defined here as “a powerful, celebratory rock song with arena-rock sound often with lyrics celebrating rock music itself and simple sing-a-long choruses, chants, or hooks.” Thus the rock anthem is a song celebrating a way of life (or behavior), as national anthems also do. However, in this context, anthem again simply means hymn.
My wife Becky and I were discussing this question the other day, trying to arrive at a meaning of “anthem” that doesn't simply render it as a synonym for “hymn.” Interestingly, she suggested that an anthem should be considered as any song (or poem) that presents history as prophecy. What she means is that an event that has already occurred is presented in the context of the song or poem as something that is going to happen--the song informs our understanding of the future. It's prophetic in the sense that it uses history as a way to inform the future, but as prophecies often are, it is also often apocalyptic. While the American national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” is hardly apocalyptic, the history it recounts informs our understanding of the future: the nation will go on forever, continuously. A good example of what she means is The Original Caste's song “One Tin Soldier” (later covered perhaps more famously by the band Coven). In “One Tin Soldier,” the narrative is presented as a story that happened “long ago,” but obviously its purpose is to inform our understanding of the future (“Listen, children, to a story that was written long ago...”). The song rather explicitly serves as a moral imperative for the future: although the events happened in the past, they are nonetheless prophetic because, in parabolic fashion, they foretell what will happen (now/ future) if greed isn't held in check. I tend to think that songs such as Neil Young's “Southern Man” also serve as anthems as I've defined them here, because on the one hand, there are images drawn from the antebellum period (the “bullwhip cracking”), while on the other hand there are images drawn from the Reconstruction period and the Ku Klux Klan (“now your crosses are burning fast”). However, the lyric, “Southern change is gonna come at last,” invokes the Civil Rights-era South. This liquid exchange of past and future prompted Lynyrd Skynyrd, as revealed in “Sweet Home Alabama” for instance, to read the song as a condemnation of the present-day South, although Young's song would seem to be set in the frozen, remote past. In contrast, “Sweet Home Alabama” is not an anthem (although it is often referred to as such), but a defense of a way of life, that is to say, a hymn. No Southern man needs him, ol' NY, comin' round or about.
Perhaps because of the nuclear threat of the period as well as the impending ecological catastrophe Rachel Carson had warned of in Silent Spring (1962), the poets and singers of the 1960s began to engage in apocalyptic expressions as anthems to brave new worlds to come. Just as movies of the early 1960s contained apocalyptic themes (The Seventh Seal, 1957; Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, 1962; The World, the Flesh, and the Devil, 1962; Behold a Pale Horse, 1964) so, too, did the music. Harold Bloom once observed that Americans are obsessed with prophecies and omens because they are actually Gnostics without realizing it, and his insight is certainly true of the folk song when it became a form of prophesying. In the Sixties, musical prophesying caught on. However, perhaps it's well to remember Walter Benjamin's observation about allegory, "Any person, any thing, any relationship can mean absolutely anything else."
A Few Notable Anthems From The Sixties:
Bob Dylan - A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall (1962)
Bob Dylan - The Times They Are A-Changin' (1963)
Barry McGuire - Eve of Destruction (1965)
The 5th Dimension - Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In (1969)
The Original Caste - One Tin Soldier (1969)
Neil Young - After the Gold Rush (1970)
Neil Young - Southern Man (1970)