Watching helplessly as the world lurches from one crisis to another, most recently the appalling, unwarranted and illegal invasion of Ukraine by Russia, has not done much for the mind. Especially when I hear the politicians here in the UK yet again conflating everything with winning a war – to my ears, the worst kind of national identity. We are so much better than war.
This is one of those posts that I’ve had on my mind for a while – long before the events of the past month – but I’ve never really been able to nail it down, so as is common, I opened it up to my friends to fill in the gaps that I wasn’t filling.
/Subject /National Identity, Nationality
/Playlists /Spotify / /YouTube
/Related /262/A Place Called England /189/Remembrance and War /Tuesday Ten/Index
/Assistance /Suggestions/119 /Used Prior/11 /Unique Songs/100 /People Suggesting/66
/Details /Tracks this week/10 /Tracks on Spotify Playlist/10 /Duration/44:15
This, then, is a selection of songs about national identity, and specifically songs by people about their own home country. It has songs that celebrate aspects of their national identity, but it also has songs where artists are also able to question their own national identity, too – as, in a truly free country, you should be able to do that.
In a slight quirk, I guess, I have friends who come from all but one of these (and I’m absolutely sure that I know passport holders of the last entry) – and I omitted England because, well, I’ve done it before (see above for that link and the usual stats). Thanks, as ever, to everyone who has suggested songs – and it was a really thought-provoking list this time, too.
A quick explanation for new readers (hi there!): my Tuesday Ten series has been running since March 2007, and each month features at least ten new songs you should hear – and in between those monthly posts, I feature songs on a variety of subjects, with some of the songs featured coming from suggestion threads on Facebook.
Feel free to get involved with these – the more the merrier, and the breadth of suggestions that I get continues to astound me. Otherwise, as usual, if you’ve got something you want me to hear, something I should be writing about, or even a gig I should be attending, e-mail me or drop me a line on Facebook (details below).
/The Tragically Hip
/The Darkest One
/In Violet Light
It appeared to an outsider that all of Canada mourned when The Tragically Hip disbanded, and then when lead singer Gord Downie died – it’s not often that the Prime Minister puts out an official – and somewhat emotional statement about the death of a rock star. This tender, anthemic song feels like a welcome to Canada, one of hospitality and love, as they welcome you into their house from the bitter winds of the prairies or the cold of the winter. My one visit to Canada – a whirlwind trip to Montreal and Ottawa, mostly for Festival Kinetik in 2011 – was one of warm welcome and friendliness, and indeed all my Canadian friends are excellent people.
/Le Plat Pays
Hardly the only song Brel wrote about his native Belgium (and particularly Flanders, as he was of Flemish descent despite broadly speaking and singing in French), but one that has an interesting take on the celebration of it. The song, like the skies and country scapes he describes, are curiously grey and flat, as the wind whips across a countryside that has few trees, and little on the horizon either. At least in my experience over the past decade of regularly visiting Belgium, and mostly Flanders, is one of a charming country with far more to celebrate than Brel suggests – indeed he very much sells his homeland short.
/The Cutter and the Clan
A band from the far reaches of Scotland (the Isle of Skye) originally, for a band that mostly sang in Scots Gaelic, and leaned on the folk traditions of their country, had remarkable success for a period of time – and were always a band of Scotland, and celebrated the fact in quite a number of songs. The song entitled Alba (the Scottish Gaelic name for Scotland) seemed the obvious one, though, as it brings up the beauty and tranquillity of the Highlands and Islands, the green Glens, the mountains, the vast expanses of water in the many lochs, but it also sticks the knife in by reminding that this beautiful land is mostly owned by a tiny number of landowners, the legacy of the Clearances in prior centuries, and too many homes lay empty – but they come back to the celebratory feel as they close, noting “In this land that’s as exciting for me today / As it was the day I was born“.
/Great Southern Land
Interestingly a number of songs celebrating (or not, in some cases!) Australia were suggested, including, of course, Down Under, but that song always struck me as celebrating Australians abroad. So instead, I’ve turned to the epic scope of the Icehouse song Great Southern Land, whose stark, broad instrumentation suggests the huge expanse of Australia, while the vocals celebrate the millennia of Indigenous People on the land, as well as acknowledging the changes that came later as colonists turned parts of the land into open-air prisons before forming a new country, one that only belatedly accepted the horrors inflicted on the Indigenous People – and has, like many other “western” countries, still not truly atoned for it.
Even so, this gorgeous song seemed universally accepted by my Australian friends as one that was an appropriate song to celebrate their homeland, so here it is.
Never mind “Cool Britannia”, Wales had something of a cultural resurgence in the late 1990s in its own right. A host of bands all broke through – some of which sang in their native Welsh language, such as Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci – alongside other cultural and sporting developments, under the banner of what became known as Cool Cymru (although I don’t recall that moniker at the time). It is also worth remembering the other catalysts – the beginning of the rebuilding of the Welsh economy following the effective end of coal mining in particular, and also the devolution promised by Tony Blair, that was delivered around the turn of the Millenium.
One band that really hit it big from Wales around the time was Catatonia, and while it wasn’t one of their best-remembered hits, the title track from their massive International Velvet album was mostly sung in Welsh, aside from the chorus: “Every day that I wake up / I thank the Lord I’m Welsh“. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they played it live as part of the 1999 Rugby World Cup opening ceremony in Cardiff, Cerys Matthews in a Welsh Rugby shirt…
One of the huge musical events of 2019 was the premiere of the first new Rammstein material in nearly a decade, and tens of millions tuned in over the first 24 hours of the video (and it is now approaching a quarter of a billion views). The spectacular, nine-minute video and bombastic song that accompanied it was worth the wait, but also saw Rammstein exploring their identity like never before.
As they assessed different periods of German history – from the ancient past to even the future – it was clear that this was a band proud to be German, but not immune to asking questions of their forefathers, as Till Lindemann tells us he both loves and damns his country, as he notes the sometimes overbearing superiority of his country, but there is also a hope for the future. That has perhaps been borne out more recently, as a change of Government seems to have genuinely fostered a change in how the country sees itself in the world, and how it is willing to interact. But as well, this was Rammstein putting down a marker, a world away from being accused of being far-right sympathisers by the NME over two decades ago (and they never were, as Links 2 3 4 clapped back in 2001), and instead becoming a strident political voice in their songs.
“I’M BITTER / I’M TWISTED / JAMES JOYCE IS FUCKING MY SISTER”
I think it’s fair to say that Andy Cairns, by the time of the release of the early single Potato Junkie, was sick and tired of The Troubles, and cliches about the Irish (both sides of the border). He didn’t care about James Joyce, Ireland isn’t “only green”, he was born 225 years after the Battle of the Boyne (thus wondering why it is still such an important commemoration that only causes more division), and the title refers to a slur describing the Irish. Thirty years on from this song, the Good Friday Agreement resulted in a sometimes fractious peace, and both sides of the border have had periods of growth (but also times of hardship), and I get the feeling from various Irish friends – again, on both sides of the border – that there is still more to be done to move on. That said, I’ve still never visited any part of Ireland, and I really should do something about that sooner rather than later. Despite what Andy Cairns might tell me, I suspect that is much to see.
/North American Scum
/Sound of Silver
Similarly dismissive of external views of his country is James Murphy.
“And for those of you who still think we’re from England / We’re not.”
That said, amid the dance-rock whirlwind of one of the band’s greatest, most thrilling songs, it is clear that Murphy is conflicted about his country. Every time he comes up with something good, there’s at least one or maybe two things to take it back down a peg, and he is also particularly dismissive of the social and political attitudes, and once again, this is perhaps a song where context is king, seeing as the mid-2000s saw the USA at a particularly low ebb internationally, with illegal and unwanted wars abroad, and natural disasters at home – so Murphy clearly had that in mind at the time.
/Yuve Yuve Yu
One of the more striking successes in the music world in recent years has been the unexpected hit that The Gereg by Mongolian band THE HU has been. A band that for the most part, sing in their native tongue, use Throat singing and some traditional instrumentation. And suddenly became a worldwide hit, thanks to some dramatic videos and great rock songs, that seemed to tap into that universal ability to Rock. Reading the translations of their lyrics made things doubly interesting, as while there was an element of nationalism, mostly they were celebrating their often ignored country, and on the bluesy, swinging rock of Yuve Yuve Yu, asking others to respect their national culture and not appropriate it, but also directing that inward to their countryfolk, noting that they aren’t the only people to celebrate on this earth.
/Country/NSK [Neue Slowenische Kunst]
I made a point in the comment thread for this post that I wasn’t going to be using National Anthems for the most part, as what I wanted was a contemporary take on various countries, rather than simply an anthem that may be questionable, or of questionable origin. There was, though, one exception to this, and that exception was Laibach.
Back in 2006, Laibach continued their work of subverting and teasing out alternative meaning from popular music, this time built entirely around National Anthems, and the work was enthralling. Rather than just covering the anthems in question, they took the base of each and added their own embellishments, asking questions and confrontational statements, with fascinating results.
The final track on this album was different, though. It was the anthem of the Neue Slowenische Kunst, the Slovenian art collective that Laibach began life as the musical wing thereof (and remain connected to). The NSK has since become a “state” in some respects, forming itself as NSK State In Time in 1991 as a “reaction” to the breakup of Yugoslavia and the formation of Slovenia, and issuing its own passports (and stories abound of these passports literally saving lives as people fled the Bosnian War, and there has been unexpected use in Nigeria too) – even if they aren’t technically passports.
So with all these claims, why shouldn’t there be an anthem too, one that heralds a “state” that allows anyone to join, no matter their race, origin, sexuality, religion… a truly utopian ideal. A true celebration, in fact.