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Olympics 2012: Five things Survival by Muse tells us about sporting anthems

Matt Bellamy of Muse

Critical opinion is sharply divided over Survival by British rock group Muse, which has been unveiled as the official song of the 2012 London Olympic Games. What turns a track like this into a sporting anthem?

It is dramatic, triumphant and uplifting. Or, to those less enamoured, it's bombastic, pompous and vaguely totalitarian.

All would surely agree, however, that Muse's official Olympic song Survival could never be accused of undue subtlety.

Ranging over almost five-and-a-half minutes, the song opens with a lengthy instrumental string sequence. It then gives way to a portentous backing choir which, in turn, ushers in crunching guitar riffs, booming drums and a wailing crescendo.

"It's a race/And I'm gonna win," intones singer Matt Bellamy above all this, before pledging to "reveal my strength to the whole human race".

As statements of intent go, it makes Queen's We Are The Champions sound like something from the back catalogue of Leonard Cohen.

According to Bellamy, the song "expresses a sense of conviction and determination".

But what does Survival tell us about the ingredients of a sporting soundtrack?

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Media captionWatch a 30-second clip of Muse's song

Bombast

"Fight! Fight! Fight! Fight!" massed voices bellow at Survival's climax. "Win! Win! Win! Win!"

It's fair to say that the song's message has not been obscured beneath layers of nuance and complexity.

For those accustomed to a more subtle aesthetic, the effect may not be welcome.

But Simon Price, rock and pop critic for the Independent on Sunday, insists that it is precisely these over-the-top qualities that make Survival enjoyable.

Image caption Queen's We Are the Champions is the template for many a sporting anthem

"I can't think of a band who chime more perfectly with the Nietzschean spirit of the Olympics than Muse," he says.

"They are a glorious, over-the-top, operatic rock band. It's the Electric Light Orchestra meets Wagner."

For Price, the song's ridiculousness is infinitely preferable to the self-consciously tasteful One Moment In Time by Whitney Houston, which featured in the 1988 Summer Olympics, or Search For The Hero by M People, which regularly features in sporting montages.

Additionally, the lyrics have vaguely camp overtones of Gloria Gaynor's gay disco anthem I Will Survive.

But not everyone's sensibilities can withstand the onslaught.

"It's monstrous," says critic David Stubbs. "It's probably intended as a monumental shock, but it seems to me hideously hubristic."

Influences

We Are The Champions, Gold by Spandau Ballet, Simply The Best by Tina Turner - rock music's canon of songs celebrating triumph over adversity are familiar to every sport fan, so frequently are they played around the world's stadia.

For Price, Survival consciously taps into this tradition. He suggests the key template is Barcelona, the operatic collaboration between Queen front man Freddie Mercury and Montserrat Caballe that opened the 1992 Olympics.

"If Queen were still around you would have gone to them," says Price. "Muse have evidently taken it in a Barcelona direction."

For those not enamoured of such acts, however, the result is somewhat sinister.

Stubbs argued there is a "fascistic" overtone to rock's will-to-power fixation - a tendency consciously parodied by the Slovenian avant-garde group Laibach.

"There's always been something in that big, bombastic pop that is almost Nuremburg-light," argues Stubbs.

"The most charitable thing I could say about Muse is that they were trying to mimic that tradition."

Motivation

"It's epic. It's inspirational. I'm sure that's why it was chosen," suggests Dr Christopher Wiley, senior lecturer in music at City University, London.

Image caption Will crowds take Survival to their hearts?

Like any sporting anthem, Survival is intended to urge the listener to achieve ever-greater feats.

Not all such anthems have succeeded in capturing the public mood. While Simply Red's We're In This Together was the official song of UEFA's Euro 1996 tournament, most fans took Three Lions by Baddiel and Skinner and The Lightening Seeds to their hearts instead.

Despite his dislike of the song, however, even Stubbs believes that Survival will prove memorable.

"It's a folly, but then that would tend to reflect the whole phenomenon of staging the Olympics somewhere with a transport network like London," he adds.

Mood swings

Varying between gloom, mounting tension and ecstatic triumph, the song appears to have been written with a narrative in mind.

Television producers will surely find the song a useful device as they distil the games for the benefit of viewers.

"It would work for a montage at the end of the Olympics," says Price.

Likewise, its different movements can be spliced into bite-sized nuggets representing victory or adversity, endurance or bursts of activity.

"There are sections that sound like a marathon and others that sound like the 100m," Wiley adds.

Can they be serious?

As with Queen, those listening to Survival can be forgiven for wondering whether Muse is entirely sincere or whether Matt Bellamy has his tongue concealed firmly in his cheek.

Stubbs says he fervently hopes that, one level or another, the band is joking.

And lyrics such as, "I won't forgive/Vengeance is mine/And I won't give in because I choose to thrive" seem almost too ridiculous to be delivered in all seriousness. Or are they?

Price suggests it is this ambiguity which, ultimately, makes Survival work.

"I've met Muse a few times and I'm sure in their private moments they are a band with a sense of humour," says Price.

"But they almost dare you to laugh. It wouldn't work if they didn't keep a straight face."