Message 153: Anthem

The third song on Kid A is “The National Anthem.” According to the OED, an anthem (noun) is (third definition): “A song, as of praise or gladness. Also used of the English ‘National’ or ‘Royal Anthem,’ which is technically a hymn,” with a hymn being “An ode or song of praise in honour of a deity, a country.”

“God Save the King” is recognized as the English national anthem, but there is “no authorised version of the National Anthem as the words are a matter of tradition.” The Canadian information page on the royal anthem gives a slightly different history for the song than the English information page above. All accounts note that the song has “has never been proclaimed the national anthem by an Act of Parliament or a Royal Proclamation.” James Thomson’s 1740 ode “Rule, Britannia!” has also functioned as a national anthem, according to Suvir Kaul (1).

Attempting to read Radiohead’s “The National Anthem” as a surrogate anthem, one intended to take the absent national anthem’s place, is problematized by the fact that the basic anthem condition is not filled: the song is not one of praise. Instead, triumphant nationalism is replaced with claustrophobia. Everyone, as the song says, is “so near” and everyone has “got fear.” If a nation’s people can be said to rally around an anthem, the rallying this song envisions is far from positive. Beyond the lyrics, the song’s sonic heterogeneity further troubles any sense of community that an anthem would normally imply: Yorke’s voice sounds metallic, as if it is slicing through the unswerving bass line that is later conquered by the raging, Mingus-like brass section (see Message 121).

Kaul, Suvir. Poems of Nation, Anthems of Empire: English Verse in the Long Eighteenth Century. Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 2000.

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