SINGAPORE: The National Day Parade (NDP) dropped its theme song for 2021, The Road Ahead, last Friday. Netizens, normally a critical lot, had surprisingly positive comments.
Within five days, it garnered over 500,000 views and 12,000 likes on YouTube.
“An NDP song that is original, relevant to our times and singable,” said one top comment.
“Finally, something good after years of gimmicky music and songs,” said another.
Others even called The Road Ahead this generation’s Home, the 1998 NDP hit written by Dick Lee and sung by Kit Chan.
Having watched the music video, I couldn’t agree more.
READ: NDP 2021: No public balloting, tickets to be given to COVID-19 frontliners and essential workers
THE SONG WITH THE HIGHEST STAKES
There are few things that come under the scrutiny of the national microscope like the NDP theme song.
It needs to have wide appeal, and yet speak to each individual. It must capture the national mood of the moment yet draw on evergreen themes.
With decades worth of beloved songs for critics to compare against, writing a National Day song is frankly an impossible ask.
After a year and a half of fighting a global pandemic, that monumental task of inspiring the nation fell on the shoulders of singer-songwriter Linying and music producer Evan Low, as well as musicians Sezairi Sezali, Shye-Anne Brown and Shabir Tabare Alam who also performed the song.
Now, the themes of The Road Ahead aren’t new. Working together to achieve anything; marching towards an uncertain but bright future – these have all been touched on in past NDP songs, right from its genesis with Stand Up For Singapore in 1984.
So why has this song struck a chord?
A QUIET TRIBUTE TO THE INDIVIDUAL
Perhaps the piece started to fall in place when the NDP committee chose their composer.
Though this is Linying’s first NDP stint, she’s made waves internationally with her first single in 2016, Sticky Leaves, breaking into Spotify’s Global Viral 50 Chart.
With her crooning vocals on songs about growing up and growing apart, she’s the first Singaporean to be signed with Canadian label Nettwerk Music Group, which has represented popular indie acts like Nate Ruess’ fun.
Linying, already known for the emotional intelligence and heartfelt vulnerability expressed in her songs, seemed a perfect fit for a time when we needed reminding of how despite being apart, we seek connections more desperately than ever.
“It took some time to distill what was universal, unwavering and honest from all this multiplicity … like the fact that I want to always carry with me this reminder that we share this home with one another,” Linying explained in an Instagram post.
And that’s what’s most striking about The Road Ahead video too: The idea that home is each other. It’s the people, inserted via animation into deserted neighbourhoods and iconic backdrops, that make up Singapore: A young family reading to their son in their HDB estate, or an elderly woman peering into Marina Barrage and taking her order from a food rider.
Despite seeming trivial, people and their day-to-day activities are elevated to whole new heights, to the same level of our imposing skyline or architectural marvels.
Even the tune carries this message of the silent strength of our people. There is no loud, in-your-face patriotic bluster of other NDP theme songs, but a simple, quiet tribute to the individual, opening with the lines, “One man on an island / One drop in the sea”.
The Singapore story is told, not through the narrative of national progress as we are used to, but the moments of joy in our personal journeys as Singaporeans.
In the middle of the video, the lyrics “Hear this anthem / It’s the voices of our friends” are sung to a breathtaking sequence of oil paintings, which smoothly transition from a child running to his parent, a person tending to a plant, a vertical farm, then a chef cooking with a wok.
HIGH STANDARDS FOR NDP THEME SONGS
It’s a surprise how much The Road Ahead resonates. Is it the timing after a weary battle with COVID-19?
Not really. After all, last year’s theme song, Everything I Am performed by Nathan Hartono, had the same wealth of material to work with.
Perhaps it shines because the repertoire of NDP songs is getting stale? After all, the 2019 theme song, Our Singapore, was based on 2002’s We Will Get There and 2015’s Our Singapore, while the 2018 theme song was a remake of 1987’s We Are Singapore.
Perhaps it isn’t that hard to stand out. There've been inglorious moments when NDP theme songs leaned too much into tried-and-tested tropes, veering straight into what some might describe as cheesiness.
The 2013 theme song, One Singapore, was criticised for its childish cadence. The music video seemed inspired by social studies textbooks and line-dancing, leading to intense online flak.
READ: Commentary: Does Singapore have to resort to 'slapstick and Singlish' to get public messages across?
The following year, NDP organisers didn’t release a new song for the first time in 16 years, opting to replay old favourites instead.
Then again, it’s difficult to strike a balance between novelty and familiarity. Electrico’s 2009 What Do You See? was an interesting alt-rock composition, but it failed to find mainstream appeal.
THE HOME OF A NEW GENERATION?
What’s instructive is how The Road Ahead has been likened most to NDP classic Home. The 1998 theme song spoke to a new generation of socially mobile Singaporeans: That even with the glitz and glamour of the world overseas, there’s still no place like Singapore.
It was also written in the wake of the Asian Financial Crisis, and features lyrics that are uncanny now: “When there are troubles to go through / We’ll find a way to start anew”.
Its use of an introspective, first-person voice was a departure from crowd-rousing hits of the 80s such as Count On Me, Singapore.
Like Home, The Road Ahead presents a thoughtful perspective of our journey as Singaporeans. They provide insight on where we can draw strength from: For Home, we find it by embracing Singapore our country, but in The Road Ahead, we find it by embracing each other.
And in Singapore’s most recent trudge through COVID-19, who is it that have held us tight and gotten us through these troubled times?
Linying said the song was a tribute to the selflessness of our frontline workers whose work have sailed Singapore through the worst of COVID-19. Which is why it is fitting that the only spectators allowed for NDP this year will be these frontliners.
And when the song plays on Aug 9, it will not only showcase how talented our artists are, but also honour the bravery of a group of people who carried a nation exhausted after a long fight. Their efforts are now immortalised in a new favourite National Day song.