Pedantic Semantics

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The Greatest Song of the Century (So Far)

Posted by Paul on August 11, 2011

It’s pretty ballsy to declare what will be considered the greatest songs of the century ninety years from now, but I think that, come 2101, this song will be on the list all the critics will be compiling the week before New Year’s.

To be fair, it’s got some serious competition from The White Stripes’ Seven Nation Army. If we were picking the most original song this young century has seen, that would win hands down. But we’re talking the best. And there is some stiff competition in that category. It is not my intention, however, to figure out every song of the past eleven years that I’ve considered great. What I’m talking about is a song that hits every point that a truly great work of music should.

Let’s talk about Keinan Abdi Warsame. This is a man that grew up in Mogadishu, Somalia. A place that constantly crops up on worst places you could possibly choose to live. This means he has gone through more horrible things than you and I could even begin to comprehend. His father left the family in Somalia in order to support them from America . Along with money, young Keinan’s father sent rap records. This would turn out to be a huge influence on the teenage Keinan. The boy and his family would leave in 1991, when Somalia’s brutal civil war (which would eventually turn it into the extremely rare Anarchist State) broke out. He spent the rest of his childhood in the Somali ghetto of Rexdale, in Toronto. So basically, I’m arguing that an African-Muslim-Canadian has made the best song to come out this century. You might wonder at that, if it weren’t for the fact that the song I’m naming has become hugely popular, and has sold World Cup soccer, Sprint and Coca-Cola around the world, and has been covered on Youtube here and back.

It’s worth noting that, ten years before his song hit, Kainan, now K’Naan, spoke before the UN. To put this in perspective, I am not eight months younger than he is, and at that time my first concern was finishing Final Fantasy VIII and being old enough to buy beer. Okay, he’s done some great stuff. All of this wouldn’t matter if he couldn’t write a good song. That’s the point. He’s taken his experience, and the universal longing for not killing each other, and combined it with one of the greatest hooks ever.

In 2009, K’Naan released an album featuring the worldbusting hit Wavin’ Flag.That same year, jewish reggae sensation Metisyahu released the similarly themed One Day, and while it’s a decent song, Metisyahu doesn’t quite have K’Naan’s talent for songcraft.

In fact, it’s very few people that can craft a great song and  make it about something more meaningful than “I met a girl and fell in love and then we hated each other”. Not that that that doesn’t make for some great music. As Stephen Colbert said, “All the best songs are about a girl”. Except when they’re not.

It seems that we, as a human civilization take the songwriting theme “let’s not be dicks to each other” as far more trite than “I like to hang out with this girl and have sex with her”, even though 99%of songs are about the latter. Yet it’s the former category that truly moves people. Bob Dylan made his entire early career around this, even if he eventually ended up writing his songs about girls. Girls are great. I like them. Girls write lots of songs about boys, too. I can’t speak to that side of things with any authority, but suffice it to say that we tend to write most of our shit about romantic relationships and fine, most of the best songwriters write their songs about that. It’s actually what most people prefer. Listeners dismiss the more political efforts of bands like U2 and System of a Down, and it’s easy to see why. We don’t want to be told you can change things, because we don’t think anyone can, and mockery makes the problem seem less pressing, so we can go back to worrying about what most songs are about, that being sex and superficial love (oh, and money).

But what if there was a song about violence and justice and basically not treating each other like shit that was so well written we just couldn’t ignore it? Here is where Wavin’ Flag has succeeded where even Sunday Bloody Sunday couldn’t.

When I get older

I will be stronger

They’ll call me freedom

Just like a Wavin’ Flag

And then it goes back

And then it goes back

And then it goes back

First we look at the song structure. It isn’t anything new, but every lyric, every beat is so perfectly placed, even Dylan and Cohen might express some jealousy. That’s the technical side.

As for the lyrics, they aren’t exactly optimistic. The first verse is how his life should have been great, the second about how the subjugators use terms like “love is the answer” to keep us subjugated. Not to say love isn’t the answer, it’s just that it’s an easy tool to keep people complacent. No, I’m not going to launch into a diatribe about how the man uses romantic music to keep us down. That’s crazy, and I happen to like a lot of love songs.  But we need more. In the chorus, he expresses reserve with the “and then it goes back”, but at the same time, the “going back” doesn’t just mean regression, it’s painting a picture of the flag blowing freely in the wind, and snapping back.

My favorite part is the lead in to the chorus. He speaks of redemption as fateful. It is going to happen. But not now.

But for now we say

When I get older

I will be stronger

He’s not talking about himself. He’s talking about humanity. We are still, as a race, angry adolescents. But we will get older.  We will get stronger.

And in the end, we will all be freedom. Just like a Wavin’ Flag. And then it goes back.

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