About this playlist
We all reacted to the horrible events of September 11, 2001, in our own ways wherever we were, whatever we were doing, whichever CD or radio station or fizzy pop single we first reached for to help us cope. Here, Rhapsody's editors offer their own musical perspectives, from saber-rattling country to hopeful worship music, from pop-punk bromides to plaintive protest songs, from the momentary tentativeness of comedy to the fieriness of hip-hop to the transcendence of jazz. As Sonny Rollins put it, "Maybe music can help. I don't know, but we have to try something." Here's what we tried.
Sifting Through the Ashes in New York City
I was in Park Slope, Brooklyn, that morning, about to board the subway for work in Lower Manhattan, when my roommate told me I should turn the TV on. After the second plane hit, I went up to the roof of our apartment building and watched the smoke. Cars were dusted with ashes as far south as where I lived. I spent the day switching between staring at TV news and trying to drown out the hell in my head (and the fear that the Army might call me back up) with desolate ambient doomsday metal: Neurosis, My Dying Bride, Amorphis droning about mushroom clouds.
The morning of September 12, I actually managed to walk over the bridge to the offices of the Village Voice, where I worked as music editor and within days would put together a special section devoted to the attacks. Lower Manhattan looked like a ghost town.
Over the next few months, I sorted through more than a thousand submissions of 9/11-inspired songs and chose 18 to appear on a Voice album I curated to benefit World Trade Center victims. Artists participating: Moby ("Memory Gospel"), Cornershop, The Mekons, Joseph Arthur, future Tea Partier Moe Tucker ("Fired Up"), Andrew W.K. ("I Love NYC"), Afrikaa Bambaataa, ex- Slit Ari Upp, Sheila Chandra, Hakim, Gogol Bordello ("Baro Foro"), Uri Caine, Loudon Wainwright III, Peter Stampfel's Du-Tels, Atmosphere, Baaba Maal, Matthew Shipp, and Lenny Dee (with his noise-techno DJ Skinhead collaboration "Extreme Terror"). The range of that music crossing styles and continents, with particular attention paid to the Middle East was intentional. But it did not make the coming decade any less divisive. [Chuck Eddy]
Alan Jackson and the Ultimate Post-9/11 Anthem
On November 7, 2001 -- less than two months after the September 11 attacks -- Alan Jackson performed a brand-new song at the CMA Awards. He quickly moved the audience to tears, and "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)" soon became the quintessential post-9/11 song for many.
Jackson later explained that he wanted to write a song that wasn't vengeful or patriotic, but simply encapsulated how he felt on that day. He obviously hit the emotional nail on the head, as "Where Were You" went on to top both the country and pop charts. Many artists wrote post-9/11 songs immediately after the attacks, but very few bothered after Jackson weighed in. As Lon Helton, country editor of the now-defunct trade publication Radio & Records, put it, "Alan Jackson's song stopped about 150 guys in their tracks. They heard it and just put down their pens."
Traditionally, country music goes hand-in-hand with conservative patriotism and tales of war. Perhaps that's because, as Josh Thompson writes of his country brethren in the song "Way Out Here," "We got a fightin' side a mile wide but we pray for peace/ 'Cause it's mostly us that end up serving overseas." In any case, Jackson's wasn't the only song to reverberate. Check out our playlist of post-9/11 country songs, and patriotic songs that took on new significance in a post-9/11 world. [Linda Ryan]
Retail Therapy: Jay-Z, Nickelback and 9/11's Other New Releases
Slayer put out an album called God Hates Us All on September 11, 2001. You couldn't make this stuff up. But the album that ends with the triptych of "War Zone," "Here Comes the Pain" and "Payback" was hardly that day's most notable release.
For excellence, head straight for Jay-Z's The Blueprint, arguably his crowning achievement and a critical/commercial juggernaut so massive he's made two (inferior) sequels. For notoriety, it's gotta be Mariah Carey's Glitter soundtrack, a titanic debacle that once threatened to ruin her career. And then there's Bob Dylan, who loosed the critically adored Love and Theft upon the world that morning, full of apocalyptic imagery that made him look eerily prophetic: "What did Dylan know and when did he know it?" wondered Greg Tate in the Village Voice.
Elsewhere, you had au courant nu-metalheads P.O.D. offering Satellite, and the major-label debut from a modest little Canadian dude-rock outfit called Nickelback: Silver Side Up is home to "How You Remind Me," maybe the No. 1 song to blare at the gym while newly patriotic bros upped their bench-press reps and imagined taking on the Taliban themselves. If you found all that a little ridiculous, so did Ben Folds, whose wry solo debut, Rockin' the Suburbs, lampooned the mooks incessantly.
Of course the single most famous record affected by the events of 9/11 was actually The Coup's Party Music, a politically incendiary party-rap classic that wasn't due out for a month but caused a stir in the aftermath anyway: the (quickly changed) cover image depicted members Boots Riley and Pam the Funkstress blowing up the World Trade Center. Prog-metal giants Dream Theater encountered a similar problem: their Live Scenes from New York was out that day, with a cover featuring a flaming apple topped by the Twin Towers. (That version is now a collector's item.)
Personally, diving back into all of this, the September 11, 2001, record that strikes me as most poignant now is probably the least ominous-feeling: They Might Be Giants' Mink Car, a minor entry in the relentlessly clever Brooklyn duo's catalog, but listening now to the simultaneously goofy and melancholy dance pop anthem "Man, It's So Loud in Here" is oddly affecting. A few months later, I went to a T.M.B.G. show in Columbus, Ohio, that was interrupted by a full power outage; in the hour-long wait until a backup generator arrived, they did a few songs unplugged, after cofounder John Flansburgh shushed the restless crowd by noting, "We come from a place that's dealing with far worse problems than this one." [Rob Harvilla]
Top of the Charts: The Biggest Songs That Week
It's a somewhat macabre business, musically re-creating 9/11 with a playlist of the top songs on the charts that week. After all, none of us wants to relive that tragedy or, worse, to pickle and preserve it into some kind of musical commemorative plate that's cut off from the real-life pain and loss that our country experienced that day. But in another sense, looking back at the music of the week of September 11 is more like creating and then unearthing a time capsule, an aural document not only of a formative moment in American history, but also of American culture at that time. So what can we learn about ourselves from the top songs the week of September 11, 2001? Well, even as the United States went through one of the most traumatic experiences in its history, we still found inspiration to think about love; to dance to the diverse sounds (from hip-hop to country) that make up the palette of American pop; and to be joyful, with a little help from fellow Americans like Jennifer Lopez, Alicia Keys, Usher, Missy Elliott, Sugar Ray and more. [Rachel Devitt]
The Statue of Liberty Shakes Her Fist, and a Country Goes to War
From the day Al-Qaeda hit its targets, I imagined Brooks & Dunn's hard-rocking patriotic country hit from that summer, "Only in America" out three months at that point, and one of my favorite 2001 singles becoming an exceptionalist anthem; in the next half-decade, it would be used by both Republicans and Democrats in presidential campaigns, and by Oliver Stone in his World Trade Center movie. But it's still not the country song that people most associate with 9/11.
That would, of course, be Toby Keith's "Courtesy of the Red White and Blue (The Angry American)," which would come out in May 2002 and go on to top the country charts. It was impossibly rousing (I've sung it, badly, in karaoke myself); impossibly ridiculous in its violent imagery ("the Statue of Liberty started shaking her fist," then "we put a boot in your ass, it's the American way"); and impossibly offensive in its jingoist propagandizing if you wanted it to be But it was like it or not a song that had to be sung, because all wars of magnitude need war songs of similar magnitude, and who better to sing it than probably the greatest male singer of the 21st century's first decade?
Keith -- a self-proclaimed conservative Democrat who has claimed he never supported our preemptive adventure in Iraq -- initially played it only for troops, the story goes, but eventually put it out after a Marine Corps Commandant told him it was his duty to inspire the men and women in uniform. In some ways, it was undoubtedly pure opportunism: though he later named a 2003 album Shock'n Y'all, and though he has recorded a handful of red-state editorials since, they really aren't Keith's main stock in trade, or even what he's best at.
As warmongering country goes, "Courtesy" wasn't alone: Darryl Worley's 2003 No. 1 hit "Have You Forgotten?" deceitfully pretended Iraq was responsible for September 11; Hank Williams Jr.'s 2002 "America Will Survive" updated his three-decade-old urbanite-baiting anthem "A Country Boy Can Survive" for current-event consumption; and Montgomery Gentry and Trace Adkins both fought their own good fights. But "Courtesy of the Red White and Blue" is the one that defined its time, for all time and, ultimately, defined its artist. Toby Keith will never live it down. But there's a lot the rest of us will never live down, too. [C.E.]
The Dixie Chicks and the Perils of Post-9/11 Political Controversy
Not since Chicago's infamous 1979 Disco Demolition Night has there been such a vociferous backlash to a body of music. Back then, it was an entire genre. In 2003, the target was more precise: the Dixie Chicks.
There are numerous examples of entertainers suffering the consequences of their outspoken opposition to America's post-September 11 actions and policies, but none compare to what happened here. While the Texas-based country trio was on tour in England, singer Natalie Maines famously declared that the band was "ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas," setting off a firestorm of controversy that still resonates more than eight years later. In fact, the band's saga so thoroughly saturated pop culture that it resulted in a famous Entertainment Weekly cover, a full-length documentary (Shut Up and Sing), and the phrases "Dixie Chicking" and "Dixie Chicked" permanently joining the vernacular.
The trio, once music's top-grossing "girl group" thanks to No. 1 albums like 1999's Fly and 2002's Home, was subsequently blacklisted from most country radio playlists. More conservative or patriotic, depending on your politics, pundits actively encouraged Dixie Chicks CD-burning parties. Ticket sales in many concert markets plummeted, and the group received death threats.
In 2007, the Chicks swept the Grammy Awards with their album Taking the Long Way, taking home statues for Album of the Year, Song of the Year, Record of the Year and, oddly, Country Album of the Year. Despite this, they haven't made a new album since, and neither Natalie Maines' solo single (a cover of The Beach Boys' "God Only Knows") nor Emily Robison and Martie Maguire's offshoot band Court Yard Hounds has gained any real traction. No band's trajectory was more drastically affected by the cultural climate after September 11. [L.R.]
Rap Struggles to Respond
It may be unfair to single out rap artists for their response to the tragic events of September 11. Artists in every discipline, from music to movies to literature and visual art, have struggled to express themselves in this defining moment. But in a genre that prizes topicality and ghetto realism, whether it's a carefully edited documentary or an exaggerated form of musical verité, the halting way rappers chose to address the World Trade Center attacks is particularly glaring. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, there was mostly silence. The rapid-reaction MP3 infrastructure that swirls around any major event today didn't truly exist yet, so most of the late-2001 release slate didn't mention it, including Jay-Z's The Blueprint (famously released on September 11) and Dilated Peoples' Expansion Team. However, contemporaneous work took on new significance, including Cannibal Ox's diary of New York squalor The Cold Vein, Trick Daddy's condemnatory "Amerika," and DMX's street-revolutionary anthem "Who We Be." Advance artwork for The Coup's Party Music featured Boots Riley and Pam the Funkstress blowing up the Twin Towers with a radio tuner, but it was quickly replaced after the attacks and before the album's November 6 release.
The lone exception to this disquiet was Sage Francis' "Makeshift Patriot." Recorded and released several weeks after the attacks as a free MP3, it has a reportorial perspective as he compares the terrorist-manned planes to Trojan horses and recounts how "the fallout was far beyond the toxic clouds where people were like debris."
By the end of the year, stray references to September 11 began to appear. "Who the f*ck knocked our buildings down?/ Who behind the World Trade massacre? Step up now," rapped a newly patriotic Ghostface Killah on Wu-Tang Clan's "Rules." On his anti-war song "Rule," Nas took a more expansive view, rapping, "Lost lives in the towers and Pentagon, why then/ Must it go on/ We must stop the killing."
This approach prevailed during the next few years, as September 11 became a throwaway metaphor for urban blight and American resilience. "This that 9/11 music right here, man," bragged Jim Jones on "Ground Zero" from The Diplomats' Diplomatic Immunity. (Ironically, The Diplomats also called themselves The Taliban.) On "A Ballad for the Fallen Soldier," Jay-Z compared a street hustler's life to someone serving in the armed forces. "They're both at war," he observed. "Off to boot camp, they're both facing terror/ Bin Laden been happenin' in Manhattan."
While music about September 11 has mostly disappointed, the subsequent War on Terror along with the Iraq and Afghanistan wars inspired a wave of memorable critiques against President Bush. "Bin Laden didn't blow up the projects/ It was you, n*gga/ Tell the truth, n*gga," chants Mos Def on Immortal Technique's "Bin Laden," which along with Jadakiss' "Why" and Mr. Lif's "Home of the Brave" advanced the conspiracy theory that the Bush administration orchestrated the September 11 attacks as a Faustian global power grab.
Meanwhile, September 11 as an event unto itself has largely gone unanalyzed. Perhaps hip-hop artists are more comfortable with using the U.S. government as a stock villain for all the hardship that has befallen us since that day, from never-ending wars to economic catastrophe, than imagining the complex forces that irrevocably changed 21st-century American life. [Mosi Reeves]
American Idiots: Punks Find Politics
In 1994, Billie Joe Armstrong slashed at a thrift-store sofa and sang about masturbation's fabled affect on one's retinas. It may have seemed dim and silly to some, but it gave the older folks, worried they were raising a generation of slackers, a reason to fear punk again. Green Day went on to release a handful of semi-successful albums, but it seemed Dookie would forever be their creative crest. Then September 11 happened. And a decade following their breakout album, Green Day rediscovered their role as a punk band because a new generation needed it. A rock opera that resulted in both Grammy love and a Broadway musical, American Idiot may not have sounded like the stoned-out anarchist thrash the Berkeley band started with, but it was every bit as punk in its intent.
The album, Green Day's seventh, came out three years and 10 days after September 11, and one month and 12 days before the 2004 presidential election. The timing was not arbitrary. Told through the Average Joe "Jesus of Suburbia," American Idiot didn't speak directly to the events of September 11, but instead embodied America's sociopolitical climate and overall malaise in the tragedy's aftermath. Its emotions hit every stage of grief from denial to anger to depression all while a love story unfolds. It's not a commentary on terrorists, President Bush or weapons of mass destruction. It's about the trickle-down effect of all of that what the majority of us battle with and question daily. Love, in our seemingly insignificant lives, is hard enough to define and find in peacetime, so how does the "information nation of hysteria" deal with it in a time of war and an "age of paranoia"? [Stephanie Benson]
A New Era of Protest Songs
In the days after September 11, 2001, Americans did what they do best: rallied together to support our fellow citizens and started the hard work necessary to pick up the pieces after the tragic events of that day. But in the weeks and months that followed, as the government unveiled its own response, people also began tapping into another important American legacy: dissent. Musicians were no different. As President Bush engaged the country in a multinational war that many felt was wrongheaded, artists from Nas to the Dixie Chicks, Pink to Pearl Jam began penning songs criticizing the government.
The history of American popular music is also, in many ways, a history of protest song and musical resistance. Sometimes that resistance has been to cultural mores, like the sexual taboos challenged by classic blues artists and early rock 'n' rollers. In other eras, music has served as a critical voice of protest against social inequality, like the songs of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement that helped to dismantle racist policies and attitudes. And at other times, music has helped to shape a movement that rises up to critique the government and affect change, like the anti-war repertoire of the 1960s and '70s. The post-September 11 protest-song movement didn't ever reach the cohesive magnitude of the Vietnam era, in part because the country was so divided about which direction we should take. But the songs in this playlist nonetheless helped to remind pop music of its activist roots and keep alive the politics of dissent. [R.D.]
Gilbert Gottfried Helps Us Laugh Again
Comedians the world over are trained to find the humor in humanity's darkest moments, but after September 11, even the raunchiest, raciest and most irascible of them found themselves at a loss for words. "Too soon!" became a meme all its own, with jokers across the country being scolded for even attempting to take up the subject. Perhaps most notably, there was Gilbert Gottfried, who performed in New York City at a Friar's Club Roast of Hugh Hefner just three weeks after the tragedy.
After nearly getting booed off the stage for a joke mentioning air travel and the Empire State Building, Gottfried launched into his own improvised version of the now-famous bit "The Aristocrats," immortalized in the movie of the same name. Gottfried's version of the joke achieves new heights of vulgarity, which is saying something. In the apoplectic procession of foulness that spews forth (we're not even going to try to quote it), not to mention the uproarious laughs that follow it, one hears a definite catharsis. Comedians are never considered heroes it goes against their very nature but on this one particular night, for an audience that hadn't laughed in weeks, Gottfried saved the day. [Garrett Kamps]
Christian Music Stars Soothe, and Grieve
The reverberations of September 11 were felt throughout Christian music, with shows canceled, artists stranded out on the road and everyone left asking each other, "What now?"
Even on a day when every detail seemed momentous, a few stories stood out. First was the fact that Michael W. Smith's Worship album came out that very day, a coincidence that would seem God-ordained in retrospect. The music would prove to be a spiritual balm for an emotionally raw nation: while it certainly would've been a hit regardless, the grim circumstances surely helped the record go double-platinum.
Then there's the horrifying tale of singer Tammy Trent. The terrorist attacks and subsequent grounding of all flights left her stuck in Jamaica, where her husband, Trent Lenderink, an experienced diver, had drowned on September 10 -- authorities were still searching the water for him that morning. Trent's family had made arrangements to join her in Jamaica, but of course their flights were cancelled. The experience of being alone and grieving in a foreign country as her home was under attack continues to color the music she makes today. Even her name harkens back to her late husband: when the high school sweethearts married, they agreed that her new last name of Lenderink didn't roll off the tongue, so she took her husband's first name as her stage surname, never realizing it would one day serve as a reminder of him and his continuing role in her career. [Wendy Lee Nentwig]
Sonny Rollins, Helping the Show Go On
Try to imagine what he looked like, 71 years old at the time, grey-haired and disheveled, likely taken away from coffee or oatmeal or whatever a saxophone colossus has for breakfast. You gotta think that Sonny Rollins, whose Tribeca apartment was a few blocks away from the World Trade Center, was probably just as scared as everyone else. But here's the thing: when the television cameras caught him that morning, it wasn't startling to see his surgical mask or his slouching posture as he boarded the evacuation bus; it was the fact that he had the presence of mind to grab his horn.
Five days later in Boston, in one of those examples of how the clichéd "show-must-go-on" gene lives in the DNA of all performers of his longevity, Rollins recorded his first live record in 18 years, Without a Song: The 9/11 Concert. Released years later, it won a Grammy for Best Instrumental Solo in 2006.
Which solo? A tune whose title seemed particularly poignant considering the circumstances: "Why Was I Born?" Rollins wails out an intro by himself in skittish, fragmented bits and pieces, halting and too muscular to be comfortable, in the million-things-at-once gale on which he's built a career. It's the kind of moment that Stanley Crouch speaks of in Rollins' New Yorker profile, saying, "If jazz improvisation is a kind of democratic expression, then Rollins may well be our greatest purveyor of utopian feeling."
Is Without a Song utopian? Hardly. It has a few familiar pitfalls of late-career Rollins some banal Calypso grooves, an ensemble that includes some downright lame conga solos but the circumstances of the record make it a document of a great musician wrestling to exist under baffling circumstances. "Maybe music can help," he grumbles after introducing the band halfway through the set. "I don't know, but we have to try something." And by trying, he achieved something colossal. [Nate Cavalieri]