The rock anthem, giving teenagers a false sense of confidence for more than 60 years. From stadiums to field parties, they’ve been shouted at the top of lungs in unison, made for hilarious solo moments in front of mirrors and have probably caused more than a few speeding tickets. They are rock’s biggest accomplishment, songs of self-expression that define a generation. These are the ones that, decades later, still incite a motivation in people that no drug can replicate. They can also be cheesy as hell.
I wonder if “We Will Rock You” and “We Are The Champions” were done with a straight face. Do you think Steppenwolf considered themselves poets with “Born To Be Wild”? And I’m fairly certain that it was just another walk in the park when AC/DC pulled out “For Those About To Rock (We Salute You).”
I bring those examples up as a way to look at the rules of writing an anthem, and the first rule is that they don’t have to be Shakespeare. In fact, with the greatest anthems of all time, there’s usually a lot of space for broad strokes when it comes to lyrics. Rarely do they get too attentive to detail, like U2’s “Pride (In The Name of Love),” which has that bit about Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, though the reason it works is that it’s a moment that everyone is familiar with — and is completely perfect moment for the build up into the chorus.
It’s also a good idea to be all-inclusive and inviting, as use of the word “we” seems to be a pretty good trick. To be an anthem, the song needs to apply to many different people. That rule is slightly skirted with a song like “My Generation,” being both personal and wide reaching all at once. And definitely throw the word “rock” in as often as possible. You most certainly don’t want listeners getting confused as to what genre they’re listening to. “Rockin’ In the Free World,” “Rock and Roll Part 2,” “I Love Rock and Roll” or, simplified for Led Zeppelin, “Rock and Roll.” A little direction won’t hurt either by telling your fans just how long you intend to bring the rock: “Rock and Roll All Night” and “Rock Around the Clock” will let you in on how many energy drinks you’ll need, while “Rockin’ All Over the World” serves as a reminder to check on your passport’s expiration date.
I would advise against using the word “anthem” within in your anthem. You don’t want to end up the next Good Charlotte (“this is the anthem, get your damn hands up”), Blink 182 or Silverchair, whose “Anthem For the Year 2000” never really delivered on its promise. And, just like Good Charlotte’s Joel and Benji Madden, when Pitbull and Lil John commanded, “everybody sing” in their “The Anthem,” it came across as hostile begging more than motivational. I’m also aware that Leonard Cohen wrote one called “Anthem,” but that’s Leonard Cohen and the dude can do whatever he wants to because those are also the rules.
Let’s not forget the most important rule of a classic, anthemic song. It must provide at least one great fist-pumping opportunity, if not an entire song’s worth. The act of man holding one clinched fist in the air while the other hand bobs and sways with its solo cup firmly grasped, sloshes of cheep beer spilling over, is what separates us from the animals. It doesn’t have to always be upbeat to accomplish this either. We need only look at “Freebird.” Just imagine all of the ass cracks that have appeared from drunks as they’ve performed a little boogie, both hands in the air, eyes closed in a way that you’re not certain if they’ve just smelled their own stank or have been carried away to a redneck utopia. Oh, and wait for it, here comes the high fives to all of their nearest buddies, many of whom were strangers only a few moments prior.
And that’s what brings us back to community. An anthem can bring us all together. I mean, maybe what we’re missing from war-torn battlefields is a little Kool & The Gang (“Celebration”). Don’t you think the site of a few hundred soldiers walking toward each other in unison singing “Paradise City” could be one of the greatest moments in history? Then we’ll round it off with a little “All You Need is Love” and an encore of “Y.M.C.A.” Instructional dances, a bonus! •
Kyle Meredith is the music director of WFPK and host of the nationally syndicated “The Weekly Feed.” Hunting bears was never his strong point.