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Popular Music After 9/11: Putting Politics Into Verse

By George Sanchez,

Heralding Bruce Springsteen's The Rising as the definitive response to September 11th within popular music, critics would have audiences believe The Rising accurately embodies the emotions felt by survivors and witnesses to last year's tragedy. Like near-sighted lemmings, the critics rushed to applaud The Rising, giving little attention to the work of other artists addressing 9/11, as if Springsteen ushered in a new era of musical social criticism or a more valid musical witness to 9/11. A form of cultural imperialism, this universal praise underlines the serious lack of diversity within circles of popular music critics. How critics praised The Rising serves to grant popular music a deceiving sense of accomplishment and dangerously conditions appropriate social responses to 9/11.

Symptomatic of America's deeply embedded cult of the hero and cowboy tinged image of rugged individualism, the critic's search for salvation in one man is counter to the spirit of artistic expression within a greater framework and community of musicians. To truly allow response to September 11th within popular music to mirror our own emotions, audiences need to listen to an array of artists, genres, and sounds. The words of Paris or Sleater-Kinney's Corin Tucker are no less sincere and compelling than Springsteen's, but in a media-saturated, hyper-PC pre-war atmosphere, the "wrong" words are deemed treasonous, as Steve Earle found out, and the experience of a dynamic reflection upon the events of 9/11 within popular music becomes a scattered hunt rather than a communal moment.

To stand witness to 9/11 and its aftermath is the plight of Bruce Springsteen's The Rising. Lauded by USA Today as "the most powerful and least jingoistic statement on the terror attack to date," according to The San Francisco Chronicle's Neva Chonin, The Rising is "the first album by a major artist to fully address the emotional fallout of the September attacks." Former Spin Editor Alan Light pens for The New Yorker: "Springsteen came up with something riskier and more surprising, something more than the country's archetypal living rock star fulfilling his obligation as America's rock-and-roll conscience" while Kurt Loder writes The Rising is a "singular triumph [that] transmute[s] the fiery horror of that day." From coast to coast, most reviews of The Rising follow the lead of Chonin, Light, and Loder and shamelessly shower the record with praise.

As a Bruce Springsteen album, The Rising is familiar. A solid rock 'n'roll record, placed alongside the rest of Springsteen's work, The Rising is the next logical step. In his trademark Woody Guthrie-inspired narrative, Springsteen hauls his listeners through those very ordinary lives caught in the wreckage of 9/11. We rush up the stairs alongside FDNY on "Into the Fire," awaken alone on "You're Missing," and watch in wonder from a corner, a window, or in front of a television set on "Lonesome Day." Brendan O'Brien's production serves to update the E Street Band's classic sound. The guitars are bold and upfront, as on "The Rising," Max Weinberg's beats are solid and steady, but Clarence Clemens' saxophone is buried. Otherwise, The Rising's tone is familiar. Springsteen continues to play with blues-based verses and gospel-inspired choruses. Treading the same path he and the E Street Band have for years, New Jersey's First son pulls no musical punches.

But like the days and weeks that followed that infamous Tuesday, that lonesome day as Bruce growls, The Rising starts to drag and you wonder when it will end; because the emotional guilt of turning it off without allowing the record to finish naturally is there. Just like the impetus to turn off the television in relief from revisiting that all-too-familiar slam of steel, burst of flame, and purest black smoke; to cut The Rising off somehow feels so very selfish. Selfish because the stories presented here are not Bruce's, but taken from the lives of those intimately tied to the disaster of 9/11. A sort of emotional blackmail, the record does not belong to Bruce or the E Street Band, it belongs to the wives, sons, daughters, brothers, friends, and families of those who now celebrate an anniversary of loss every September 11th. One doesn't find Bruce's voice on The Rising. If you wanted to know what Springsteen was doing, where he was, of how he felt on the morning of 9/11, you won't find it here.

Springsteen's ability to lose himself and give voice to the voiceless has always been his charm. For this reason alone, critics continue to genuflect in the presence of Springsteen's outdated reputation as rock 'n' roll's everyman. Many of Bruce's adoring critics arrived from a culture that fetishized Springsteen as a blue-collar boy from Jersey done right. They come from a group of people that bought up millions of copies of Born in the USA, and are a generation that looks back on their twenties with comfortable space. Slate's A.O. Scott captures popular music critic sentiment in writing The Rising is "the first rock 'n' roll record in a very long time whose release has seemed like a cultural event." But as a cultural event, with who does this resonate? Simultaneous stories cum advertisements in Rolling Stone and Time and back-to-back performances on Late Night with David Letterman are pithy manufactured cultural events. The uniform praise critics have heaped upon The Rising becomes cultural imperialism masked as a "cultural event," ultimately stemming from a clear lack of diversity within the already shallow pool of popular culture critics and writers. It is not without importance to recognize that many of these critics are white. But such is the state of professional journalism. While Bruce Springsteen's music transcends decades, his experience and his songs don't explicitly speak for or to all. The class, gender, and race limitations inherent in his person are no different than that of his critics. But Bruce never claimed to speak for all-Americans; that was pinned to him by critics like Loder, Light, and Chonin.

The Rising is an attempted portrait of a defining moment in American history. Critics would say it is the truest to life portrait produced thus far. But to believe this one recording captures that day is to be stuck in a vacuum, unable to turn off the television, leave the room, peer out the window and see that life goes on. Such acclaim further conditions acceptable responses, reactions, and emotions. If The Rising is the defining response to 9/11 within popular music, then there has been no distance gained for reflection and dissent is something best not discussed. Despite the critic's words, The Rising is merely a good starting point in regards to responses within popular music to 9/11. Think of it as another piece in a greater collage.

Before the first bombs even dropped in Afghanistan, responses to 9/11 had already begun to echo within popular music. Groups, like Flogging Molly, Rhett Miller, and Anti-Flag, were in the recording studio at the time and their feelings from the day are reflected in the voice of the recording or directly in the lyric. Others flocked to stages and studios with songs of relief, fear, support, anger, and dissent. Individually, the songs are flat, but examined within a quilt work of other musical responses, a dynamic array of emotions in the aftermath of 9/11 becomes present within popular music in a manner otherwise not found within the media at large.

One of the first recordings was the forgettable cover of Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On," led by Time's heralded savior of the world, Bono, and Wyclef Jean. The cast of contributors resembled an MTV list of who's who in pop music today. Originally recorded as a fundraiser for AIDS victims the single took on a mission to serve as an anthem of comfort post 9/11. Well meant but uninspiring as a cover of one of the most complex and beautiful recordings of the Vietnam era, "What's Going On?" resonates within the initial feelings of confusion, but its celebrity spectacle status overruns the intent and ultimately rings hollow. The nine different mixes only furthered the novelty and empty crassness of this recording.

One of the first original musical responses, Paul McCartney's "Freedom" was less touted but equally forgotten. Lyrically, "Freedom" wandered in circles: Talkin' 'bout Freedom/I'm talkin' 'bout freedom/I will fight/for the right/to live in freedom. Musically, the song is rushed and shallow. As a memorial to 9/11, it comes off the same as "What's Going On."

Though more focused, Neil Young's "Let's Roll" followed the same fate but was one of the first pop music recordings to mirror the angry sentiments and vindictive spirit that followed in 9/11's aftermath. Neil Young's take on George W. Bush proclaimed the new American motto, "Let's Roll" is a clunky tribute to Todd Beamer and the passengers of United Airlines Flight 93. Based on a riff that, strangely, echoes Pink Floyd's "Young Lust" and Aerosmith's "Last Child," the single opens with a droning tone that emulates a plane engine followed by the ring of a cell phone. Backed by Booker T. and the MG's, the beat is slow, brooding, and moody. The chorus -- Time is running out/Let's Roll -- is sung low, without certainty and offers a "do whatcha' gotta' do" sentiment that reflects an angry, hurt, and confused American public. Mirroring President Bush's polemic axis of evil assessment, Young's high nasal voice sings: No one has the answer/but one thing is true/you've got the turn on evil/when it's coming after you/You've gotta face it down/And when it tries to hide/You've gotta go in after it/And never be denied/Time is runnin' out/let's roll. Musically insignificant, the importance of "Let's Roll" lies in the fact that it is one of the first original songs with popular radio support that directly addressed 9/11.

Though less obvious than "Let's Roll," Outkast's "The Whole World" previews a more vague, quiet, and introspective response to 9/11 that could become commonplace within popular music. An uptempo beat blending revival choruses, a melancholy piano trill, a big band beat and Outkast's trademark soul-funk, Andre 3000 belts: Yeah I'm afraid/ like I'm scared as a dog/ But I've got a new song/ and I want y'all to sing aloooooong/Sing aloooooong/See this is the way/ that we walk on sunny day/when it's raining inside/and you're all aloooooone/all aloooooone- YEEAAH. A musical healing serum of sorts, Dre and Big Boi extend an acknowledgment of the pain and fear rippling through America without allowing those feelings to overcome the song. Quick and low, Big Boi raps: Looking on the TV/Everything is looking dismal. As the initial shock of witnessing the attacks, "The Whole World" is a pure gut response, uncalculated, sincere, and real.

Pennsylvania's Anti-Flag "911 For Peace" acts similarly as a responsive song, but in a more politicized manner. A departure from their slogan-laden songwriting, "911 for Peace" is a largely emotional release. The musical structure is simple; a few distorted chords accented by a simple three-note theme not far off from early '80s English punk ala Generation X. Asking myself in vain/shaken by the shock, wails Anti-Flag's singer Justine Sane. Offset by a reverse call and response, the chorus barks: I don't want to die/I don't want to kill/I don't want to kill/I don't want to die/We are all human/It's time to prove it. A simple, personal reaction, "9/11 for Peace" nonetheless rings an emotional chord that's accessible, political, and ever meaningful as a musical response to 9/11.

The waves of pride and nationalism following 9/11 were to be expected. Almost uncharacteristically, Jello Biafra warns on The Big Ka-Boom, Part One to give the flag-wavers space to express themselves. Space they got -- in the streets, on the back of car windows, and in the music of Alan Jackson and Toby Keith. Largely apolitical, Jackson's more slick and somber "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)" walks the line between personalizing the moment and verbalizing others' experiences. Another hit to add to Jackson's stable, the song's final verse, I'm just a singer of simple songs/I'm not a real political man/I watch CNN but I'm not sure I can tell you/ the difference in Iraq and Iran rewards Americans, again, for their lack of political awareness that is at this point intrinsic to our national identity.

Then there's Toby Keith. The country singer's single, "Courtesy of the Red, White, & Blue (The Angry American)," proclaims And You'll be sorry you messed with the US of A/'Cause we'll put a boot in your ass/It's the American way. The third verse rides Now this nation that I love/Has fallen under attack/A mighty sucker punch/ came flyin' in from somewhere in the back/Soon as we could see clearly/through our big black eye/man, we lit up your world/ like the 4th of July. The musical equivalent of a Ford truck commercial, Keith's single caused different reactions across the country, from prideful support to face hiding embarrassment. Nonetheless, "The Angry American" gives voice to retaliatory American sentiment in light of 9/11.

Coming from a drastically different musical tradition, New York's Wu-Tang Clan delivers similarly reactionary sentiment with "Rules." Less publicized but nonetheless vitriolic, the first verse of "Rules" finds Ghostface Killah blasting: Who the fuck knocked our buildings down/who the man behind the world trade massacres, step up now/where the four planes at, huh, is you insane bitch/fly that shit over my hood and get blown to bits/No disrespect, that's where I rest my head/I understand you gotta' rest yours true, nigga, my people's dead/America, together we stand divided we fall/Mr. Bush sit down, I'm in charge of the war. It's doubtful Keith and Wu-Tang would have ever placed themselves in the same light, but tragedy has a strange way of bringing people together.

Anger, fear, and shock are well represented within pop music, but as posed by within Josh Tryangiel's critique of The Rising, the question remains: Where are the politics? Simply, the politics are in the same places they've always been. There is a politic to patriotism, to nationalism, and to silence. But the politic of dissent and protest has hardly been given its share of airtime. Not surprising, Clear Channel Communications and Music Television has never rushed to promote left-leaning musicians unless a profit could be made (Read: Rage Against The Machine). The popularity of now-silent Rage Against The Machine across the country is one of many signals of dissent's commodification, but with Ari Fleischer's warning to watch your speech, Ashcroft's Operation TIPS, and the beat of the war drums becoming nearly deafening, dissent is not particularly en vogue at the moment. But the sound is nonetheless available.

So far, the most publicized "political" record is Steve Earle's Jerusalem, released by Artemis records three weeks after September 11, 2002. Continually cast as a country rebel, somehow in the last six months Earle has become Malcolm X to Springsteen's Martin Luther King Jr., with much of his recent criticism stemming from the song "John Walker's Blues." Nashville radio talk-show host Steve Gill led the attack on Earle, corralling the singer/songwriter into a crowd of folks who "hate America," that includes Jane Fonda and John Walker. The New York Post writes under the headline "Twisted Ballad Honors Tali-Rat," American Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh is glorified and called Jesus-like in a country-rock song to be released by maverick singer/songwriter Steve Earle.

"John Walker's Blues" opens with the flat-picking of an acoustic guitar, backed by the sparse lonely beat of a trap kit. A cymbal echoes eerily, taking the place of a metronome. Earle mutters low through clenched teeth: I'm just an American boy/ Raised on MTV/And I've seen all the kids in the soda pop ads/But none of 'em looked like me.

Earle says the song is an attempt to understand John Walker Lindh. "I'm trying to make clear that wherever he got to, he didn't arrive there in a vacuum. I don't condone what he did. Still, he's a 20-year-old kid," said Earle in an early press release.

The first verse concludes: So I started lookin' around for a light out of the dim/And the first thing I heard that made sense was the word of Mohammed/Peace be upon him. Less than four minutes long, "John Walker's Blues" concludes with a recorded recitation of Sura 47, Verse 19 of the Qu'ran. "The controversial ballad called 'John Walker Blues' is backed by the chanting of Arabic Prayers and praises Allah," writes Aly Sujo, a correspondent for The New York Post.

Earle's record, like Walker's transformation, didn't occur in a vacuum. Lyrically, Jerusalem examines contemporary "progressive" causes from the inside out. On "The Truth," a prisoner contemplates the moral righteousness of America's burgeoning prison system. To the beat of a solitary drum kit and awkwardly plucked banjo strings, the reality of containment rather than rehabilitation is confronted. With "What's a Simple Man to Do?" an unidentified man writes his wife an apology and admits his status as a drug war casualty. Juxtaposed by a sugary organ theme that tastes of a '60s surf beat, the final verse airily glides: Tell my mother that I said I'm sorry/I know she didn't bring me up this way/Ask if she could light a candle for me/Pray that I'll come home someday/Oh Graciela won't you please forgive me/I never meant to bring this shame to you/I lost my job in the maquiladora/What's a simple man to do? References to 9/11 pepper Jerusalem, but unlike The Rising, Earle is not paralyzed by 9/11. Jerusalem allows room to reflect upon concerns outside of the media-hyped day that changed everything. As Earle smugly sings: It's always best to keep it in mind/That every tower ever built tumbles/No matter how strong/ Now matter how tall/Someday even great walls will crumble/And every idol ever raised falls, on Jerusalem's lead track "Ashes to Ashes," the listener is sardonically reminded life goes on.

Very likely, Steve Earle's Jerusalem will receive more attention than any other "progressive" artists responding to 9/11. Nas' calls for peace on Stillmatic are overshadowed by the media-hyped Nas/Jay-Z rivalry. KRS-One's "18-point Hip-Hop Declaration of Peace," brought before the United Nations on May 16, 2002, garnered little press. Not unlike his "An 'I' On Terror," conference on the anniversary of 9/11, which featured "discussions about hip-hop's responsibility toward the prevention of terror." Then again, despite near iconic standing, KRS has never been afforded much publicity outside hip hop publications.

Michael Franti's "Bomb Da World," which refrains emphatically: We can bomb the world to pieces/but we can't bomb it into peace, performed on the Late, Late Show with Craig Killborn and in front of audiences across the country hasn't even created a fraction of the stir of "John Walker's Blues." With all the media's attention and praise of The Rising, a pressroom lacking diversity becomes obvious again. For a radical emcee like Paris to be forgotten, or just plain left out, is indicative of a shortsighted pool of pop critics.

Currently available only on radio personality Davey D's website, Paris' "What Would You Do" is continents apart from Earle's "John Walker's Blues." Reminiscent of Dead Prez's one-dimensional sound; looped bass and snare drum beats accented by various keyboard runs, Paris' vocal delivery comes across like a cooler Chuck D.

Now ask yourself who's the people with the most to gain/Bush/'fore 911 motherfuckas couldn't stand his name/Bush/Now even brothers waivin' flags like they lost they mind/everybody got opinions but don't know the time/'cause Amerikkka's been took -- it's plain to see/ the oldest trick in the book is make an enemy/of phony evil now the government can do its dirt, spits Paris.

Despite Paris' talk of Illuminati and a reference to the US attorney general as Bin Ashcroft, "What Would You Do?" stands as one of the most unflinchingly radical statements within popular music to 9/11. Unwilling to join the praise of Rudy Giuliani as Amadou Diallo's death didn't lose meaning after 9/11, the chorus leads: What would you do if you/Knew all of the things we know/Would you stand up for truth/Or would you turn away too/And then what if you saw/all of the things that's wrong/Would you stand tall and strong/Or would you turn and walk away. To acknowledge Paris' statement would recognize a divergent American audience. Maybe that's too much to ask of critics who would lionize Bruce Springsteen.

Released less than a month after The Rising, Sleater-Kinney's One Beat entered the charts nowhere near Bruce's number one. The sixth release from this Olympia, Wash. trio, of the fore mentioned Springsteen critics only Neva Chonin reviewed One Beat. Chonin's review for Rolling Stone buries mention of Sleater-Kinney's response to 9/11, "Far Away" and "Combat Rock," in the seventh of eight paragraphs. Sleater-Kinney's "Far Away" and "Combat Rock" ring with anguish, fury, and unbridled emotion, adding texture to an expanding web of music addressing 9/11.

When Corin Tucker unleashes her soulful wail, enveloping and heavy, on "Far Away," a familiar moment is captured: 7:30 am/Nurse the baby on the couch/then the phone rings/Turn on the TV/Watch the world explode in flames/and don't leave the house.

Hearing Tucker's words for the first time induces the physical manifestations -- the entire body tense and attentive -- that many American's experienced on the morning of 9/11. The rhythm builds in waves, circular and elastic. Janet Weiss' drums lead, reserved, like a march. The guitar interplay of Tucker and Carrie Brownstein is sparse and repetitive. Not much is needed to spark this memory: And the heart is hit/in a city far away/but it feels so close, continues Tucker.

The music explodes, shrill and monotone, Brownstein sings: and I'm standing here on one way road/And I fall down/And I fall down/ No other direction for this to go/so we fall down/ and we fall down while Tucker wails like a Motown 45: Don't breathe/ the air today/don't speak/of why you're afraid. Crescendo, in unison, to create the chorus of WHY CAN'T I GET ALONG/ WHY CAN'T I GET ALONG/WHY CAN'T I GET ALONG/ WITH YOU.

Unwilling to dwell on the paralysis of witnessing the World Trade Center collapse into pillars of smoke, debris, and dust, four songs and less than fifteen minutes later the trio launches into the musical clockwork of "Combat Rock." An ode of dissatisfaction as powerful as "Far Away," Weiss' mechanical beat anchors the quick guitar riffs that Tucker and Brownstein release and spin back: They tell us there are only/ two sides/ to/ be on/If you are on our side/you're right/if not/you're wrong/But are we innocent/paragons/ of good/Is our guilt erased by the pain/ that we've endured/endured, chirps Brownstein, words accented like those of a snottier Powerpuff girl.

Tucker bellows back: Hey Look it's time to pledge allegiance/ I love my dirty Uncle Sam/our country's marching to the beat now/and we must learn to step in time.

Resonating contempt and mocking those cowering in obedience to White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, Browstein replies: Where is the questioning/Where is the protest song/since when is skepticism/ un/Amer/ican/dissent's not treason/but they talk/ like it's/ the same/those who disagree are afraid/to show/their face/their face.

Given Sleater-Kinney's track record, it could be argued an overtly political response to 9/11 is expected. Yet every song has an underlying politic, whether it's of passivity, consumerism, reactionary sentiment, or radical dissent, and if not, it can be constructed as much. The question no longer remains where is the politics, but are you willing to accept the politics before you. If Bruce Springsteen can't deliver, as Time's Triangiel hints, maybe you ought to find a voice that will.

The startling thing about The Rising's praise is not the predictable and unanimous extolling, but the grounding in the belief that this single recording sums up the moment of 9/11, that Springsteen's music "transmutes" all the feelings from that day. Not that Springsteen's record may not have done this for some, but to make that assertion for all is ignorant. There can be no definitive response to 9/11 within a single piece of recorded popular music.

A few days before 9/11's first anniversary, ran a story by Damien Cave entitled "Forbidden Thought about 9/11." A rude awakening, Cave's thesis -- tested and proved through responses from a reader survey -- finds that thoughts of goodwill and support were not the only feelings from 9/11. Cave writes: "Many of us didn't just feel sad or angry or proud in the face of the day's horrors -- or when President Bush and the media requested it. We also felt indifferent, confused, selfish, annoyed and, in some cases, even happy or excited." He's right. From the response received to Cave's inquiry, it becomes clear that American was no less unified in emotion or thought that day than any other, before or after 9/11.

The praise of The Rising causes one to assume Springsteen's musical summary and response to 9/11 is by far the most important. The implications of this lead to cultural steamrolling, the dismissal of other responses and the flattening of speech or thought that strays from the strict parameter of predetermined appropriate reactions to 9/11. Listening to the different voices and responses that have emerged within popular music since 9/11, it becomes clear that there was no single overriding emotion. Despite the multiple shortcomings of popular music critics -- the most alarming being popular music criticism's clear lack of diversity -- a dynamic range of original responses to 9/11 reverberates within popular music. Critics jumped the gun and for all we know the most universal response to 9/11 within popular music has yet to be recorded. Whether or not The Rising is remembered as such is inconsequential to the fact that out of 9/11's debris, a thundering response resounds within popular music and each recording speaks to a listener who gave little thought to the critic's chatter over somebody named Bruce.

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