9/11 and Music
In the aftermath of the attacks of September 11th, Americans struggled to interpret what the tragedy meant for the country. This struggle resulted in an influx of popular media geared towards bringing the nation together, and music became an outlet for artists to express the emotions of the country while defining how Americans viewed 9/11.
At its core, music is a form of communication. Society expresses its ideas and opinions by communicating, and in the wake of 9/11 many people did not want to discuss the tragic happenings. Due to this silence, artists were able to communicate through music what words could not. According to James Lull (1987), “music is a passionate sequencing of thoughts and feelings that expresses meaning in a manner that has no parallel in human life,” which exemplifies how music is sometimes the only way to communicate a specific message. Artists of all genres released songs focused on patriotism, questioning society, and raising issues that the general public was not ready to admit on its own. Music was able to make meaning out of the recent acts of terrors in ways that other means of communication could not. As Bob Marley said, “One good thing about music, when it hits you feel no pain” (Forman, 2002). Americans needed music because it sent out a message through beats, rhythms, and lyrics, one more tolerable than the terror reported daily on the news.
Although hundreds of songs related to the events of 9/11 were thereafter released, no single song became an “anthem” for the event, as every song meant something different to each individual. Musicians can hope to perpetuate a specific truth or concept through song, but an artist cannot control its audience’s interpretation of the piece. In the article Can We Find an Anthem for 9/11? by Martha Bayles (2002), she explores why no song has been able to fully represent 9/11 for the nation. She argues that “the emotions people have toward the events of September 11 are too complicated to be captured in a pop song” (Bayles, 2002) and explores how the main goal for every song about 9/11 is to uphold the nation’s motto, e pluribus unum, or in other words, out of many, one. She cites examples of songs such as Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (the Angry American)” and Alan Jackson’s “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)” to show the contrast in ideas expressed through music, which signified differences in how people viewed 9/11 (Bayles, 2002). Keith sings lines like “And you’ll be sorry that you messed with The U.S. of A./`Cause we`ll put a boot in your ass/It`s the American way,” (Bayles, 2002) which evoke a sense of anger and revenge on those who cross Americans. On the more serious end of the spectrum, Jackson asks deep questions like “Did you look up to heaven for some kind of answer/And look at yourself and what really matters?” (Jackson, 2002), which enabled Americans to reflect on what mattered in their life, as opposed to the rally cries expressed in Keith’s music. Though these two songs fall within the same genre, altogether different messages were conveyed, showing that Americans had different conceptualizations of and attached a variety of meanings to the attacks of 9/11.
Although there is not an anthem for 9/11, all genres of music contributed to healing America and left a legacy of how 9/11 was portrayed. Country music brought out ideas of patriotism and religion, but rap music reflected an altogether different agenda. In rap music, rappers compared the events of 9/11 to the ways in which African Americans were being treated in America, thus making way for a dialogue entirely different than that of other genres. In the article Using Jay-Z to Reflect on Post-9/11 Race Relations by Marc Lamont Hill (2006), Hill exemplifies how he used the song “A Ballad for the Fallen Soldier” by Jay-Z to teach 9/11 to his classroom. With powerful lyrics like “Crack was anthrax back then, back when/ Police was Al Qaeda to black men,” (Hill, 2006) Jay-Z was able to use the platform of 9/11 as a way for Americans to understand the terror that African Americans faced on a daily basis. Rap helped the African American community voice their hardships, which shows one of the many different ways that music was able to say things that Americans could not after 9/11.
Regardless of the genre, radio stations and media outlets saw a rise in patriotism after 9/11. Songs like “Imagine” by John Lennon, “Bridge over Troubled Water” by Simon and Garfunkel, and “Ragged Old Flag” by Johnny Cash were being requested on all radio stations which demonstrated increased patriotism throughout the country (Forman, 2002). MTV even “sought to establish a peaceful tone” by showing music videos that conveyed messages of love and harmony, such as “One Love” by Bob Marley, though it was not a recent song (Forman, 2002). To raise funds and awareness after 9/11, America: A Tribute to Heroes telethon was held with carefully chosen artists and set lists. This live concert unified the country, having popular artists like Willie Nelson and Celine Dion play American favorites like “America the Beautiful” and “God Bless America.” Through the saturation of the media with songs of pride and peace, Americans were able to regain hope and confidence in their country.
Regardless the lyrics or genre of a song, music in the wake of 9/11 served a pivotal role in amalgamating the country in a time of darkness and desperation. Music not only brought Americans together, but also served as both an outlet for emotion and a platform for issues in the wake of terror. The events of 9/11 caused major cultural shifts within America, and art proves a concrete representation of the many ideological changes that ensued following the terroristic events.
Bayles, M. (2002). Can We Find an Anthem for 9/11?. Chronicle Of Higher Education, 49(5), B16.
Forman, M. (2002). Soundtrack to a Crisis: Music, Context, Discourse. Television & New Media, 3(2), 191.
Hill, M. L. (2006). Using Jay-Z to Reflect on Post-9/11 Race Relations. English Journal, 96(2), 23–27.
Jackson, A. (2002). Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning) lyrics. (n.d.). Retrieved September 18, 2016, from http://www.allthelyrics.com/lyrics/alan_jackson/where_were_you_when_the_world_stopped_turning-lyrics-202131.html
Lull, James. 1987. Popular Music and Communication: An Introduction. In Popular
Music and Communication, edited by James Lull, 10–35. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.