Some songwriters are born with it. Some learn it on the job. But most die trying. Trying to write that one song that will create an anthem for the times, etching their name in musical history forever.
Like I said, most die trying.
But a select few can churn out anthems like McDonalds turns over Big Macs. Freddie Mercury, the singer/songwriter of the British band Queen was one such talent, penning stadium classics such as ‘We Are The Champions’, ‘Crazy Little Thing Called Love’, ‘Don‘t Stop Me Now’ and ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ (No, he didn’t write ‘We Will Rock You’!). Bruce Springsteen is another well respected anthem man, with ‘Born To Run’, ‘Born In The USA’, ‘Thunder Road‘). There was the Jagger/Richards partnership in the Rolling Stones that brought us hits like ‘Satisfaction’, ‘Gimme Shelter’ and ‘Sympathy For The Devil’. And before anyone goes up in arms, about having a conversation on songwriters without the inclusion of Robert Zimmerman (aka Bob Dylan) or the Canadian Leonard Cohen — they made protest songs and ballads, songs about longing, love and hate, but not anthems. And besides, not every great song has what it takes to become an anthem.
What then, makes an anthem?
Quite simply, it needs to be at the very least uplifting, if not totally upbeat, with catchy lyrics and a booming chorus section. If there’s a great guitar solo as well, that can only help. And it needs to attract a larger cross-section of listeners than would a normal song. So, for example, a song written today by Taylor Swift will most probably attract a younger audience and not mean anything to anyone who is in their 40s.
Let’s localise the matter. What in your opinion is a Pakistani musical anthem? I’d safely wager that ‘Dil Dil Pakistan’ by the Vital Signs, ‘Jazba Junoon’ by Junoon, and ‘Billo de Ghar’ by Abrar ul Haq are the only three songs that would be accepted as anthems. Sure, there are songs like ‘Aitebaar’, ‘Sar Kiye Ye Pahar’ or ‘Manwa Re’, but they fall squarely in the ballad category. And while a select few songs by bands like Noori and EP may have had some anthem ingredient, their final products have always left something to be desired. And outside of Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad, nobody had heard of these acts. In any case, most of what we’ve been hearing is all bubblegum. Tasty today, gone tomorrow.
While the jury is hung on whether Strings ever produced an anthem, what a diehard Pakistani music fan told me recently holds considerable weight. “Their sound is just too clean and sanitised”. The same is the case with Coke Studio. While it has done wonders to revive many a career, to highlight new artistes, and to rehash old tunes in new garb, it continues to sound the same, episode after episode.
There is another reason. While anthems can be sung in cars and bathrooms, they are best experienced in stadiums and arenas, with thousands of other screaming fans, all coming together in a frenzied five minutes. But when was the last time you went to a concert? The security situation in the country has had a dramatically negative effect on outdoor events, and while they still happen, not only has the frequency and size of these events gone down, people are just very wary of attending. Musical content has been a direct affectee of this, as songs have a peculiar ability of turning into anthems, live.
There is something to be said about the lyrical content as well. Pakistani song writers have largely stayed away from including anything politically relevant in their content. Save for artistes like Ali Azmat and Shahzad Roy, most are content writing on the easiest topic ever created — love, the lack of it, and the girl that got away. Nothing cheaper than cheap thrills. Again, Noori, would perhaps get an A for effort, but that’s about it.
There is no doubt that Pakistani music has made tremendous strides, on the back of artistes like Atif Aslam, Ali Zafar and the like, who continue to churn out quality music for the masses, but anthems, they haven’t written yet. What they have done, very successfully is conquer the class divide that exists in Pakistani music. An Atif song is equally enjoyed by the urban and rural audiences. The same cannot be said for most of the artistes operating today. Either they write and play for one audience or for the other. But history shows that those that achieved greatness managed to have the best of both worlds.
Today’s up and coming crop of musicians (the likes of Mooroo, Sikandar ka Mandir etc) are creating a new type of Pakistani sound (heavily infused with western influences, all for the good), but ask of them outside of the urban centres and you’ll get a shrug of the shoulders.
Ironically, this is perhaps the best time for an anthem. In absolute terms, Pakistan today is better than it was last year and the year before last. We are actually having the safest year so far since 2007. Considering all that has gone down in the last seven years, that is quite an achievement.
The stage is set, for a good old thumping anthem to firmly entrench this era in Pakistani music history. Otherwise in the words of the great Simon le Bon (from Duran Duran), everything being sung, recorded and heard in this generation will be ‘here today, forgot tomorrow’.