A recurring part of Australian life is that, from time to time, professional agitators will attempt to have our national anthem changed.
This unfortunate tendency towards anti-patriotic troublemaking reared its head again this week, with Victorian Supreme Court justice Peter Vickery’s proposal to update some lines in the song.
It follows a petition earlier this year that called for the anthem to be replaced altogether by Outkast’s hit Hey Ya, and is the latest in a long line of pushes to alter, replace, or otherwise abolish Advance Australia Fair as the tune that swells Australian hearts with love of country.
In 2001, for example, Nationals Senator Sandy Macdonald said our anthem was “outdated and boring”, while in 2011 Jeff Kennett suggested it should be replaced by I Am Australian.
These sentiments have been echoed many times since, but it is beyond time that they stop.
It is not that I object to change per se. Throughout history, Advance Australia Fair has been subject to the odd tweak — removing references to “Britannia ruling the waves” and so forth — and there may be more adjustments in future.
But calls to change the anthem always seem to be based on the idea that the song is fundamentally flawed — that it is, as Fairfax writer Judith Ireland claimed this week, “a mid-tempo dirge”.
We are told that it has a dull melody and archaic lyrics and is not worthy to represent the proud Australian nation.
Few, it seems, are willing to stand up and declare the truth: Advance Australia Fair is a stirring anthem perfectly suited to declare our national pride to the world.
Advance Australia Fair is not catchy or danceable
Let us take the criticism of the melody first. Granted, the national anthem is no Hey Ya — the 19th-century Scottish-born composer Peter Dodds McCormick did not have Andre 3000’s innate sense of rhythm or instinct for radio-friendly hooks.
Advance Australia Fair is also not catchy or danceable, but we shouldn’t want it to be. A national anthem is not a pop song; it’s not a dancefloor banger, an earworm to walk around humming all day or wave your lighter in the air to.
Better an anthem be a dirge than the kind of lightweight flim-flammery that some apparently prefer. (Source: National Library)
A national anthem should be stately, sober, and dignified. It should not bounce or rollick. It is a song designed to get people standing still with a hand over the heart and a tear in the eye, and nobody can say Advance Australia Fair doesn’t get people crying.
Perhaps it is true that the song is a little dirge-like: what of it? A dirge is a song to play at a funeral, to bring about sombre reflection in the listener.
A national anthem should do the same — trigger deep thoughts about the qualities of one’s country and how one might best serve it.
Better an anthem be a dirge than the kind of lightweight flim-flammery that some apparently prefer.
So what about the words?
Let’s deal with elephant in the room: “girt” is one of the most unfairly maligned, ill-treated words in the English language.
It is a word rich with meaning, redolent of history, and far more poetic than the alternatives — it would hardly be appropriate for the anthem to run, “Our home is surrounded by sea”, or “There’s a big bunch of water all over the place”.
A national anthem should trigger deep thoughts about the qualities of one’s country and how one might best serve it, says Ben Pobjie. (ABC News: Tony Trung)
True, the euphonious “girt” is not a word in common parlance, but this is not a bug, it’s a feature. The anthem derives from its language a timeless quality, the impression that these lines will stand solid and unyielding against the buffeting of history’s winds.
Are we to ring the changes to all the great works of the English language to conform with modern trends? Do people try to “modernise” the words of Shakespeare?
Yes they do, and those people are scum.
Meanwhile, across the seas…
But what of the claim that Advance Australia Fair falls short of the standards set by other nations’ anthems? On closer inspection, this allegation collapses.
A common example cited is France’s La Marseillaise, which is a nice tune, but descends into a nightmare as soon as you translate the lyrics.
The French anthem’s first verse warns of tyrannical soldiers approaching “to cut the throats of your sons, your women”. The chorus calls upon the people to “let an impure blood soak our fields”.
It proceeds along similar lines, the entire thing an exhortation to bloody slaughter.
And what of the British anthem, God Save The Queen? We’re supposed to be envious of a country whose national anthem doesn’t even celebrate the nation, but one individual woman?
Who would want to be like the British, who must sing a song expressing a desire for continued subjugation at the hands of a hereditary despot?
Or the Americans, whose national anthem was written by a man who watched a fort getting bombed, and went home and wrote a song about a fort getting bombed (and added in a little bit about how great it was to kill slaves in the third verse)?
Not to mention the fact that the US anthem’s tune is an old English drinking song.
The anthem God Defend New Zealand, meanwhile, seeks to avoid responsibility. The chorus of Il Canto degli Italiani declares four times “we are ready to die”.
And the Spanish national anthem doesn’t even have words!
There are no viable alternatives
Perhaps the best argument for keeping Advance Australia Fair is the complete paucity of viable alternatives.
Some suggest Waltzing Matilda — a song about a thief who commits suicide and would portray Australia as a nation of depressed criminals.
Others suggest I Am Australian, which is, with all due respect, the worst song ever written in the history of the universe.
There is simply no other song that simultaneously expresses our national character, instils pride in the listener, and doesn’t make you want to throw up.
So let us all put hand on heart and agree that the anthem we have is the anthem we want.
Let us all, on history’s page, at every stage, advance Australia fair.