Hello Cruel World: Blogs and Tunes One Year Later

Wait a second. America did change, didn’t it? Cynics who note one year after 9/11 that irony never died and spam emails kept flooding our inboxes just weren’t looking in the right places. For example, we became more addicted to watching the news and picking up the paper, even as our collective insomnia and depression reportedly hit record levels. We all want to learn about Islam, now. And we care deeply about Israel, again. We think we’re more pious, contrite, and righteous, than we were in the recent past. Those are significant changes, aren’t they? Sure, we’re all still a bunch of greedy and selfish bastards, and the rich keep getting richer, but if those things changed then we’d just be handing the terrorists an easy victory. OK, I’ll stop with the clichés, now.

One year later, I’m more filled with anger than sorrow, and my other more inexpressible emotions are chiding me because this anger has become more directed at frightening anti-terror agents such as Don Rumsfeld and Ariel Sharon, than at the terrorists themselves. This seems like moral backwardness, doesn’t it?

History offers us very few lessons on how to fight terrorism, never mind how to win. One precedent (and forebear) is 19th century anarchism, which — just like militant Islam — brought together egghead ideologues, pious revolutionaries, and grimy desperadoes in a portentous bid to change the world by offing its leaders and panicking the public. Europe wondered how to conduct itself in peacetime as Alexander II (Russia), Sadi Carnot (France), Antonio Canovas del Castillo (Spain), Empress Elizabeth (Austria-Hungary), and King Umberto (Italy) were all assassinated by anarchists within the space of 20 years. Americans were spooked a bit by this invisible enemy (anarchism), but they were busy buttoning up their breezy new colonialist topcoat (Philippines, Cuba, Puerto Rico) and dickering with protective tariffs, to pay it much attention.

This safe world half-collapsed on September 6, 1901, when President William McKinley was assassinated at point-blank range by Leon F. Czolgosz. The assassin was an anarchist, buddies with Emma Goldman (though she would later deny it), and unrepentant to the end. Before seating himself in the electric chair, he said, “I killed the president because he was an enemy of the people, the good working people. I am not sorry for my crime.” When he died his corpse was doused with sulfuric acid to accelerate decomposition. Thus began 20th century America. Lewis Lapham, always the right-on contrarian, says that this was “another age of wealth and ease rudely awakened from its dream of moral sovereignty.” True enough. But the public still wept.

The anarchist assassinations did eventually stop, and the movement itself became a luckless ideological strand that inspires more reckless suburban youth than convivial workers. In fact, there was no military “war on anarchism” as far as I can discover, though World War I (horrible, bloody, and unnecessary) appears now to be an indirect result of persistent anarchist needling of the great powers. Anarchist terrorism (in the form of deluded tyrannicide) seemed to be defeated only when their knee-jerk ideology eventually just petered out. History’s a tough nut to crack, isn’t it? In some pretty simple ways, Kropotkin and Proudhon were not much different from Sayyid Qutb and Osama bin Laden. The line from “property is theft” to “America is the Infidel” is pretty damn short. But one particular parallel between September 1901 and September 2001 strikes me as unusual: the rise of muckraking.

The rise of Lincoln Steffens and his fellow muckrakers from 1902-1908 not only underscored an era of national doubt and upheaval, but continued America’s national tradition of pragmatic dissent. Now, in 2002, we can see the dramatic rise of blogging (like “muckraking”, an astonishingly ugly word) as one of the few positive effects of 9/11. Blogging had been kinda rolling around for a few years before 9/11 (I started my own blog Cheek just a couple months before), but it seems that the tragedies and political nonsense of the post-9/11 world gave web-based self-publishing a new sense of purpose and urgency. Some excellent blogs such as Craig’s Booknotes and the venerable dack.com (two of my personal favorites) seemed to take on a new sense of necessity as the War Against Terrorism grinds on.

I mean, think about it: immediately after 9/11, many sensible people supported the idea that restrictions on our freedom are a necessary consequence of terrorism. Patriotic wiretapping, racial profiling, muzzling the media: these were now virtues of a besieged democracy rather than despotic vices. Forget political correctness, we were now beset by “terror correctness”, a barren tundra where dissenting voices were silenced by the memories of dead firefighters and dancing Palestinians. Bloggers were often the only source of pragmatic dissent during those dark times: indeed they still are. Yet, they are also sources of humor, such as Ultimate Insult or Girls Are Pretty, or great poetry and prose such as Riley Dog, even sublime art such as harrumph, and zany information resources such as Ethel the Blog and Triptych Cryptic.

As a blogger, you get instant gratification and deferred fame, but the participatory audience (through commenting systems of various sorts) and expansive freedom of the form makes it a communal and thought-provoking medium without precedents. Hell, even superstars like RuPaul and Wil Wheaton have hopped on the blogging train, along with seasoned media veterans like h Al Roker and Danny Schechter. Without a doubt, the war sparked a sharp growth in blogging, both because it’s (usually) cheap and free, to those who have access, and because the heightened emotional pitch (and raised stakes) of the post-terrorist world made self-expression and media criticism necessities rather than luxuries.

The insertion of blogging into pop culture is one of the wonderful developments of the past year. But on the whole, pop culture’s response to terrorism since 9/11 has been significant only in its marginal status, its perplexing emptiness, its forced patriotism. This is nothing new. After McKinley was assassinated, American dry goods shops and general stores were flooded with American flags, commemorative wall-hangings featuring all our assassinated presidents (Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley), even postcards of McKinley’s death mask. Mass-produced remembrance and grief quickly turned to kitsch, as usual. Meanwhile, the bloody-minded anarchists themselves were setting the aesthetic standards for the coming century. Hell, neither John Cage nor Sid Vicious would have amounted to anything if the nose-picking fifth-columnists of Anarchy weren’t busy doing their Dadaist non-deeds round Paris in the 1920s.

So, what has our popular culture — especially our music — done over the past year? How has that lucrative zone in popular culture been shaped our post-911 consciousness? Surprisingly, you had to look really hard. The power of music was feared and obeyed right off the bat when those tunnelvision wimps at Clear Channel created a list (later disowned) of tunes that shouldn’t be played on any of their ubiquitous radio stations. You know, songs like “Tuesday’s Gone” by Lynyrd Skynyrd, “Only the Good Die Young” by Billy Joel, and “Smokin'” by Boston. The list quickly made the rounds of the blogging community, and Clear Channel immediately denounced it as a “rumor”, a “misunderstanding”, an “urban legend”. Probably it was just a case of colossally dumb thinking by a marginal Clear Channel exec or DJ.

On top of that, you had some crazies proclaiming the “death of irony”, or whatever. In a hilarious Time magazine rant, Roger Rosenblatt memorably dissed the “vain stupidity” of “ironists”, and I snickered in spite of myself. What the hell is an “ironist”? Someone who laughs? Aren’t laughter and irony the very qualities that once set America apart from the Soviet Union? And shouldn’t we be celebrating our collective vain, ironical stupidity just to bug that humorless sobersides Osama bin Laden and his fellow fanatics?

Well, you can see that music had a lot to contend with, and we all got off to a very cautious and melodic start with America: A Tribute to Heroes, the soundtrack to the celebrity telethon. When it first hit the racks, you weren’t really supposed to “review” it, for obvious reasons. But yeah, there were some good tracks in there, including inspired performances by Limp Bizkit & Johnny Rzeznik, Willie Nelson, Alicia Keys, Wyclef Jean, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, and Bon Jovi. And, oh yeah, Neil Young’s rendition of “Imagine”, which remains one of the sneakiest anarchist anthems ever written, no matter how subtly Neil tweaked the personal pronouns. “Imagine there’s no heaven”, indeed. All in all, Tribute to Heroes is remarkably tasteful, even though the tunes veer toward schlock (could they have veered anywhere else?) and the rainbow coalition of big name artists is a depressingly homogeneous lot. Oh yeah, the discs are copy-protected, which just goes to show that the record industry’s cynicism about its own audience knows no boundaries.

There were other tribute albums, covers, and compilations by the bushel load, but mostly they were making mad dollars off of patriotism and sorrow. Everyone got to hear some mediocre tunes by I Am the World Trade Center and Anthrax, mostly because the built-in notoriety of their names (and their resolve not to change them) was impossible to ignore. Yeah, I pretty much slept through that bit, too. Another mediocre tune, “NYC Cops”, was quickly deleted from the Strokes’ Is This It?, which meant far too many American collector-scum pre-irony types brought conspicuous consumption to trite new levels by splurging on the inferior import. On the other hand, “NYC’s Like a Graveyard” is a brilliant pre-9/11 tune that remained the gem of the eponymous Moldy Peaches debut.

Me, I found that some of my old albums were sublime soundtracks for the nasty year. Righteous records like The Payback (James Brown), London 0 Hull 4 (Housemartins), Fear and Whiskey (Mekons), New Day Rising (Hüsker Dü), and On (Echobelly) always hit the perfect nerve, and I wondered why some of our happening artists today weren’t hitting out with post-9/11 rants and ballads of their own.

With Land (1975-2002), Patti Smith did an admirable job of fucking with both past and future to recontextualize her career in post-9/11 terms. Indeed her 90s reinvention as the poet of sorrow and recovery is downplayed here in favor of a fascinating and charitable anti-apocalyptic vision prodded forward with the old bones of surrealism. She ends with the poem “Notes to the Future” and a powerful rendition of “Tomorrow” (yeah, the one from Annie), both of which were delivered on New Years Eve 2002. Sure it’s just a compilation, but even if you have all her albums you’ll dig how her art now shines like a double beam out of the craters in lower Manhattan.

I had particularly high hopes for Sonic Youth, who were once genuinely frightening mirrors of NYC grime and terror (not to mention ghosts and flowers). Figuring now they’d have to flee from their recent surrender to melody and eloquence, I picked up Murray Street and rushed home. It was a dud. In fact it’s such a safe, depressingly Geffenized proggy dud that I wonder if they’ve finally turned their backs on NYC altogether. “Karen Revisited”? “Radical Adults Lick Godhead Style”? “Disconnection Notice” for chrissakes?! Although Kim Gordon ends up saving the day (as usual), this album proves finally that Sonic Youth are not responsible stewards of their own talent.

I also had high hopes for Radio 4, who were not only the finest NYC band to emerge in quite some time, but they were also revolutionary. Not only did they stir up the crowds with some Gang of Four funk, but they shot it through with some no-nonsense Joe Jackson imitations. Their hot new album Gotham!, judging from the title and cover art, seemed to be their own offering to the world as the new generation’s voice of the city. Well. As far as I can tell, the Gang of Four poses are really not poses, and they truly mean it when they scrawl “the ideas of the ruling class should not be the ruling ideas so get behind the struggle right now” across the CD booklet. But rather than sounding angrier and more urgent than their 2000 debut The New Song and Dance, they’ve inflated their grooves with woozy dub and groovy disco, and buried their words under some lazy-ass sloganeering. If the revolution means busting out a freakshow on the pomo dancefloor (which it very well might), then Radio 4 are all that. But I don’t remember any of the lyrics, and I don’t want to get mixed up in the wrong struggle, y’know? And despite the great title, they steer clear of 9/11. Great album anyway, though.

I snoozed my way through Bruce Springsteen’s long-awaited The Rising, another “good” album that’s probably immune to criticism for a while. The man has good intentions, principles, and brains, but he’s a lot like his hero John Steinbeck: exciting and righteous in theory, but phenomenally dull in practice. No, the real excitement came with the release of Sleater-Kinney’s astounding One Beat a few weeks ago. Anyone with a coupla ears and half a heart would probably concede that they are America’s greatest rock ‘n’ roll band right now, and so it’s almost their duty to put themselves on the line and sing about the world’s muck. Sure, one of them’s a breeder and they shave their pits, but if Sleater-Kinney tagged their musical career with ideological purity, then they’d suck. Instead they conjure an inspired ghost dance with the forthright tune “Far Away” (“And the president hides / While working men rush in / To give their lives”) and tumble out of stasis to lead the revolution with “One Beat” (“If I’m to run the future / You’ve got to let the old world go”). The rest of the album agitates and cogitates, mourns and celebrates — mostly their own unhinged and constricted lives. Although it isn’t a through-and-through “9/11 album” like Springsteen’s, it sounds a hell of a lot more like the new world that was born last September. It’s been a long hard road since Corin Tucker took on the voice of a bloodthirsty anti-terrorist herself, in the frightening Heavens to Betsy tune “Terrorist” (in which the terrorist was a priapic stalker).

But best of all are two tunes that have been rocking the streets the past couple weeks: Steve Earle’s “John Walker’s Blues” and the Mekons’ “Thee Olde Trip to Jerusalem”. Steve Earle sides with the most difficult and heartfelt kinds of patriotism in his mad-crazy ode to John Walker Lindh. It’s a sturdy, brave meditation on how America’s inbred anomie can inspire a fucked-up kid to take up arms and fight for what he believes. The song is courageous not just in that it effectively neutralizes Taliban ideology and disses the jarhead ethos that carried him back home in tight chains, but because it’s a country tune that openly sympathizes with a spoiled Marin County rich kid. John Walker Lindh seems to me a kind of blank slate for anyone to chalk up a point of view, and Steve Earle did the job better than the Taliban ever could.

Meanwhile, the Mekons have created this anthemic masterpiece that sounds both like a 19th century British fight song and a post-punk barrel of slogans. Any band that’s brave enough to wade into that frustrating slough of despond called the Middle East deserves a medal for bravery alone. But the Mekons take “Thee Olde Trip To Jerusalem”: “Heart of the lion / The plunder and the killing / Over and Over. / We just tried to stay sober”. Jerusalem! Not just the magical playground of William Blake’s brain, but a dusty town with a fiercely contested temple or two, which — as the Mekons point out — was built “on the backs of the people”. As call-and-response builds, and the drums kick in, and fiddles ululate, and banshees scream, you wonder whether they can sustain such magisterial agony and anger. But they do. Sure, the rest of their album OOOH! keeps wading through these same swamps, sometimes with great song titles (“Hate Is the New Love”) and lyrics (“Everyday is a battle / How we still love the war”). But just like Springsteen, the other tunes are stately and dull. So chalk up “John Walker’s Blues” and “Thee Olde Trip to Jerusalem” as singularities, two of the most sublime artworks to address the tragedies of the past year.

And so the year in popular culture wasn’t so depressing, after all. Sure, we put out more flags and kept clamoring for schlock. But the startling explosion of blogdom — as well as the sublime musical artworks that just recently burst out of nowhere — they’re inspiring signals that a new, more liberated, less paranoid world might (might) be around the corner. But it requires lots of people chipping away at the state, and dissing the blind requirements of fundamentalist ideology. It requires a reaching toward anarchy, actually.