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The Australian National Anthem!

After passing the citizenship test and taking the pledge of allegiance, new Australians can proudly put their hands over their hearts and sing Advance Australia Fair, the Australian national anthem. Like many pre-existing Australians, they may subsequently find that the anthem doesn’t inspire the emotional cascades that they may have hoped for. If they become a dinky-di Australian, they may even find it funny when they hear it butchered by others on momentous occasions.

One problem with the anthem is the word ‘girt’ (meaning ‘surrounded’), which is often a point of ridicule because it never used in general conversation. For example, police don’t say, ‘the thief ran down the alleyway and then we girt him.’ Consequently, “what the f*&% does girt mean? ” is one of the first things that comes to Australians minds when they start contemplating what the national anthem is about.

Admittedly, it could be argued that girt is an insignificant irritation; however, language is a big part of identity. When songs have language that is alien to those who sing it, the overall emotion is that the song doesn’t represent who they are.

A second problem is the substance of the words, which are so generic that there is very little to pull out the emotion in people. Advance Australia basically says that Australia is girt by sea, has gifts of nature, prosperity for those who work hard and we should celebrate that. Admittedly, for populations of a landlocked country where people die poor no matter how hard they work, this would something to be envious about; however, the imagery weaved by the words just isn’t sufficient to bring out the emotion of Australia’s gifts.

A third problem is that is has a very slow and monotonous tempo that makes it resemble a kind of funeral dirge. This makes the first line of “Australians let us all rejoice” feel somewhat like a North Korean prescription to be happy when a depressive emotion is being felt. This emotion can be particularly common in school assemblies when students are ordered to stand up straight and sing in celebratory harmony.

The anthem was composed by Peter Dodds McCormick and first performed in 1878 as a patriotic song. In 1977, the federal government had a plebiscite to ask the Australian public what song they would like at occasions where a uniquely Australian identity was required. The actual question was:

"Against the background that ‘GOD SAVE THE QUEEN’ is the NATIONAL ANTHEM to be played on Regal and Vice Regal occasions, electors may indicate their preferences as to which of the tunes of the songs listed below they would prefer to be played on other occasions."


The other choices were God Save the Queen (19% support), Waltzing Matilda (28%), Song of Australia (9.6 %). Advance Australia received 43%.

The fact that God Save the Queen was offered as a choice perhaps indicated that some Australians were so wedded to the Monarchy that it was inconceivable to them that even the slightest conception of an Australian identity could be possible.

Waltzing Matilda was an odd choice to be included because it was a song about a sheep thief that killed himself rather than be arrested by troopers. Something about that story, or perhaps the use of uniquely Australian words like jumbuck, coolibah and billabong, seemed to inspire patriotism.

Song of Australia was a poem written in 1859 that was put to music. It was chiefly concerned with inspiring positive emotions via the use of environmental imagery. It was not widely known at the time of the plebiscite.

In 1984, Advance Australia replaced God Save the Queen on the recommendation of Bob Hawke, then Australian prime minister. Hawke was not a huge fan of the anthem but he was a sports junke who couldn’t stand Australia beating the English in sport and then singing the British national anthem.

Advance Australia Fair

Australians all let us rejoice,
For we are young and free;
We’ve golden soil and wealth for toil;
Our home is girt by sea;
Our land abounds in nature’s gifts
Of beauty rich and rare;
In history’s page, let every stage
Advance Australia Fair.
In joyful strains then let us sing,
Advance Australia Fair.

Beneath our radiant Southern Cross
We’ll toil with hearts and hands;
To make this Commonwealth of ours
Renowned of all the lands;
For those who’ve come across the seas
We’ve boundless plains to share;
With courage let us all combine
To Advance Australia Fair.
In joyful strains then let us sing,
Advance Australia Fair.

 

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