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Australians All Let Us Discuss If Our Anthem Is Any Bloody Good Or Not

Ah, the national anthem has reared its ugly head again -- and I use that somewhat cruel terminology advisedly.

Every now and then the debate flares up once more: shouldn’t we get rid of our terrible anthem, and replace it with something that is both more listenable and more representative of our nation?

Nobody much wants to defend ‘Advance Australia Fair’, for two reasons: one, it makes you look like you have terrible taste in music; and two, usually people who defend ‘Advance Australia Fair’ are spittle-flecked culture warriors more bent on resisting any change at all than spruiking the merits of the song.

Nevertheless, fool that I am, I’m going to have a stab at sticking up for this much unloved ditty -- if not to sing its praises, at least to shield it from a few of the sharper slings and arrows.

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Now, the first thing to say is that, honestly, it’s not that great a song. So the defence is off to a flying start. But seriously, yeah, it’s no banger. Obviously we’d all be more entertained if our national anthem was, say, ‘The Boys Are Back In Town’, or ‘Short People.’ It’s not super-catchy and the lyrics are not as captivating as your average Bob Dylan classic. But it’s not that bad a song, either.

What it is is a middling tune married to slightly banal utopian sentiments. In other words, it’s a national anthem.

Because national anthems, let’s be frank, are generally not great songs, and let’s be even more frank, they’re not supposed to be. They’re songs written to be sung out of a sense of duty, not to inspire you to wave your lighter in the air.

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There are better anthems in the world than Australia’s, and there are much, much worse. Take the British national anthem, for example: ‘God Save The Queen.’ Not only is it deathly dull to listen to, it’s not even a song about how great the country is: it’s a song about how great one specific woman is; and a woman, at that, whose status she owes entirely to the coincidence of heredity rather than any actual achievement. The Brit anthem is an ode to subservience to archaic tyranny. Australia’s beats it into a cocked hat.

There are even worse and weirder anthems out there that we should count ourselves lucky not to be lumbered with. The Dutch national anthem isn’t just about their monarch, it’s actually written in the first person from the perspective of William of Orange, and relates his struggle to win independence from Spain. You think ‘Advance Australia Fair’ is bad? Imagine being Dutch and having to sing lines like “A prince I am of Orange” or “O that the Spaniards rape thee.”

Or perhaps you’d prefer the Greek anthem, which begins, terrifyingly, with the words “I shall always recognise you by the dreadful sword you hold”? Or maybe the Spanish anthem, which has no words at all and seems just lazy.

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Of course, the one that is always cited as the gold standard of national anthems is France’s ‘La Marseillaise.’ It’s a nice tune, I’ll give you that. But the words, oh God the words. The French anthem is a call to bloody revolution set to music, featuring jolly lyrics such as: “They’re coming right into your arms to cut the throats of your sons, your women!” and “Let an impure blood water our furrows.” So, I mean, yeah, it’s pretty great if your idea of patriotism is wild-eyed bloodlust.

Ah, but the French sing it with pride, don’t they? Just like the Americans: their anthems must be better than ours, because their people seem so damn proud when they belt it out. We need an anthem we can sing with pride too… don’t we?

Well, there’s the rub, people: when it comes to singing with pride, the problem ain’t the song, it’s the country. Americans don’t sing the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ (a song about a piece of fabric, incidentally) with swelled chests and tears in their eyes because it’s such a great song. They do so because they reckon their country is the best.

Some of us may differ. Hell, some of them may differ. But when true Yank patriots roar “O say can you see…”, they’re not thinking "Damn this is a cracking tune" -- they’re thinking, in the words of Bart Simpson, "Hey, America you’re so fine, you’re so fine you blow my mind."

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This cuts to the heart of the criticisms of ‘Advance Australia Fair’: that it doesn’t properly represent our country. In particular, this is the criticism from the perspective of Indigenous Australians, such as those footballers who declined to sing the anthem at last week’s State of Origin game. And it’s easy to see their point: even non-Indigenous Australians feel the song isn’t particularly representative; imagine how it must feel when you’re a member of that dispossessed and marginalised community, listening to a song written by a white guy that doesn’t even acknowledge the country’s original inhabitants.

From left: NSW Blues players Josh Morris, Latrell Mitchell, Josh Addo-Carr, Cody Walker and Damien Cook during the Australian National Anthem prior to Game 1 of the 2019 State of Origin series. (Image: AAP)

It’s a decent argument, and I’d never say that ‘Advance Australia Fair’ couldn’t be improved with the odd tweak. That “young and free” bit seems particularly on the nose nowadays -- maybe “we are one and free” would be better? I mean, it’s not true -- many of us aren’t free at all, and we’re eternally hopelessly divided, but national anthems aren’t supposed to be true, they’re just supposed to be positive.

That’s really the central point of any anthemic debate. Writing some new lines about the ancient culture that was here thousands of years before white men even dreamed of the place could be a good idea. But generally, the anthem describes Australia as a wonderful place to live for all Australians, of all races and backgrounds. In this, it certainly does not reflect reality; but frankly, that’s a reason to change the country, not the song. After all, “For those who come across the seas, we’ve boundless plains to share” is pretty dishonest.

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We’re going to have to deal with the fact that national anthems are both aspirational and a little bit deluded. I mean, is America truly “the land of the free and the home of the brave”? Is Egypt actually “the mother of all countries”? Every anthem (except for ones like Spain’s, which can’t be bothered with words) contains hyperbole, wishful thinking and outright lies.

That’s what anthems are: they’re not mirrors, they’re self-portraits of what we wish we looked like. And like the picture of Dorian Gray, as we get more and more corrupted and decadent, our national anthems remain lovely. That is their purpose.

So no, there’s no need to change the national anthem. Of course, if everyone wants it changed, there’s probably no harm in changing it, either. Just don’t expect anything much better than what we’ve got. As anthems go, it’s basically fine; and as anthems go, that’s really all you can expect. The greatest songs are never national anthems, and never will be.

And if you really want the self-aggrandising words of your anthem to match the reality of your country, get to work on making your country a better place.

Also, “girt” is a great word. Leave it alone.