Everything Has Changed, Nothing Has Changed: Music in a Post-9/11 World

The attacks of 9/11 may have caused a noticeable shift in the lyrical content of musicians and even sonic changes in the short term, but, in the end, normalcy finds a way to settle in.
Bob Dylan
"Love and Theft"

One particular Tuesday morning during my final semester in college was going to be a busy one.

I had to first stop at Homer’s Music in Lincoln, Nebraska, and pick up the new Bob Dylan album, “Love and Theft”. I would then review it for the college newspaper. After that, I had to go to class, and then head to my other job. On top of this, I was already running late.

I didn’t turn on the news. I just ran to my car and started to head downtown. Switching on to the morning radio show, I heard something I had never heard on the program: “We are going back to our New York affiliate…” Then I heard, “The South Tower has collapsed…”

The rest of the day was spent covering the events in a daze. In addition to the story I suddenly inherited about international terrorist organizations, I still had to type up the Dylan review. No matter the scale of a tragedy, most newspapers have a sports and arts and entertainment page to fill. This is true no matter how trivial those sections seem when you’re literally watching the world change in front of you.

The post-9/11 landscape for music began that very Tuesday with the release of both Jay-Z’s The Blueprint and Dylan’s “Love and Theft”. The former would shape the hip-hop landscape for the rest of that still-young decade. The later would be heralded as an artistic triumph that could be mentioned alongside Dylan’s ’70s masterworks. As new, vital works were emerging, Clear Channel was already beginning to silence works both old and new that they deemed inappropriate for the time.

Clear Channel’s knee-jerk reaction resulted in the pulling of such benign tracks like Bush’s then-named “Speed Kills” and Van Halen’s “Dancing in the Street”, joining the other usual suspects of songs that have been previously banned during national tragedies. For other examples of this, see John Lennon’s “Imagine” and Dylan’s “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”.

In addition to Clear Channel’s “no play” list, the Strokes had to pull its relatively good-natured “New York City Cops” off their hugely hyped debut album Is This It?. Slightly more justified was the pulling of the original cover of The Coup’s Party Music, which featured members Boots Riley and Pam the Funkstress blowing up the World Trade Center.

During those confusing few weeks, music writers asked if music would ever be the same. Had we reached a tipping point where we no longer wanted music that either glorified violence or reveled in shallow materialism? The answer came sooner than most could have predicted.

However horrific the images of planes exploding and bodies falling from the sky were, small shades of normalcy began to emerge a mere month after the Twin Towers fell. Saturday Night Live returned to the airwaves. South Park made its first 9/11 joke. Clear Channel’s list of 165 banned songs were back on the air in October. In the end, although 9/11 jarred the musical landscape for the rest of that year and into early 2002, but rock, pop, and hip-hop quickly corrected their natural courses.

While people waited for musical statements from artists like Bruce Springsteen to address the tragedy, we turned to contemporary works and used them as a reflection of our mood. People revisited U2’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind to take comfort in songs like “Walk On”, while others poured through the apocalyptic imagery that dominated Dylan’s “Love And Theft”, the Coup’s aforementioned Party Music, and Wilco’s then label-orphaned Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Spin magazine named System of a Down’s Toxicity its 2001 Album of the Year, partly because the album reflected the anxiety people felt during the last months of 2001. (It’s worth qualifying that the album came out a week before 9/11.) In one of the most offbeat theories published, Chuck Klosterman convincingly laid out, track by track, how Radiohead’s Kid A predicted the September 11th attacks and the ensuing aftermath.

Even artists got in the act. Natalie Merchant dedicated her 2001 album Motherland to the victims of the 9/11 attacks, even though the album was completed long before the events occurred.

The year 2002 began with U2 giving one of the most unforgettable Super Bowl halftime shows ever with its performance of “Where The Streets Have No Name” as the names of the victims of the 9/11 attacks scrolled over a huge backdrop. Bono’s American flag-lined coat liner sealed the deal, putting a lump in the throat of everyone but the most cynical of viewers. However, that was in February. By spring, things were pretty much back to normal in the music world.

A mere eight months after the events that were supposed to have killed irony, Eminem compared his own personal dramas to “the eyes of a little girl / Inside a plane / Aimed at the World Trade”. Even his harshest critics barely shrugged at that line.

Missy Elliott’s Under Construction used a joyous celebration of old-school R&B and hip-hop to heal a heart scarred by not only the loss of nearly 3,000 New Yorkers, but the loss of her best friend Aaliyah. Bruce Springsteen’s The Rising dutifully respected the victims (“You’re Missing”, “Into the Fire”), and tried to rally the survivors with songs like “Waitin’ On A Sunny Day” and “The Rising”.

Other artists took a braver and more combative approach. Out of all the “9/11 albums” released in early 2002, my favorite was Sleater-Kinney’s incendiary One Beat. On “Far Away”, Corin Tucker sang a line that cut through metaphors as it was almost directly lifted from what most of us heard that day from a loved one: “Turn on the TV”. On “Combat Rock”, Sleater-Kinney both echoed the empty sloganeering we were hearing (“Show you love your country / Go out and spend some cash”), and described our inevitable march toward a second war.

While Sleater-Kinney achieved acclaim with One Beat in the indie world, the country establishment wasn’t nearly as kind to both the Dixie Chicks and Steve Earle. After Natalie Maines said she was ashamed of her president, the Dixie Chicks received an enormous backlash in the country music community, complete with record destroying parties and station boycotts of their music. Thanks partly to that backlash, the trio’s next album, Taking The Long Way, won the band a new fanbase, but it wasn’t enough to compensate for the fans they lost. The album sold less than half of their 2002 album, Home. Steve Earle also found himself in front of conservative pundits following the release of his 2002 LP Jerusalem. Earle had to explain that his song “John Walker’s Blues” was more of an attempt to get into the mind of “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh rather than an endorsement of Lindh’s beliefs.

Other country artists had their own 9/11 statements greeted with kinder treatment from conservative media. Frequent Democrat supporter Toby Keith broke many-a-liberals hearts with his song “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue”, with his infamous line “‘Cause we’ll put a boot in your ass / It’s the American way”. Alan Jackson’s more subdued “Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning)” initially was the “go-to” popular song to express our grief and confusion, but that song had its own critics. As people like Bill Maher pointed out, a line like “I watch CNN, but I’m not sure I can tell you the difference in Iraq and Iran” was the perfect explanation to the question, “Why do they hate us?”

Internationally, during the lead up to the second Iraq War, artists played an integral part in the massive anti-war protests. Radiohead named its Amnesiac follow-up Hail to the Thief primarily as a criticism of George W. Bush.

But even at the height of the protest, there was an undercurrent of fatalism. One of the best examples of this was Blur’s album Think Tank. Despite a few politically charged indictments (“We Got a File on You”), the rest of the album was the sound of resignation, of wanting to just curl up and get wasted with your loved one and watch the terrible events play out on the BBC in the comfort of your own flat.

Following 15 years and a newly constructed Freedom Tower , the music world, at least the charts, looks fairly similar to they way it did in 2000. Today, roughly 25 percent of the U.S. population was born either after 9/11 or shortly before, and therefore unable to even recall September 11th as it happened.

Did the environment change for rock? Not really. It’s difficult to determine whether September 11th shaped protest music, or if it was more shaped by the simple advancement of technology as music became cheaper and more readily available.

But pop culture has always insulated itself from current events. The Kennedy assassination and the Vietnam War may have permeated into the lyrics of their respective times, and even altered the soundscape in the short term. Eventually, however, everyone who wasn’t directly affected by those events went back to work and continued their own path of artistic development. The Rolling Stones may have questioned “Who killed the Kennedys?” in “Sympathy for the Devil”, but three short years later, the band was more concerned about their own personal affairs — tax issues, drugs, relationships, etc — when they shacked up in Keith Richards’ villa in southern France to record Exile on Main Street.

One of the best examples of 9/11’s effects on music can be found in a band that was actually formed because of the terrorist attack: My Chemical Romance. During those few years that spanned between the attacks and the ensuing years spent in Iraq, My Chemical Romance’s music embodied much of the anger and confusion of that era. Then, in 2013, My Chemical Romance ceased to exist. The band said all it could say, and decided to call it a day. No matter the tragedy, whether it be Pearl Harbor or 9/11, the everyday goings on of people always finds a way to reestablish normalcy in everyone’s lives. And given the current unrest in the Middle East, the civil war that threatens Iraq, and the United States’ own humanitarian border crisis, there is no shortage of material for the next generation to address.