Pop music is changing. The jury is still out on whether for the better or worse. But one type of song I’m hearing more and more frequently on the radio and out and about is the anthem. I’m not talking your run-of-the-mill favorite song; I’m referring to those enormous tunes of triumph that you might hear as you shower or do some early holiday shopping at Zara. They are everywhere and taking over the radio waves. It’s as though record producers are telling these artists they must have at least one anthem on their record. And the artist is all like, duh. And the record producer is like, I’m not sure if you understand what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the end of the world. And the artist’s eyes glaze over.
I. What is an anthem? The term has taken on such a wide range of definitions you can throw it around anywhere in a sentence and it will probably work. For example: “If you give me $20, I’ll buy you an anthem,” or “Hey, you stole my anthem!” Many of the first definitions I’ve read describe it in a biblical sense comparing it to the likes of psalms and hymns. Reading on, I discovered there are also some major connections to gladness, loyalty, and importance. All of these ring true in the anthems we hear on the radio (rather religious, more spiritual). And they are becoming more and more ubiquitous. Again, it’s important to realize the anthem does not refer to Ladies Night Out with Margaritas, and while it can soundtrack an important event, it is more used for the day that comes when the sun explodes in the sky and there is no longer such a thing as the ground.
II. What are the characteristics of an anthem? Mumford & Sons is the band today that I believe is out to perfect the anthem. While many refer to the band as folk rock revivalists or American wannabes, each song of theirs contains elements of this apocalypse I speak of. Listen to the ever-popular tune “The Cave” (above) and tell me what you hear. The song begins softly with just guitar and singer Marcus Mumford. A twinkly piano enters and he begins to sing about hope and you’re thinking how nice it is. Then the rest of the band joins in like a choir behind Mumford singing now about strength and change and knowing who you truly are. And here is where the song takes off and shows what it can do as an anthem: a soaring, foot stomping chant of a chorus, maniacal banjo, words of fortitude and courage, and within the last minute or so, the subtle yet absolute inclusion of horns that show up just as the song, and the listener, truly lose their minds.
III. Who else out there has anthems? Lady Gaga is currently all over the place as her new album drops next week but leaked this week. It would be obvious and appropriate to point to one of her last singles, “Edge of Glory,” as being one great example of an anthem. Even in the title, you know what you are in for. The song itself contains an explosive, desperate chorus and of course, the token horns at the end. But it is another Lady Gaga song, “Hair,” that really does it for me (and one I believe to arguably be her best song). Although not released as a single, “Hair” contains just the right elements to make it one glory-bound anthem: beginning of horns (!), self-affirming and soaring pre-chorus and chorus (!), and lyrics to chant as the sky opens up. “I’ve had enough. This is my prayer,” Gaga sings. “And I’ll die living just as free as my hair.” The song is a true testament to pop music as an otherworldly art form. Other current anthems include Avicii’s electro-country hit “Wake Me Up,” and Florence + The Machine’s booming “Cosmic Love,” two tunes you might hear as the comets come in floods and all that remains are you and your memories.
IV. Why are anthems so popular? As humans, we contain a variety of driving forces within us that must surface. Among them is the energy to affirm that we are who we are and that we have hope. Our innate response to the world is one of positivity. What better way to expel this brilliant energy than through music, and especially through pop music because it can arguably reach the largest audience? Sure, we recently went through the whole end of the world thing with Y2K and then again with 2012 and nothing happened. And it’s likely nothing will. But on the off chance that our magnetic fields fail us, we will be ready. Anthems playing. Hope blazing.