Review: Anthem Quality: National Songs – A Theoretical Survey

This review originally appeared in Space and Polity 19:3 (2015): 305-6.

Christopher Kelen. 2014. Anthem Quality: National Songs – a Theoretical Survey. Bristol: Intellect. ISBN 978-1-84150-737-8 (Hardback).

So pervasive is the musical genre and political technology of the national anthem that almost every reader of Anthem quality would probably be able to retell, as the poet and literary scholar Christopher Kelen does in his introduction, their childhood encounters with patriotic songs. Of course, they would not necessarily be analogous memories to Kelen’s, since among the challenges of understanding the history and significance of “the nation” as an idea in the contemporary world is the multiplicity of ways that individuals may identify with, and against, the nations with whose anthems they come into contact. Yet the institution of the national anthem has been adopted globally and has been associated with so many ritualized occasions – including those that purport, as part of their structure, to represent all the nations of the world – that they would be almost impossible to avoid. Then there are the songs which, while not in use as official national anthems, have still been taken up as symbols of the nation: the discarded anthems and superseded lyrics; the unofficial anthems (whether traditional, like “Rule Britannia”, or very recently composed, such as “Moja domovina”, the Croatian pop song composed for a Band Aid-style group at the beginning of the Homeland War in 1991, which has seen almost as much commemorative use as the national anthem itself); the anthems of states that no longer exist, which may – or may not – mean that their national identities have vanished too. Indeed, the complexities of national anthems, identities and state power become apparent from the very first page, when Kelen, an Australian, remembers the ritual of standing in the schoolroom and singing Britain’s national anthem, “God Save the Queen”.

For the last two decades, nationalism scholars have emphasized the importance of the routine and the everyday – or in the words of the key figure of this “turn” in nationalism studies, Michael Billig, the “banal” – in mediating the individual’s identification with the nation-state. In actions as unthinking as the use of currency or as spectacular and ceremonial as the opening of an Olympic Games, Billig suggests that participants and onlookers are reminded not just of their belonging to a nation but of the existence of a whole world of nations, into which the space of the planet has naturally and self-evidently been divided. Yet as influential as Billig’s Banal nationalism (1995) has been, and as audible as national anthems would be in many of the ritual settings it discusses, the national anthem is very rarely a subject of research in its own right. Kelen has already sought to redress this through articles (some co-authored with Aleksandar Pavković) on anthems in Australia, Britain, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia and postcolonial states. Insights from these contributions are woven throughout Anthem quality, which by studying the lyrics of national anthems seeks to provide a globalized explanation for why such simple pieces of music achieve affective power.

Kelen begins by setting out his theoretical framework for understanding the state and nation, drawing particularly on three paradoxes identified by Benedict Anderson: “the contrast between the objective modernity of nations and the subjective claims to unbroken tradition that characterise the sentiments of nationalists” (p. 19); the position of the nation as “a kind of universal difference – everyone’s nationality is not the same as someone else’s” (p. 21) and “between the political power and the intellectual weakness of the abstraction” of the nation (p. 22). The concept of “banal nationalism” makes evident how these paradoxes are resolved: following Billig, the technologies of banal nationalism – national anthems included – are what enable the paradoxes to “go unnoticed” (p. 22). This brief introduction to theories of nationalism and routine creates the basis for Kelen’s empirical work, which has lyrics and language at its centre.

Kelen is particularly interested in comparing and typologizing themes, but also in recognizing ironies and exceptions, not to mention deliberate parodies which reveal fundamentals of the anthem convention (like the Marx Brothers’ “Hail, Hail, Freedonia”, heard in Duck soup) or outright failures of the form (such as the regrettable incident in 2012 when hosts of a Kazakh shooting team played not the genuine Kazakh anthem “Meniñ Qazaqstanım” but the boastful parody from Sacha Baron-Cohen’s Borat). The overall impression is nevertheless how interchangeable, taken out of context, large parts of many nation’s anthems are and how far they draw on common representational conventions. Within these conventions, the symbols of belonging to this nation rather than that stand out all the more: its history (however the anthem narrates it); its language (or in certain cases, such as South Africa, its languages) and its territory, the source of much of the material content with which a national lyricist must work.

Generally switching between many countries’ anthems at once rather than (as in Kelen’s articles) developing a sustained focus on one at a time, Anthem quality is a poetic compendium of anthems and anthem-like lyrics; indeed, the cumulative effect of the extracts Kelen provides might suggest that the time has come for a comprehensive anthology of anthems and songs of similar standing. Its focus on shared linguistic imagery helps to open further questions for future research. How, for instance, did the idea of religious devotional song be attached to the idea of the nation? Historicizing the spread of the national anthem as an institution could productively become a reason to ask in more depth about the precedents set for nationalism as a “civic religion”, in the festivals of the French Revolution, or about the uses of religious music in European colonial rule. Yet perhaps the most important question raised by Kelen is implicit: if the force of “asserting ourselves to be national subjects” through official and de-facto anthems comes through “the act of singing together”, can the power of the affective and experiential aspects of identification – one might think for instance here of the work of Angharad Closs Stephens on what she calls nationalism’s “affective atmospheres” – fully be illustrated through concentrating on lyrics and language? And, if not, how else could it be approached? Anthem quality may not answer all these questions, but nevertheless places the anthem back on the agenda of nationalism studies.


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