Monday, November 15, 2010

The Power of the Rock Anthem

In my typically fine form, I'm choosing not to write about what I said I would write earlier.  I chose to write this one instead because I can't get the chorus of Paul Stanley's "Live to Win" out of my head...the verses kind of suck, but the chorus sticks in your head and suddenly you yourself LIVE TO WIN!!! (no lie)... I suppose the fact that it's in South Park doesn't hurt its cause at all.  That song just screams "rock anthem," and so here we are.


Yeah, you can name 'em.  Everyone recognizes them.  From virtually every song by Bruce Springsteen to David Bowie's "Heroes," from "Hey Jude" by the Beatles (moreso the last mantra section) to "Sweet Virginia" by the Rolling Stones, rock anthems are powerful tools that are amazing because they inspire the listener and create such intense emotions in the listener so much as to create action, usually.  Sometimes to even relate in music you need a rock anthem because their "sound," their energy, their spirit is a great unifier of people.  This is why when a song like "Bohemian Rhapsody" comes on, everyone, and I mean everyone (unless you are so hipster that you choose to non-conform to such a tradition) goes full throttle into the song all through the end.  True rock anthems are, quite simply, uniters and not dividers.  So really, what distinguishes the rock anthem and what makes it so good?

The main ingredient in a rock anthem is usually the "sense of the epic."  While this sounds broad, nondescript and generally useless, it's the best term to use.  What may help illustrate my point, however, are examples of the "sense of the epic."  Bruce Springsteen, as mentioned before, is essentially the king of the rock anthem, and one of his most widely known tracks, "Born to Run," illustrates the point.  It sounds big.  It goes for broke.  The power in the song rattles you to your bones.  His lyrics also display of a "sense of the epic, " painting desolation around but lo! the eternal ray of light that is worth pursuing prevails!  For Bruce Springsteen's characters, it's quite simply a "do or die" moment and this sense of utmost importance and urgency imbues the song with a strong sense of power, direction, and purpose, not to mention an overall "sense of the epic."

Therefore, is there a sound that defines the rock anthem?  I'd argue that there isn't, though the evidence seems to suggest the contrary.  Tracks like the aforementioned "Heroes" (by Bowie), "Bohemian Rhapsody" or even "Wake Up" by Arcade Fire all have extremely ornate production.  The layering of such a large quantity of instruments (an offshoot or spinoff of the "Wall of Sound") generates a large sound, hence the "sense of the epic" and hence a rock anthem.  However, I would also posit that anthems such as "Sweet Virginia" by the Rolling Stones, "Hey Jude" by the Beatles, and other tunes like "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" all suggest that the rock anthem as a dense and layered concoction brewed in the studio may not be necessarily true, though the trend is evident and typically suggests otherwise.

For a rock anthem to truly succeed, the necessary portion is that of the chorus.  If the chorus is not rally-worthy, then the song is not a rock anthem.  It's the power in the chorus that makes the rock anthem such a uniter: who doesn't sing "BORNNNNN IN THE USAAAAAAAA-EAAAAAAA!!!!!!!" when it comes on?  I rest my case.  The chorus has to be easily accessible: even the layman must be able to get around to remember it, so that perhaps even in his drunkest hour he may be able to belt out the chorus when prompted.  But it has to be catchy, it has to be powerful, or else it would not be able to resonate with everyone, from even the most snobby of hipsters down to the guy who doesn't even really like music all that much and could really do without it.  Just take a look here at some rock anthem choruses and see all of the above:

"Come on up for the rising/Come on up, lay your hands in mine/Come on up for the rising/Come on up for the rising tonight."
-Bruce Springsteen

"We can be heroes...just for one day."
-David Bowie

"Na, nah nah, nah nah nah nah, nah nah nah nah, hey Jude!"
-The Beatles

All instantly recognizable, all instantly hummable.  If you've heard the song before (I suppose liking it would help some), you can instantly belt out the chorus.  They're all anthemic.  All epic-sounding, all-relatable, all-inspiring, all-encompassing...that is what a rock anthem is.

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