Tuesday, 24 November 2009

That is not an anthem

This is a time of year when music impinges on everyday life rather more than usual. Christmas music is everywhere, and even the most bah humbug atheist (with the possible exception of the Grouch himself, Richard Dawkins) may well admit to a secret enjoyment of belting out a few Christmas favourites, or hearing a children's choir mangle Silent Night.

It's also the time of year when record producers go into overdrive, promoting CDs for people who don't buy music the rest of the year, but know that a CD is an excellent present (almost as good as a book. Have you thought of a science book as a Christmas present? See the Popular Science website for great book and gift ideas. {sound of slapping} Sorry about that. Normal service will now be resumed)

This is a time when the moaners and bleaters who tell us that the CD is dead have to have brief second thoughts, because no one wants to unwrap an MP3 file on Christmas morning. However, one thing about the adverts for CDs that squeeze onto TV and radio fills me with dread.

Every second album advertised will be 'dance anthems' or 'the 20 greatest power anthems' or whatever. According to the dictionary, an anthem is 'a composition in unmeasured prose set to music' (i.e. NOT a versified song). An anthem is a very specific musical form. A well known song is not an anthem. And even more ludicrously, a 'dance anthem' is a total contradiction in terms - an anthem is defined by its use of words, you can't have an instrumental anthem.

The rot set in quite a while ago with the term 'national anthem'. Practically all national anthems are hymns, not anthems. The anthem form contains many of the greatest musical pieces in existence. Stop polluting the term, please. Now.


  1. There is a common second meaning which has nothing to do with antiphonal music or non-metrical songs:
    "a song of praise or gladness esp. a song adopted by a nation to express patriotism or loyalty."

    Language changes. From this second definition we can see why the current draft of the OED includes the following definition for anthem:
    "A popular song with rousing, emotive, qualities, often one identified with a particular subculture, social group, or cause. Chiefly with distinguishing word, denoting either the associated cause or subculture or simply the genre of music, as football anthem, rock anthem, etc. Sometimes mildly derogatory."

    We may rant and rail against "poor" use of English, but if enough people decide that a word means something else, by golly, it does mean something else!

  2. You know when you write too much when... you are typing in the living room and need to look up a word, only to find that the shorter Oxford English Dictionary is already next to you on the sofa :)

    Enjoying reading the back-catalogue of your blog, by the way. I love hearing from people who love to think.

  3. It's a fair cop, Rob - I did see the other definition, but exercise my right to disagree with a usage, wherever it is recorded!

    Thanks for the positive remarks.