A New Tune

After September 11, some new songs just don't sound the same

In the days and weeks immediately following the attacks, the music industry scrambled to eradicate any vestige of songs and images that might rekindle the televised nightmare. Clear Channel issued to its 1,200 radio stations a list of songs to be excised from the playlist; some were obvious (Dave Matthews Band's "Crash"), some were ridiculous (John Lennon's "Imagine"). Hip-hoppers The Coup were forced to redo the cover to their album Party Music, on which band members were depicted "detonating" the World Trade Center. The Cranberries pulled a video full of images of airplanes, skyscrapers and the chalk-mark outline of a corpse, and Dave Matthews rethought the decision to release "When the World Ends" as a single. The Strokes deleted the song "New York City Cops" off its disc Is This It, which was already out in Europe. "Not only did we not want the release of our record to be overshadowed by some, like, quasi-political event, but we felt it wasn't really appropriate," says Strokes guitarist Nick Valensi of the band's decision to pull the song.

But beneath the shadow of perpetual fear--our leaders try to calm us and call for us to return to "normal" even as they warn of impending attacks--music provides a balm and a tonic. The aforementioned songs, among so many older ones hauled out by Billy Joel or Paul McCartney or Paul Simon during various benefits and tributes, give us release: They let us cry, they make us smile, they take us away, they bring us home.

"A lot of people are now asking me, "What's your role as an American artist?'" Merchant says. "I think I can give expression to thoughts and feelings that ordinary language can't. It's a heightened language of the emotion. It makes me cry, it calms my rage, it gives voice to my rage."

Ryan Adams' video for "New York, New York" was filmed September 7 and debuted days after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C.
Universal Music
Ryan Adams' video for "New York, New York" was filmed September 7 and debuted days after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C.

For a little while, Jim Adkins of Jimmy Eat World had the hardest time playing the gorgeous "Hear You Me" off Bleed American; it is, he reminds, a song "about death and loss and the ultimate regret of not being able to change something and leaving things unsaid." But after a while, he needed to play it, to sing such lines as, "On sleepless roads the sleepless go/May angels lead you in." And during Wilco shows, just after the attacks, Jeff Tweedy could be heard thanking the crowd for coming to make music with this band--"especially now," he always added.

Pop music for the longest time has felt hollow, cynical, bereft of honest emotion; it has become "our floozy," as Merchant likes to say, "a cheap whore." There have always been musicians making meaningful art, but they've been too long relegated to the sidelines; they don't top the charts, don't play TRL, don't get on Saturday Night Live. Perhaps recent events will change all that: What, after all, does Britney Spears' new album, out this week, have to offer save for more songs about why Britney loves being Britney (and why you should, too)? She and her ilk have always seemed trivial and superfluous; now, Spears exists in a vacuum, a fantasyland of silicone and hair gel.

"There's a lot of ego in music," Pernice says. "I write songs about what I'm feeling, and I spend time putting out product about my feelings. It's a really self-centered thing, and events like what happened in New York make me take stock in my own life and get a grip on what the word "meaningful' means. It changed everything."

Never did music seem more important to Merchant than when she sang at the funeral of a man who died in the World Trade Center. His widow asked Merchant to sing a song by her late husband's favorite artist, John Hiatt; the wife asked to hear his song "Have a Little Faith in Me." It was not easy: Even now, recounting the moment, Merchant's voice catches when she recites the lines, "When your back's against the wall/I will catch you when you fall."

"Never in my life has my role as a musician been more obvious," Merchant says. "I was there to give people pause and to facilitate, to help them feel what they were feeling and to give them a place to feel it...The widow I sang for said that for her family, eating and music were the only things that make sense to her right now, and it's what's brought her some of the greatest comfort. That's coming from someone who's already lost a loved one in the war."

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