- Jeffrey Melnick
Almost immediately after four hijacked planes crashed on 11 September 2011 conversations started about how the tragedy should be understood in the context of popular culture. Discussions about violence and popular culture also arose, seemingly fed not only by the basic truth that 11 September was a day of terrible carnage but also by the notion that the mode of attack was inextricablae from visual codes developed by Hollywood. During the first weeks after 9/11, numerous commentators insisted that Americans would be shaken out of their consumer habits and refuse to pay to see violent movies: it quickly became clear that music would play a special role as a cultural first responder on this new landscape.
Along with widely-circulated photographs and the New York Times series of impressionistic biographical life stories (“Portraits of Grief”) popular song became the most widely-accepted “authentic” vehicle for commemorating American loss and expressing the grief and confusion that ensued after the attacks. For months and years after 9/11 popular musicians in the United States attempted to provide efficient articulations of American attitudes in the wake of the attacks. Two key television programs in the months following 9/11 capture the general outlines of the cultural industries’ responses to the tragedy. On 21 September 2001 a telethon called A Tribute to Heroes was broadcast on all of the major networks. The performers on this widely-seen program included Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Tom Petty, Paul Simon, Neil Young, and Sting, and its musical palette, while large enough to include some vague nods to hard rock and hip hop, was organized around evocations of a national togetherness defined by interracial unity. The visual and musical emblem of the show was the white lead singer performing with a Black gospel choir: this shorthand helped efface any of the complexities of identity (especially those having to do with Arabs, South Asians, or Muslims) that would vex so many Americans in the coming years. The racial unity of Tribute was communicated not only through the presence of gospel sounds, but also through the integration of various bands that do not usually feature African American musicians.
At the Country Music Awards held on 7 November 2001 Alan Jackson debuted his 9/11 song “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning).” Radio programmers had it on the air by the next morning and it topped the country music charts for five weeks from late December. The song’s title became Jackson’s vehicle for carrying a series of after-the-fact prescriptions for what Americans should have been doing as the planes hit, and then just after. The imagined “you” of Jackson’s song is a teacher of “innocent children,” who calls Mom, turns off the violent movie on the television (in favor of I Love Lucy), and most important, dusts off the Bible, presumably to read the verse from 1 Corinthians that Jackson paraphrases in the chorus. While other country musicians—most notably Toby Keith—would record more militaristic songs, it was Jackson who most fully captured the mood described by Clint Eastwood on the A Tribute to Heroes telethon as “wounded” but also “renewed in strength.”
The musical responses to 9/11 captured in the telethon and the Alan Jackson performance were powerful contributors to a culture that was struggling to figure out what “September 12th art”—to use British journalist Mark Lawson’s formulation—should attempt to accomplish and what it should avoid. A major player here was Clear Channel Communications, a powerful media conglomerate that exerts its strength through its ownership of radio stations, its concert promotions, and its control of advertising venues. Media industry magazines reported on 14 September that Clear Channel Communications had released a list of “banned songs” that should not be played on their more than one thousand radio stations in the United States, out of sensitivity to their distraught listeners. The banned list is a bizarre and at times hilarious compendium of songs by bands from AC/DC to The Zombies. While Clear Channel’s official position is that this “rumor” about censorship was not true, many local program directors admitted that in the wake of the circulated instructions numerous songs were removed from rotation.
The consensus position that developed in the first months after 9/11 reached an apotheosis of sorts with the release of Bruce Springsteen’s record The Rising in the summer of 2002, about six weeks before the first anniversary of the attacks. No other work of 9/11 popular art has been met with the full-on media embrace that surrounded this release, which was carefully positioned by Springsteen and his marketing team as a major memorial. In countless print and broadcast interviews Springsteen has spoken eloquently about how he felt called to produce this work of remembrance, inspired first by a fan who yelled to him (“Hey, Bruce, we need you”) out of a car window at the New Jersey shore. On The Rising Springsteen turns the camera away from the realities of the descent of planes, towers and bodies that defined the day, and constructs instead a poetics of spiritual rebirth that is apparently apolitical.
Music-world objections to the consensus position took some time to develop, but when they did come (mostly in the world of hip-hop performance) the anger was palpable. These moments of protest were organized first around global concerns. Even in the midst of significant public support for the war in Afghanistan, rap artists, both mainstream and underground, launched critiques of American imperialism and militarism. Nas was one of the first major artists to speak against the seeming unanimity with his song “What Goes Around,” which implies that that the destruction of the towers was inevitable and traceable to American hubris on the world stage. Boston-based indie rapper Mr. Lif was more concrete in “Home of the Brave” (2002), which expresses the belief that oil was the real reason for the war. Talib Kweli, who has been a major force in independent rap music since the late 1990s, urged African Americans not to fall for the easy seductions of post-9/11 patriotism. Perhaps most galling to this generation of rappers was the virtually compulsory nature of patriotic declarations, and more particularly the culture-wide sanctification of police officers, the most visible figures of racist oppression for many young African Americans.
Hip-hop artists were in the vanguard again when it came to explaining how misleading (and politically motivated) it was for American government officials and media powers to try to project all post-9/11 evil in the world onto one-dimensional targets such as Osama Bin Laden or “the terrorists.” Another of the fascinating and culturally complex ways that African American artists responded to the “blank check” of militarism that Congress handed the President to use in South Asia and the Middle East (as well as repressive surveillance measures in the United States) was to incorporate the sights and sounds of Middle Eastern and South Asian culture into their own work, whether this involved integrating the sounds of India’s Bollywood or the images of Middle Eastern belly dancing into hip hop and rhythm and blues songs and videos. For young African Americans in the years after 9/11 to announce that their music needs South Asia and the Middle East must be heard as a cultural declaration of interdependence. From Jay-Z to Busta Rhymes and Erick Sermon, many hip-hop artists working in the aftermath of 9/11 have insisted that their culture relies on cultural synergies created by reaching out (or into) the various cultures of South Asia and the Middle East.
- M. Lawson: “After the Fall,” Guardian (16 August 2002), http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2002/aug/16/artsfeatures.september11
- E. Nuzum: “Crash Into Me, Baby!: America’s Implicit Music Censorship Since 11 September,” Freemuse (2004), http://freemuse.synkron.com/graphics/Publications/PDF/18.pdf
- D. Heller, ed.: Selling 9/11: How a National Tragedy Became a Commodity (New York, 2005)
- J. Ritter and J. Martin Daughtry, eds.: Music in the Post-9/11 World (New York, 2007)
- M. Sturken: Tourists of History: Memory, Kitsch, and Consumerism from Oklahoma City to Ground Zero (Durham, 2007)
- J. Melnick: 9/11 Culture: America under Construction (Malden, MA, 2009)
- N.T. Sharma: Hip Hop Desis: South Asian Americans, Blackness, and a Global Race Consciousness (Durham, 2010)
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- “9:11 Blues.” Toby Twining, composer. Matt Haimovitz, cello. Anthem (Artemis-Vanguard: 2003). Audio. <http://muco.alexanderstreet.com/view/82392>