Word Love: Anthems

Usually that means an anthem has to have lyrics. Occasionally—rarely—a song achieves anthem status despite having incomprehensible lyrics. But it’s still important that an anthem make people want to sing along.

Perhaps the greatest example is The Kingsmen’s 1963 version of Louie Louie, a proto-anthem long before the word became popular. Rumor had it the lyrics were obscene, leading to an FBI investigation. The US government finally concluded the song was “incomprehensible at any speed.” But even though we have no idea what they’re saying, it’s hard not to sing along.


[youtube https://youtu.be/4V1p1dM3snQ&w=400]


A nineties example of the lyrics-challenged anthem is Underworld’s Born Slippy. I only understand one word every five, but it’s transcendent anyway. It has ambition. “Shouting lager, lager, mega, mega—” might not be Shakespeare, but it takes me to the smoke-filled pubs of the mid-nineties in English towns that smelled like burnt toast and got too much rain and yet felt strangely full of possibility.


[youtube https://youtu.be/iTFrCbQGyvM&w=400]


A few quintessential examples of anthems with proper lyrics—loud, declarative lyrics:

  • Tubthumping, Chumbawumba
  • 500 Miles, The Proclaimers
  • Firework, Katy Perry
  • Rehab, Amy Winehouse

I’m not sure how far to extend my definition of anthem. Even though the word comes from the world of clubbing, raves and techno, other genres may produce songs deserving anthem status. Arguably, Love Shack by the B-52s is an anthem of my generation as much as Louie Louie was to my parents.

Musically, it doesn’t have the grandiosity that I associate with the adjective “anthemic.” But it brings people together and lifts the heart. Does that count? Somehow the rhythm of it doesn’t feel like an anthem. But what does that mean?

Maybe a musicologist could break down the chord progressions and rhythms to explain what a tune has to do to feel like an anthem.

Me, I use the word for a song that takes aim at something sublime. And I suspect the songs that feel sublime to me don’t feel sublime to everyone. For me, the song Love Shack is era-defining, but it’s down-to-earth and fun, without grasping at something transcendent. But what makes the word anthem interesting is that not everyone will agree.

I’ve got a few songs that I consider “writing anthems.”

I play them to wake myself up. I play them during breaks, when I force myself to stop working for five minutes and stretch my legs. A two minute break for good music makes my writing go faster. And it’s a cheap, simple way to feel good about the universe.

Some of my writing anthems are pretty obvious and others are more obscure. The only way to write is to write, so there isn’t much I can say on this blog to help you write. But I can share a few songs that make it easier to sit down at the desk. ♥

Tell me what you think