A New Tune

Natalie Merchant finished recording her third solo album, Motherland, on September 9, so by no means should anyone listen to the disc's first song, "This House Is On Fire," and think it has anything to do with hijacked airplanes, collapsed skyscrapers and the thousands buried beneath the rubble. The song is about the dispute over the Florida ballots during the presidential election and the rioting that took place in Seattle during the World Trade Organization meetings. So by no means should anyone listen to "This House Is On Fire" and believe such lines as "It's all gonna catch like a house on fire/Spark an evil blaze and burn higher" or "There's a wild fire catching in the whip of the wind that could start a conflagration like there has never been" have anything to do with today's--and tomorrow's, and the day after that's--headlines. It's a song about old news, honest to God. And ignore the Arabic strings. Man, it's just a coincidence.

"The song is about injustice and insurrection, and people can apply that to anything," Merchant says. "I made it ambiguous as far as what situation it could be applied to. The thing that I'm a little concerned about is that the song could be interpreted as a battle cry. That's what I'm afraid of, because that certainly isn't something I intended. The other dangerous interpretation is that I'm actually speaking on the part of the terrorists. But the fact the song could be used by either side in the conflict proves it's ambiguous enough that it wasn't written about either side."

Merchant speaks in a tone of voice that suggests this is not the first nor last time she will have to explain a song that sounds very different in a post-September 11 world. But she is not alone: After the terrorist attacks, suddenly handfuls of songs written and released just prior to September 11 have taken on entirely new meanings, often against the will of those who wrote them. And they are not the usual suspects, either--the rah-rah, flag-waving anthems resuscitated and repackaged by labels out to make a quick dime for relief funds or their own coffers, or the sappy songs about heroes now applied not to lovers but to firemen and cops. One could hardly misinterpret Enrique Iglesias when he swooningly croons, "Would you tremble if I touch your lips...I can be your hero, baby."

But the same can't be said for the likes of the Pernice Brothers' "Flaming Wreck," sung from the perspective of a passenger on a jetliner about to crash as "the cabin filled with smoke"; Wilco's "Ashes of an American Flag," in which front man Jeff Tweedy sighs, "I would like to salute the ashes of American flags/And all the fallen leaves filling up shopping bags"; or Sam Phillips' "Taking Pictures," in which she sings that "when I take a picture of the city it disappears/It's only a photograph the city is gone/The places I go are never there." They're but a few of the songs that become the accidental soundtrack to grief, anger and recovery. They have nothing at all to do with the attacks, but we can't listen to them without infusing them with our own pain, rage, fear and confusion.

"I think if you're successful in making a piece of art that's complete or can stand as art, it is no longer the creator's anymore," says Joe Pernice. "A song isn't yours, and you have to let it become what it will become." In the weeks after the attacks, Pernice couldn't perform the wrenching "Flaming Wreck," which is about nothing more than his fear of flying. Once it did creep back into the set list, even Pernice couldn't help but feel an anguish never before present. "That song encapsulated the sadness everyone was feeling," he says.

Certainly, no recent song has become more identified with a post-September 11 Manhattan than Ryan Adams' "New York, New York" off his just-released album Gold. Meant only as a love song, in which a woman's name is replaced by the city's, it has taken on anthemic duties and withstood the weight of such a burden. The video, in which Adams is seen strumming a guitar with the World Trade Center peeking over his shoulder, is almost on a constant loop on MTV2; after filmmakers have gone in and digitally removed the twin towers from the likes of Zoolander and Serendipity, Adams' video, filmed September 7, exists now almost as an act of defiance, though he would insist otherwise.

"We decided to stay with this video because it was what it was," he told The New York Times last week. "We shot it on September 7; it's the city as we knew it and saw it. If people don't want to show the video or don't like it, I understand. We're not pushing it or anything, saying, "Here's the video with the towers.' It's just out there."

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky