space: blues, punk, niche, mainstream. If that now includes suffering along with Cubs fans, so be it.

As for "Seven Nation Army," White has a new populist stance. "As a songwriter, that's the greatest thing that could ever happen," he explained to Conan O'Brien in 2014. "It becomes folk music because people take it over. I don't know of many songs where they're not saying words, they're chanting a melody." Indeed, it does appear that the song's opening riff has taken its place next to the stomp-stomp-CLAP of "We Will Rock You" and the maniacal clap clap clap-clap-clap clap-clap-clap-clap CLAP-CLAP of "Let's Go (Pony)." And for now, it seems, nothing can hold it -- or Jack White, indie emissary to the sporting world -- back.