Thoughts on National Anthems in the 21st Century

While I was adding I Am Australian to my list of songs that moved me, I got to thinking about the sentiment by many Australians that it would make a much better anthem than Advance Australia Fair and, in the process, I got to thinking about what would actually make a good national anthem in the 21st century.

Well, what is the purpose of a national anthem to begin with? According to Wikipedia, it’s a patriotic song which “evokes and eulogizes the history, traditions, and struggles of its people”.

In other words, it’s a song which embodies the nature of the nation and evokes a sense of national identity and loyalty.

The problem is that, when I look at national anthems and how they’re used, it feels like they’re products of their time to the point where, in the 21st century, that adherence to tradition is becoming detrimental to their core function.

As a Canadian, I suppose it would be most appropriate for me to break down O Canada, but I don’t have a more effective alternative to contrast it with, and that would really weaken the communicative power of my argument.

Since this post started with “I Am Australian”, let’s look at “Advance Australia Fair”. It’s a beautiful song, but it was written in the latter half of the 19th century (first performed in 1878) and it’s very much a product of its time.

It’s an ode (in the relaxed sense of the word) to the virtues of the nation, written in the characteristic musical style of its time period and meant to be sung with the kind of decorum that was common in high society of the period.

While that’s all well and good, I argue that it has the same flaw as the school systems which we inherited from that time, designed to train factory workers: It inculcates obedience and duty on the promise that “you’ll discover its relevance later” and is incredibly “leaky”. (I don’t have a citation handy, but I remember reading that students tend to retain only about 5% of what they are taught in school and have a problem with sandboxing knowledge, such that they never try to apply teachings from one class to the next class of the day.)

If your primary goal is to teach knowledge, rather than to teach conformity and obedience, experts agree that the most effective approach is to give relevance first, then give knowledge. This is a specific instance of a more general pattern which also comes into play with national anthems.

In short, make people value their nation and true respect will come, rather than commanding the trappings of respect and trying to inculcate it through some pavlovian response.

I’ll come back to that when I get to how anthems are used but, first, I’d like to talk about the content of the anthem.

The Song

One of the our biggest social problems at the beginning of the 21st century is a pathological lack of empathy, which the homophilic effects of social networking sites exacerbate. Anthems traditionally haven’t helped here, because this problem is the remnants of cultural trends which were even stronger in the past. Segregation, apartheid, class warfare, slavery, etc.

While “Advance Australia Fair” certainly salutes the beautiful attributes of the Australian land, with passages such as “with boundless plains to share”, it does nothing to counter the tendency among some to believe that they are worthy of that beauty, but others are not… and why should it? It was written by a white man, born in the British Isles in the 19th century. He was a product of his culture and wrote a song which embodied that.

In fact, it explicitly says that the aforementioned boundless plains are for “those who’ve come across the seas” and speaks of the bounties of the lands as gifts to be used.

Now, let’s compare “I Am Australian”.

Right from the offset, it respectfully and poetically acknowledges the culture of the aboriginal people and their original claim to the land. It then adds to (not replaces) the atmospheric music from that first passage with the more European strumming of a guitar. Before the lyrics can say a thing about it, the instrumental lines are already expressing the hybrid origins of what Australia became. The second passage then speaks from the perspective of Australian settlers: Convicts and farmers. People who worked hard to earn their place in Australia and who became Australian. Again, focusing not on the virtues of the land, or the joys of the cultural identity, but on the relatable, historical reasons that these people have earned their place in the cultural milieu.

It then moves to the daughter of a digger (in context, one who “sought the motherlode”, but also Australian and New Zealand slang for a soldier which carries a connotation of “egalitarian mateship”) and, in a twist of lyrics which can evoke both a personal journey and a metaphor for the nation itself, “the girl became a woman, on the long and dusty road”. Then, as a bridge into the chorus of the song, she is joined by a chorus of voices as they sing together that “I’m a bushy, I’m a battler. I am Australian.”

Taking the song in this direction may also have a less overt benefit: By encouraging people to focus on the aspects of their identity that can never be taken from them, it may make conservatives more open to the unfamiliar.

Finally, we get to the chorus. “We are one… but we are many. And from all the lands on earth we come. We’ll share a dream… and sing with one voice. I am. You are. We are Australian.” Not only is this a powerful thing to encourage a crowd to join in singing, but, again, it focuses on what unites everyone in the nation, be they aborigine, settler’s descendant, or recent immigrant and whether they’re at home or abroad: Having and pursuing a dream for a better future. (Rather than scarce resources which one might want to hoard.)

…but the song’s elegance as a potential anthem doesn’t stop there. I don’t know whether it was an intentional effort to check off each thing an anthem aims to do, but the second verse is focused on extending the “I am …” pattern to various Australian historical figures, including Albert Namatjira (a pioneer in popularizing the art of his disadvantaged minority) and Ned Kelly (A murderous outlaw who became seen as folk hero for opposing the government… which I think is a good choice as, depending on how you look at it, it’s either an inclusion of another folk hero, or an implication that your status as “one of us” is not something decided by the state).

The second half of the second verse finally starts to describe the land itself and I love the sense of priority that implies. Our own struggles, then our history, and then our lands. Of course, this still isn’t Advance Australia Fair. No bland serenade to the gifts given to the Australian people. I’ll quote this entire stanza verbatim:

I’m the hot wind from the desert
I’m the black soil of the plain
I’m the mountains and the valleys
I’m the drought and flooding rains
I am the rock
I am the sky
The rivers when they run
The spirit of this great land
I am Australian

Two things stand out to me about this assessment of the land:

First, it has shifted from the 19th-century Christian view that all around us has been placed here for us to exploit, to a more poetic, more aboriginal perspective that we and the land are part of the same connected whole and that, like doctors, we are duty-bound to preserve its health. (Not a surprise, given that the song was written in the late 1980s when other songs like “We Are The World” were also being written.)

Second, while Advance Australia Fair focuses on the good things, I Am Australian embraces the land for what it is, both good and bad. If the former is teenage infatuation, then the latter is adult love. To quote My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult, “You don’t love someone because they’re perfect, you love them in spite of the fact that they’re not.”

Finally, the note they end on. Both songs end on a variation of their title… and what message would you want to leave the people of your country with? “Strive” (which is a pretty instinctual thing anyway) or a message of unity and inclusion (which has to be learned, because of our in-group/out-group instincts)?

The Usage

Now, let’s look at how anthems are actually used and how that can help or hinder their purpose.

I didn’t grow up in Australia, but, here in Canada, we were required to stand while our anthem was played over the school’s P.A. system every morning before classes. Judging by what I’ve seen of American and U.K. culture, that seems to be a safe thing to assume as a minimum for mandatory participation… at least for sake of argument.

This is another decision which seems counter-productive to me. If the purpose of your anthem is to engender unity, loyalty, and appreciation for the nation, you want to work with human instincts, not against them.

When I was in school, students (myself included) didn’t really feel much respect. We saw standing for the anthem as a chore to be gotten out of the way. Likewise, the students in charge of announcements tried their best to find various different recordings of O Canada to avoid us getting completely and utterly fed up with it. (Contrast that with the “Stop the Bop” fundraiser they did, where they played the same recording of Hanson’s Mmmbop every morning to annoy people into meeting their fundraising goals.)

In fact, I once read that the reason you hear so many Christian choral pieces in music by composers like Beethoven is that, having heard them every Sunday for their entire lives, the audience would tune out the meaning of the words and focus more on the acoustics of the voices and how they interacted with the music.

Humans like novelty within our comfort zones. That’s why we love fireworks on national holidays and going out to special events. We also like to be engaged. That’s why you see things such as bands encouraging concert-goers to take a turn singing the chorus of a song.

…so, if the goal is no longer to inculcate human robots to obediently work in factories and fight wars for the privileged classes, why in the heck are you forcing people to merely tolerate their national anthem, when singing along to it should be a treat, like fireworks on the day your country was founded or a half-time show at a football game?

(And who knows. Maybe singing a song with lines like “We are [insert country name]” before a team sport might tweak the audience’s mindset enough to measurably reduce the chances of fans rioting afterward.)

CC BY-SA 4.0 Thoughts on National Anthems in the 21st Century by Stephan Sokolow is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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