By Sept. 12, 2001, it was clear the front lines of America's musical response to the previous day's attacks would have a certain native twang.
That afternoon, I was in the safest place an American could be -- the middle of nowhere, driving across vacant grasslands toward Denver from a Sept. 11 hike of the Black Mesa in a remote corner of the Oklahoma panhandle -- and the airwaves, already saturated in those parts by country music, were thick with over-earnest patriotic songs DJs had dredged-up for the occasion.
Lee Greenwood's God-forsaken "God Bless the U.S.A." was repeated about every 20 minutes. They also dug into chestnuts old and new -- Brooks & Dunn's "Only in America" (a celebration of working stiffs released just weeks before), Billy Ray Cyrus' "Some Gave All" (honoring military servicefolk, from the same album as "Achy Breaky Heart"), even Merle Haggard's Vietnam-era "The Fightin' Side of Me" (pity, once again, that "squirrelly guy who claims he just don't believe in fightin'").
Eventually, I'd had my fill. I put in the only angry political music I had in the car: the first album from the Clash.
In the months to come, though, country music led the charge -- and had the greatest popular success -- with songs addressing the 9/11 murders, ranging from tender contemplation of the tragedies to blatant, boot-clad jingoism.
On the softer end of that spectrum, country gentleman Alan Jackson hit No. 1 just two months after the attacks with a thoughtful, plaintive ballad, "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)." With the dust barely settled in New York City, Jackson could only muster questions -- not so much about the causes of the attacks but about Americans' personal reactions to the crisis. Beyond echoing the common JFK-era query of its title, the song probes for responses both public ("Did you burst out in pride for the red, white and blue / and the heroes who died just doin' what they do?") and private ("Did you call up your mother and tell her you loved her? / Did you dust off that Bible at home?"). Mawkish, maybe, but it served its purpose.
Toby Keith, of course, was more blunt. By summer 2002, after Jackson and much of country music had spent months being courteously somber and reflective, America had reached the anger phase of its grief, which pushed Keith's next album to No. 1 on the strength of his own parenthetical single, "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)." With imagery that includes the Statue of Liberty not only making a fist but shaking it, Keith -- with trademark subtlety -- warned evildoers everywhere: "You'll be sorry that you messed with the U.S. of A. / 'Cause we'll put in a boot in your ass / It's the American way."
I expected that kind of confidence and rage from rock 'n' roll, instead, and boy was I let down.
A month after 9/11, musicians gathered at the Concert for New York City, an event organized by Paul McCartney. The former Beatle himself had watched the Twin Towers attacks from the the tarmac at JFK airport, and debuted his reaction song at the concert. "Freedom," however, is a viscous melody and a pitying lyric -- one which never directly addresses the tragedy, waxing generally about the broad virtues of its subject. "We will fight for the right / to live in freedom," McCartney sings.
McCartney played the song everywhere, marketing it as the ultimate 9/11 anthem, but it never caught on. In fact, it was frequently employed at rallies with a less peaceful intent. McCartney told Britain's Telegraph last year: "I think it got hijacked a bit, and [turned into something] a bit militaristic. Mine was in the spirit of 'We Shall Overcome'; you know, 'Fight for your rights' in the civil rights sense; [it] doesn't mean, 'Go out and hit people.' It was a pity: it kind of stopped me doing it, actually."
Neil Young, who 31 years prior had rushed into a studio to record "Ohio," a quick response to the Kent State shootings, did the same in the fall of 2001 and released "Let's Roll" that November. Over a slow, moody jam that inverts the idea of holy war, Young celebrates those who revolted against their captors aboard Flight 93, ultimately bringing it down in Pennsylvania. Passenger Todd Beamer's words became Young's title, as well as a rousing catchphrase for months to come. The catchphrase had a much longer life than Young's song.
Clear Channel Communications, the company that eventually spun off today's Live Nation, didn't help matters by circulating among its 1,200 radio stations a list of 165 "lyrically questionable" songs, suggesting DJs steer clear of them in the weeks after 9/11 in the name of sensitivity. Some might have been understandable -- Soundgarden's "Blow Up the Outside World," Billy Joel's "Only the Good Die Young," the GAP Band's "You Dropped a Bomb on Me," Peter, Paul & Mary's "Leaving on a Jet Plane" -- but the list also included puzzling choices such as Neil Diamond's "America" and John Lennon's "Imagine."
It was a rock-centric list, which probably helped open the field of musical catharsis to country's well-heeled patriotism. DJs had free rein to draw from an arsenal that already included Faith Hill's "Star-Spangled Banner" from the year before as well as new flag-wavers from LeAnn Rimes ("God Bless America"), Randy Travis ("America Will Always Stand"), Charlie Daniels ("This Ain't No Rag, It's a Flag"), Kenny Rogers ("Homeland") and Hank Wiliams Jr. ("America Will Survive," a rewrite of his 1982 single "A Country Boy Can Survive").
And, yes, "God Bless the U.S.A.," Greenwood's curse from 1984, returned to the charts in October 2001, peaking again at No. 16.
Five good 9/11 songs
I'll leave you with a few antidotes to all that yee-haw saccharine and sentiment. Here are five of my own favorite songs addressing a wide array of perspectives on 9/11:
Bruce Springsteen, "The Rising"
Sung from the point of view of one of the New York City firefighters headed up the stairs of the World Trade Center, Springsteen's anthem, the last-minute title track to his 2002 album, was the worthiest of the popular 9/11 songs if only because of its utter disinterest in retaliation. Instead of an uprising, Bruce goes for a broader, transcendent kind of uplift.
Fleetwood Mac, "Illume"
A couple of years later, this Stevie Nicks song appeared on Fleetwood Mac's heralded comeback album, "Say You Will." It's touching in its candlelit consideration -- simply a musing on the national mindset (after she "saw history go down" and was thinking about "how we could make it / what we've been through / all of the trauma"). "I didn't set out to write a Sept. 11th song, it just happened," Nicks said that year. "I also wrote one called 'Get Back on the Plane' and a song called 'The Towers Touched the Sky,' but it was just too depressing." Wise choice, and a lovely meditation.
Ministry, "Lies Lies Lies"
Though I'm doubtful of Al Jourgensen's conspiracy theories, I support his monstrously rocking skepticism on this typically jagged, distorted track from the recently reunited collective. "I'm on a mission to never forget / 3,000 people that I've never met," Jourgensen growls affectionately before warning that the attacks might actually have been planned "not by Al Qaeda, not by bin Ladin / but by a group of tyrants / that should be of great concern to all Americans."
Loudon Wainwright III, "No Sure Way"
This pensive folk song from the typically frank and poignant Wainwright, on his 2005 album "Here Come the Choppers," was written just a few days after 9/11 as Wainwright rode the subway into Manhattan -- which traveled underneath ground zero for the first time. "They say heaven's high above us hell's not far below / In that subway tunnel there was no sure way to know," he sings. "When you face something that huge, you think, 'I'm not even going to think of writing a song about this. It's too ridiculous and too maudlin,' " Wainwright told me in March. "I'm sure there are hundreds of songs written about 9/11 now. ... Like the words I used in the song, it felt 'obscene.' "
James, "Hey Ma"
McCartney went for indirect and missed; this British band was a little more direct and much more moving. Opening in the aftermath ("The towers have fallen / so much dust in the air"), grandiose singer Tim Booth swings between indignation -- "Please don't preach me forgiveness / You're hardwired for revenge" -- and graphic grief -- "Hey ma, the boy's in body bags / coming home in pieces." That it's the title track to one of the group's finest albums is a sweet bonus.
Honorable mention -- In addition to Neil Young, another moving ballad from the viewpoint of the Flight 93 passengers came from, of all places, a Velvet Revolver track called "Messages." Singer Scott Weiland sounds great on the recording, weaving his brave cell-phone farewells between languid solos from guitarist Slash. Surprisingly effective, and it still holds up well.
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