THE WORST SONGS IN THE WORLD
There are tens of thousands of people in the stadium. I am of them. When the music starts, there’s a huge cheer. Everyone knows this song. Most of the people there join in, singing along, the words familiar. OK, not everyone is exactly in tune, but it doesn’t matter. It's a magical moment that raises emotions and bonds the crowd. The song ends with cheering and applause. It’s a big hit.
I may have misled you. Because you’ve probably got a picture in your head of a rock concert, with a huge band and an audience that knows the entire playlist. My apologies.
The stadium is Murrayfield in Edinburgh, Scotland. It’s where the Scottish rugby team plays their big games against international opposition. And the song the crowd was singing was Flower of Scotland, the country's unofficial national anthem. And here’s the thing: it’s really not the kind of song that a modern, progressive nation should celebrate.
So why does Scotland have such a poor national anthem? And what exactly is wrong with it? And what about other countries? Are their national anthems equally bad?
Yes they are. Many are even worse. Some are truly horrible. Most celebrate violence, a deity, and the joy of dying for one’s country. These are truly the wost songs in the world.
It’s hard to beat that as a title, so I’m grabbing it. My book is called The Worst Songs in the World: The Sexist, Sectarian and Shocking Tunes We Celebrate as National Anthems.
We’re going to take a journey through the history of national anthems. We’ll find out when they started, why they started, and why so many of them are truly awful. We’ll hear how sport basically invented the modern anthem. How nationalists use them as loyalty tests. And how they can become the centre of protests. Along the way, we’ll examine many of the world’s anthems - from countries big and tiny - and find out why some anthems can’t be sung because they have no words.
So what’s so bad about national anthems? Think about what an anthem represents. It’s one of two national symbols that most countries use to identify themselves to the world - the other one is a flag. Both say something about the country. A flag tells a story. We know some of the famous ones - the stars in the American flag record the number of states, the stripes represent the 13 original colonies that rebelled against British rule. Britain’s flag is a blend of the national flags that make up the United Kingdom. Canada’s Maple Leaf uses the iconic leaf and the national colours of red and white. Ireland’s flag symbolizes the green of Irish nationalists, the orange of the Loyalist Protestants and the white of peace between them. It’s aspirational, but it says something about what the nation wants to be.
Anthems also tell a story. It’s just that the story is often a really bad one, not the kind you’d share as a bedtime tale. Scotland’s anthem is not an ancient song like som anthems. Flower of Scotland was written in 1967 and performed by the folk group, The Corries. But it tells an ancient tale. The song is about a famous military victory over the English at Bannockburn (no, not the one in the movie Braveheart). The battle was fought in 1314. More than 700 years ago. What this song is saying is that what’s important to Scotland then, since and now, is beating the English. Even if they have to go back to the 14th century to find a decent victory.
To be fair, beating the English is a pretty popular sentiment in dozens of countries around the world - the US and Irish anthems follow the same theme. But as Scotland debates its future - and possibly reestablishing itself as an independent nation - you have to wonder if defining your national image as ‘we beat the English!’ is a good look for a modern country. Scotland, you can do a lot better.
While Scotland’s anthem is in questionable taste, it doesn’t feature blood, death and destruction. It’s actually one of the more gentle anthems that you can find in the ‘violent’ column of my database of 218 national anthems. It’s hard to pin down the number of countries in the world: it all depends on who you ask and what you define as a ‘country.’. The United Nations recognizes 193 countries plus the non-member observer states of the Vatican and Palestine. But the Olympics recognizes 206 nations - including a bunch of territories that are actually protectorates or technically part of other countries, like Guam, Bermuda and Aruba. And FIFA - the international organization that runs football’s World Cup - has 211 countries.
I’ve blended all three groupings in my database. Eighty-three of the 218 countries have some degree of violence in their anthem. How violent? Let’s start with probably the most violent anthem: La Marseillaise. It’s truly a great revolutionary song, but have you listened to the lyrics? They tell of ferocious soldiers coming to your homes to cut the throats of your sons and comrades. The anthem calls on the people to arise and march and water the fields with the impure blood of their enemies. And if they fall in the fight, new heroes will be born and raised to renew the struggle. So, great song, wonderful tune - but is it really the best message to send to the world?
There’s a certain sameness to revolutionary anthems: they pretty much all call for marching, death and glory, which is probably more than the average sports fan is really ready to commit to when singing the song at an international soccer game.
China’s March of the Volunteers obviously features marching. It’s a more modern anthem, so by the time it was written it was less about swords and cutting throats and more about braving the enemy’s gunfire. The Chinese patriots are called on to build a new Great Wall with their own flesh and blood.
I could go on (and will, in the chapter about violent anthems) but I’ll leave you with one final anthem because it’s my personal favourite in this category: Algeria’s. This time we get streams of blood. The revolutionaries take the noise of gunpowder as their rhythm and the sound of machine guns as their melody. It’s truly in a class of its own: no other anthem celebrates machine guns (although to be fair there are plenty with bombs and cannons and they’d probably have tossed machine guns into those as well if they’d been invented at the time of writing).
So where did all these anthems come from? It may seem obvious today that nations should have a national song but they are actually a pretty recent development. It all seems to have started with England’s God Save the King, which when you think about it isn’t really a national anthem: it’s more of a theme song for a monarch. That makes it one of the few anthems that is never sung by the head of state. And once the English king had his own song, well - every European monarch wanted one.
And here’s where it gets a little weird. Many countries just lifted the tune from God Save the King and came up with their own lyrics. The Russians had God Save the Tsar for its first anthem. The Imperial German anthem had people hailing the Emperor while their British First World War enemies were praising the king - to the same tune.
Most countries eventually came up with their own music, but the original English tune still lingers in strange places - like Norway’s royal anthem and in the tiny nation of Liechtenstein. That has led to some delightful confusion. In 2010, Liechtenstein played Scotland in a football match in Glasgow. As is traditional, the anthems were played before the kick-off. It should be noted that God Save the Queen is not a popular song in Scotland so when the familiar strains were played the Scottish crowd, presumably surprised at hearing the music, started to boo. You have to feel sorry for the tiny contingent of Liechtenstein fans who were presumably wondering why Scotland hated them.
There is a long history of people booing national anthems - both their own and other people’s. Not everyone is unified by an anthem. Some anthems are deliberately exclusive: you have to sing the song to be part of the nation. In India, courts ordered cinemas to play the anthem before movies and instructed people to stand and sing. Those who did not were challenged.
“Are you Pakistani terrorists?” Demanded one angry Indian moviegoer in a videoed confrontation with a non-singing patron.
China has imposed its national anthem on Hong Kong and introduced severe penalties for people who fail to show respect. This followed numerous examples of people booing the Chinese anthem. Countries where populist nationalism reigns are quick to present devotion to the anthem as a test of patriotism. Failure to stand or sing can be seized on as a sign that you have failed a citizenship test.
People pay more attention to this stuff than you’d think. In the Euro football championship in 2021, members of the Spanish team were criticized by commentators for failing to sing during their anthem. They were accused (by non-Spaniards) of lack of patriotism. A British politician aired his disappointment in a tweet:
Amazing that every member of the Italian team sang its National Anthem whereas every single member of the Spanish team remained totally silent. Not one sang the Spanish Anthem!
But they didn’t have a choice. Spain’s La Marcha Real doesn’t have lyrics. It’s one of four wordless anthems - most belonging to countries with bitter civil divisions where there’s no possibility of agreement on lyrics. Except for San Marino, where people just don’t seem interested in having an anthem you can sing.
There is so much material here in our journey around the world’s anthems. We haven’t got to god yet - deities in their different forms appear in most of the world’s national songs, even in countries where religion seems to play little part. It’s hard to avoid when it’s the first word like God Defend New Zealand or God Bless Our Homeland Ghana. Other anthems slip it in a little further down, like Canada’s. God apparently loves lots of countries, even countries that don’t love each other. And not everyone likes that. But it’s hard to shift a deity. Getting god out of anthems is a pretty futile task: no government wants to open that potential can of worms. And let’s face it, how do you get rid of God Save the Queen without getting rid of the Queen?
Making any kind of change to anthems is a long, tortuous and usually fruitless process. Virtually every major country - certainly the ones with religion, violence, sexism and exclusion in their anthems - has an organized group of citizens demanding changes. We’ll look at efforts to replace the US national anthem because of the composer’s slave-owning past - verse 3 also has a slave reference that makes people uncomfortable (did you even know there was a verse 3? Or a fourth verse?).
Canada didn’t actually adopt its anthem until 1980 - and there were objections at the time to its sexist and sectarian references. But it took almost 40 years and much acrimonious debate to make the minor tweak that replaced “all our sons” with “all of us.” Removing god is a fight for another day. Australia’s anthem has come under fire for its complete failure to acknowledge the existence of anyone living on the island prior to the arrival of Europeans (take note Canada and the US - at least New Zealand has an official Maori language version).
And remember that verse 3 of the US anthem? Well, there are lots of anthems with verses that have been either quietly removed or gently forgotten. We’ll look at the unsung verses of anthems. Be thankful that Greece rarely plays all 158 verses of its anthem. And Uruguay’s national song takes around 5 minutes to perform in full. That’s not including extra verses: it’s just how long the music takes.
Today’s anthems basically exist in the form we recognize because of international sport. In most countries, that’s often the only place that people will sing their anthem. It all started a little over a hundred years ago at a rugby match between New Zealand and Wales when the crowd responded to the All Black's famous haka war dance with an impromptu performance of the Welsh national song.
Then the Olympics adopted the idea of medal ceremonies, with the raising of national flags and the playing of the winner’s anthem. That required countries to both come up with an anthem and to make it short enough to be acceptable. The Olympics sets a limit of 80 seconds, so all those extra verses and musical interludes had to be cut out to create a new performance anthem. And those shortened anthems have largely become the standard versions.
But sometimes, things go horribly wrong. Olympic anthems used to be performed right after the events with a live band. The musicians had to learn a lot of anthems and made the pragmatic decision to just learn the likely winners. So when an athlete from Luxembourg won his country’s first-ever gold medal at the 1952 games, the band didn’t even have the sheet music for the song. So they made something up.
Incidents like that led to a call for the Olympics to abandon anthems and flags, which many people also thought were in complete opposition to the movement’s goal of bringing people together through sport. And in 1968, it almost happened. The IOC came within a couple of votes of dumping anthems - it was only the requirement of a two-thirds majority that kept them in place. Even the head of the IOC wanted them gone, calling anthems “badly played and monotonous.”
The IOC chief had a point. There is a long list of badly played and wrongly played anthems. We’ll go through some of the more amusing episodes. Like the time a Kazakh athlete won a gold medal and had to listen to the spoof anthem from the movie Borat with lines like “all other countries are run by little girls.” Or the horribly embarrassing moment when a US tennis match against Germany featured a live performance of the German anthem that used the lyrics associated with the Nazi regime. The German fans and players did their best to drown out the singer, but he had a microphone and wasn't stopping.
Most anthems at sporting events are now recorded, and we’ll meet the conductor who had the job of arranging all the anthems for the 2012 London Olympics and then getting the versions approved by each country. But even versions without lyrics can cause problems. An arrangement of The Star-Spangled Banner played at the 2004 Olympics was criticized in the Wall Street Journal for playing down “the notion of the U.S. as a chest-thumping, butt-kicking, jingoistic powerhouse.”
We’ll hear from critics of anthems. Some just want a new anthem. Others want them gone altogether from the public sphere: out of schools, out of the Olympics, out of sporting events. But of course, that’s not going to happen. The best we can hope for is that anthems will get better. That they will include all the people of their country. That women will perhaps be acknowledged as equal contributors. In this category, Norway does deserve an Honourable Mention for its verse where “even women stood up and fought as if they were men.” Yes, peaceful, progressive Norway has a violent anthem - remember, they are Vikings.
The book is being written in conjunction with a six-episode podcast, which complements - with audio and interviews - the themes raised in the text.
At the end of the book, we will do our part to help the world. A leading Canadian musician has agreed to create a one-size-fits-all national anthem for any country that’s brave enough to adopt it. We’re offering it up to the first nation that wants it and will even hand over the copyright for a dollar. The music and lyrics will be printed for anyone to perform. If I’m lucky, Scotland will step up and take ownership.