Tuneless, dull and dated: anthems under fire

God Save the King: Great Britain was the first country to adopt a national anthem in 1745.

Should we scrap national anthems? A nine-year-old girl has sparked anger by calling out racist lyrics in Advance Australia Fair. It is far from the only national song with dubious verses.

We know the words from childhood. We belt them out at stadiums, hearts bursting with pride. National anthems unify us in a common identity.

Or do they?

Nine-year-old Harper Nielsen does not think so. Nielsen, from Queensland, Australia, has provoked fury by refusing to stand for the country’s national anthem, Advance Australia Fair, on the grounds that it is disrespectful to indigenous people.

National anthems first became popular in 19th century Europe to celebrate national identity and military glories. Ever since, they have been heard at state occasions and sporting events around the globe.

But while our societies have become more equal and global, these songs have remained frozen in time.

In January, Canada voted to change the lyric “in all thy sons command” to “in all of us command” so as not to exclude women from its anthem. Germany and Norway have debated similar alterations.

The racism and xenophobia rife in many of the songs also does not sit well with us today.

“No refuge could save the hireling and slave/ From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave”, goes the third verse of the US’s Star-Spangled Banner.

These lyrics are often interpreted as taking pleasure in the deaths of freed slaves who fought with the British in the American Revolutionary War.

France’s La Marseillaise, meanwhile, cries out for the spilling of “impure blood”. Writer David Andress says it is haunted by the “history of imperialism”.

Many more are saturated with brutal violence. “The path to glory is built by the bodies of our foes!” sing the Vietnamese. In Il Canto degli Italiani, Italians pledge to drink the blood of Austrians.

Even the UK’s national anthem talks about crushing rebellious Scots.

Beyond the songs themselves, national anthems are becoming a political battleground.

In 2015, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was attacked in the media for not singing God Save the Queen, and now the US national anthem is at the centre of a fiery stand-off between the president and the NFL.

Should we just scrap them?

Land of my fathers (and mothers)

Certainly, say some. For songs meant to unify a nation, most of these anthems exclude anyone who isn’t male and white. In a time when we aspire to peace and international cooperation, should we really be celebrating war and violence? Besides, the vast majority of them are boring and tuneless anyway.

No way, respond others. Most of the dodgy verses have been quietly dropped, and the lyrics are so far removed from their original context that we can’t take them literally — obviously we don’t really want to drink the blood of our enemies. National sporting events would lose part of their unifying power without them. It’s competitive fun.

You Decide

  1. Should we get rid of national anthems?
  2. Does it make sense to be proud of your country?

Activities

  1. Write your own national anthem for your country. National anthems usually celebrate a country’s landscape, character and achievements.
  2. Listen to four of the national anthems mentioned in this article. Rank them from best to worse and write a paragraph of explanation for each of your decisions.

Some People Say...

“You can’t live by slogans, dead ideas, clichés or national flags.”

Zadie Smith

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
National anthems have caused trouble for many politicians. In 1993, John Redwood, the Conservative secretary for Wales, was filmed unconvincingly miming along to the Welsh national anthem at the country’s Tory conference. He might have fared better in Spain, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo or San Marino, which are the only four countries in the world to have wordless anthems.
What do we not know?
The origins of many national anthems are obscure, long and complex. The tune of the Malaysian anthem came from a moment of panic when, during a visit to see Queen Victoria, British representatives asked an aide to the Sultan of Petrak for his national anthem. Embarrassed at not having one, the aide hummed a song he had heard in the Seychelles. New lyrics were written for it in 1957.

Word Watch

Indigenous people
They lived in Australia before it was colonised by Europeans in the 1780s. Nielsen says “fair” only refers to white people and that describing Australia as “young” ignores Aboriginal history.
Xenophobia
Prejudice against people from other countries.
American Revolutionary War
Between 1775 and 1783, Americans in the newly-formed US fought for independence from Britain. At the end of the war, Britain agreed to recognise the US as an independent country.
Imperialism
France established colonies across Africa between the 17th and the 19th centuries. Many native people were killed as the French fought to assert their control over countries like Algeria into the middle of the 20th century.
Scots
The sixth verse of the song urges God to help 17th century commander Marshal Wade “crush” the “rebellious Scots” in war.
NFL
The National Football League. In 2016, NFL player Colin Kaepernick kneeled during the national anthem to protest against racism and police brutality in the US. The protest spread throughout the sport, sparking a national debate and an angry response from President Donald Trump.

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