Anthems Suck


Whether it’s the Olympics or the World Cup, the story’s the same beautiful games ruined by dirge-, rococo-, or Eurotrash-styled national anthems.


And what unites all these styles is the self-induced orgasm of national narcissism.

I loved the soccer and thought the Socceroos did wonderfully and yeah, we was robbed! But I hate the yobbo nationalism that surrounds any big sporting event, nowadays.

By ‘yobbo’ I refer not to the hundreds of inebriated fans who feel compelled to reveal their six-packs during excitable TV interviews, but to the opportunist politicians who positively hum over the flower of national sporting glory.

But there is some beauty to it all. Momentarily, as we saw during the World Cup, beautiful men bore the weight of the nation. Their private grief and public struggle somehow climaxed as a national story in a mesmerising ball game of touch and go. And off the field, multicultural youth patrolled suburbs, beeping horns in homage. Young Asian students in the inner suburbs carried the Australian flag. Loud blokes from the suburbs looked on approvingly. For a few weeks the nation seemed in communion.

Perhaps, though, I am jaded. My blackest moments always came at the beginning of each game. Why play the national anthem?

Before a worldwide audience of billions, those beautiful men, possessing extraordinary personal prowess that normally transcends national identity, submitted themselves to the historical recrudescence of nations policed borders and social exclusion and sang songs that should not be sung.

Some do the anthem-thing with more dignity than others. Some are silent as the national anthem is played, preferring to look composed as the tune plays on. Others feel compelled to mouth words a second too late, like drag queens chasing a soundtrack.

During Australia’s run in the World Cup we were subjected to at least two explicitly offensive national anthems and three fence-sitters. The former are Japan’s and Australia’s own; the latter the Italian, Brazilian and Croatian anthems. In the interests of international harmony nothing was said about them.

The current Japanese national anthem is the same as it was when it honoured the war criminal, Emperor Hirohito. That anthem hoped that the Emperor would be around time enough ‘for small pebbles to grow into a great rock and become covered with moss.’ He’s gone, but the moss is steadily growing over historical memory as Japanese Right-wing nationalists seek to revise their country’s view of a certain Pacific war.

The Australian national anthem has words so grotesque that to sing them is to put pebbles girt by sea in your mouth. ‘Advance Australia Fair’ is so unlike its people that those who sing it look like a dog sneaking a quick one in a public park. Or like an Australianised Hyacinth Bucket (from the BBC sitcom Keeping Up Appearances) straining to be dutiful.

Thanks to Emo.

The lesser national anthem offenders include Croatia, Brazil and Italy. Perhaps not, every nation has its skeleton. But at least for these three, the lyrics are stirring or gentle. In Italy’s case it’s the glory of national liberation that is hummed a hymn to past glories of national unification and it celebrates the end of the Austrian Eagle’s control over the country:

This eagle has drunk the blood of Italy,
Polish blood,
And Cossack blood.
But this has burned his gut.
Let us gather in legions
Ready to die!
Italy has called!

The Croatian anthem is charmingly pastoral and endearing (if a little patriarchal). The homeland is ‘our fathers’ glory’ and the citizens are pledged to eternal love:

Yes, you are our only glory,
Yes, you are our only treasure,
We love your plains and valleys,
We love your hills and mountains.

Brazilians, like us, share a view of the Southern Cross and under its dim light their anthem, like Australia’s, glosses over the massacres of indigenous peoples, and dreams of futures to wipe out pasts:

By the promise of this equality
We could conquer by our mighty hand.
In thy breast, O Freedom,
Our heart defies death itself.

So what is an anthem? Anthems are the touch up job that nations need. Behind all national anthems lies shame, shame of a nation’s conquering past or its humiliating submission. The quality of that shame is not unique, with each national anthem ironically proclaiming a universal condition.

So, are national anthems of any consequence? They get sung at major events, they occasion tears. In some respects anthems are the emotive Constitution of a homeland. They are eulogies to national ideals. But what would happen if nations were held to their (badly) sung ideals?

For one thing, if anthems had the power of law, a tuneful Constitution, supporters of refugees to this land girt by sea might have another option apart from relying on the rump of liberals in the Liberal Party. Listen again. Is there not a case that those languishing in Australian detention centres are victims of false advertising?:

For those who’ve come across the seas
we’ve boundless plains to share;
with courage let us all combine
To Advance Australia fair.

The hummingbird of nationalism will flap its wings over beautiful flowers. But what of those demonised, those outcast as ‘queue jumpers’? They are weeds, not worthy of much at all except the flapping wings of alarmism and xenophobia.

What does this have to do with the World Cup? Not much, unfortunately. More anguish will be spilt over those Italian legions and that unearned penalty goal in the second round, than the wilting of lives in our own, Australian, sanitary gulags.

A version of this piece was broadcast on the Radio National program Lingua Franca on 19 August 2006. To listen to it, click here.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.