9-11 is a Joke
The last we'd heard, Bush was an asinine grunge band and the W was a Wu-Tang record. The most “political” song of the decade had been released on Tuesday, September 4: System of a Down's “Prison Song,” a fact-filled indictment of the drug war and “mandatory minimum sentences.” This was subject to change. Events a week later made progenitors of my nerdy, nerdy stripe began to impart Meaning onto every song we played, with ears to the ground in a way that hasn't been omnipresent since Elvis-beleaguered parents of the late 50s. And not just nerds: a memo from Clear Channel Communications was leaked/chain-mailed/passed around like a game of Telephone containing a list of songs radio stations were to ban due to their sensitivity. September 11 , 2001 is still remembered, among other things, as the day America declared the Dave Matthews Band's “Crash Into Me” the enemy.
In fact, you could say 9-11 was the T-Pain of its time, affecting tunes from the country charts to the CMJ charts and even other media like Spider-Man and SNL-style parodies like Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds. Just as it temporarily halted Britney and Slipknot's careers it made others, like Ryan Adams' long-awaited VH-1 break crooning to New York against the World Trade Center's backdrop. Declared anarchist rappers the Coup had an unfortunately timed album cover removed, of course, but it's hard to imagine now the hysteria that excised the relatively apolitical Strokes' “New York City Cops” (“they ain't too smart”), and Jimmy Eat World's laughably awful album title (Bleed American, now reverted back to their laughably awful name). Even indie-rock, a typically solid breeding ground for not giving a shit, was laden with homage (Sonic Youth named their 2002 album Murray Street, where it was being recorded as the towers fell not three blocks away) and critique (Sleater-Kinney's “Combat Rock” plain and simple: “Since when is skepticism un-Amer-i-can?”). Do-nothings the Moldy Peaches had presciently declared “NYC's Like a Graveyard” on an album that came out on the day that came true.
But before most of that, with the chaos still somewhat fresh and confusing, before the tipping point of partisanship, country star Alan Jackson wrote something very special and riveting to premiere for the CMT awards telecast in November (“I didn't want to write a patriotic song,” Jackson said. “And I didn't want it to be vengeful, either.”). “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)” debuted live to ovations standing from a stool seated. It didn't take long for someone to cover the patriotic and vengeful market when non-serving Democrat Toby Keith was ordered by a Marine Corps Commandant to record “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue” as an unironic theme for the W generation's dreadful new M.O.: “We'll put a boot in your ass/ It's the American way.” It was a testament to our jingoism when “patriotic” radio stations bonfired the Dixie Chicks in effigy for pointing out this was tacky.
Because the only thing we love more than sharing a beer with our horses and hypothesizing about having one with our president is a good underdog story, we sent goodwill ambassador Rick Rubin to warm things over and apologize on behalf of music with an armload of Grammys. But by then, skepticism was more than American again. Green Day, the most profitable punk band of all time, scored their biggest coup ever with American Idiot, an opera about Hot Topic skinny ties. Self-absorbed emo kids got into the blame game: Thursday took time off from ripping off Cursive to grouse up a record named War All the Time. Conor Oberst woke up from a dream where he killed himself humming a ditty about Bush phoning the man upstairs.
Even the most materialistic of rappers pulled their heads out of their crack dens: Jadakiss had a hit demanding to know “Why did Bush knock down the Towers?” Juvenile made some weird, post-Katrina paean to his city and “the Pyrex.” Let's remember Mystikal, who wasn't always incarcerated for sexual battery and extortion, played his Chumbawamba hand with the New Orleans horn-patched “Bouncin' Back (Bumpin' Me Against the Wall),” which dared the people “stuck inside scared watching CNN” to “pick the pieces up and find a way to drive on.” And the biggest rapper in the world said, “George Bush doesn't care about black people” on live television.
But shortly after Bush’s reelection this approach fell out of favor with disillusioned John Kerry voters (Edwards or Dean in their hearts) who just wanted four years to be over. Twee ambiguity returned to the forefront with the freak-folk of Joanna Newsom and orchestral outpourings of Sufjan Stevens paving the way for too-hip LCD Soundsystem and Animal Collective to putter into the fold. Radiohead's lyrics went back to not making sense. And the few holdouts for the atrocity ballad began to credibly write about ennui itself: the National sang about being “half-awake in a fake empire” while TV on the Radio lamented, “I was a lover/ Before this war.”
Unfortunately, those who really did detail atrocities went mostly unheard and unwanted, especially in rap. Nas reversed his tough-guy roots to do hardline reporting in a KRS-One move most took as preachy. Mr. Lif and Public Enemy made no waves ripping the housing crisis and even star of the hour Lil Wayne mostly got laughed down for trying to extend his moment ten minutes to blast Al Sharpton. The Roots on an album that linked adolescent Sierra Leone foot soliders to bus bombers received their usual warm applause. Young Jeezy's “My President Is Black,” the only Obama song to make waves, had to be about rims too. Did fans lack the stomach for the plaints of the disenfranchised because they were disenfranchised themselves? As we devolve to an era of economic disaster and compromised healthcare, people have more than a right to be sick. And if music is the true escapism, why not go ahead and pop fake glocks and cash registers with M.I.A.? A famous extortionist once said, sometimes you have to get knocked down to get up.
– Dan Weiss