I was looking through the list of Rolling Stones 500 Best Songs, and many of those songs are more than just good songs. They define their respective generations hopes, fears, thoughts, and generally mean more to society than just being a decent song on the radio. But have we seen the last of the defining rock anthems? I can't think of anyone who has successfully pulled one off in years. I even consider myself a pretty good songwriter, and I have never attempted to write a song that captures a special meaning to society (I'll get right on that...)
But what am I even talking about? What qualifies? Well, off the top of my head:
The Beatles have many of them. "All You Need Is Love" would be one. "A Day In the Life" would be another one. "Revolution" also counts.
Bob Dylan has a few as well. "The Times They Are A-Changin'" and "Like A Rolling Stone" both qualify.
Basically, it needs to be more broad than just a love song, cover a societal feeling, and be really, really popular. U2's "Pride (In the Name of Love)" is the most recent song I can think of that covers this criteria. There could be more that I'm missing (comment away) but realistically, songs have been getting more complex and in one sense, better- but maybe it is our society that does not easily grasp onto songs anymore. Here are some candidates that might be able to pull it off:
Radiohead - so many great songs! Not one of them meets the above criteria. They have been called this generation's Pink Floyd, yet I'm not sure any of their really popular songs can be called a defining rock anthem. "OK Computer" is full of almost anthems, but none of them quite cut it. After that, they went fairly electronic and lost enough of their audience keep them from producing a true anthem. Their music may be better because of it, but that is not my argument here.
Coldplay - "Viva La Vida" is so damn close to what I'm talking about. It is catchy, a huge hit, large sound, strong meaning behind it but Chris Martin is talking in metaphors that refer to medieval times. You could make an argument that he's talking about modern issues (perhaps President Bush's imminent end to his presidential term?) but it's easier to argue against it. I'm not ruling Coldplay out though- they have potential to pull it off.
U2 - While having written anthem songs in the past, they currently flounder with songs like "Elevation" and "Beautiful Day." Pop hits? Yes. Anthems? No. Bono might have one left up his sleeve, but we haven't seen him reach his potential in years.
John Mayer - "Waiting on the World to Change" is even closer than "Viva La Vida" to anthem status. I'm disqualifying John because I once heard him rant at a concert about how it is "inappropriate for musicians to preach about their own beliefs..." etc., etc. In fact, it's a musicians duty to preach about their beliefs. It is when a musician's own beliefs galvanize a song that relates to the masses that creates a great anthem. I might be being picky though- this could be an [whiney] anthem.
Bright Eyes/Wilco - Both write very relevant and poetic songs, but neither are popular enough to create a full blown anthem. Both are loved by critics and smart people, but neither have enough popular appeal to create the anthem society is looking for. I suppose they could accidentally become hugely popular if they wrote an anthem, but I'm not sure if that means the chicken or the egg is coming first...
Look, I know this blog could get turned into a term paper for an awesome History of Rock class. I'm oversimplifying this whole thing and did not mention a lot of musicians that could be capable of writing/performing an anthem. However, the overall feeling I have is that the Rock Anthem is dead. The musicians capable of making one are not popular enough. The ones on the radio seem pretty watered down and singing about "Californication" (seriously, RHCP? You guys made that up, and that song is ridiculous.)
I guess because I was born after John Lennon was killed, I'm looking back and longing for a time when our popular musicians were also counted on to not only put out great music, but challenge and summarize modern society. It seems like the 60s and 70s had lots of bands and artists like that, and now you can only find those bands on College Radio Stations, if at all. The biggest question is: Are the musicians or society worse? Who knows? Yet, I think you can argue that both musicians and society are better as well...