September 11: Pop Music’s Response

The Black Eyed Peas perform in Germany, November 2003. Photo: Bernd Muller/Redferns

“The world needs this song right now,” once said of the Black Eyed Peas breakout hit and vague 9/11 response, “Where Is the Love?” “There’s no song like that in urban music, pop music. We’re saying some pretty deep stuff, some conscious stuff.”

That tells you all you need to know about worst-case scenario pop star involvement in causes. Even if they are donating proceeds (which, as far as we know, BEP did not in the case of “Where”), even if they really believe that problems need to be reduced to inert hand-wringing like, “People killin’, people dyin’ / Children hurt and you hear them cryin’ / Can you practice what you preach / And would you turn the other cheek,” what is most important is that at the end of the day they can pat themselves on the back, and as Whitney Houston taught us, learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all. In so many cases, in so many fields but particularly in pop music, 9/11 just added fuel to the egomaniac’s fire: It was an excuse to get involved without saying anything, a free point of view to people with their heads up their own asses.

Some real crap came out as a result. Look at this list of songs about the 9/11 attacks. What percentage of those songs do you remember? Even better: What percentage would you actually like to hear again? Five, max? Want to revisit Dolores O’Riordan singing about having nothing to say in the Cranberries‘ “New New York”? Wheatus opening up “Hometown” with the lines, “I’d trade all my sunshine / For twin towers to hide behind and find you there”? Jon Bon Jovi sing words in “Undivided” that turned to lies as soon as the smoke cleared  (“Where we once were divided, now we stand united / We stand as one: undivided”)? Cher‘s phoned-in consolation that didn’t fool anyone even in those emotionally tender times and thus flopped (“Song for the Lonely”)? Michael Jackson’s star-studded but failed “We Are the World” retread, “What More Can I Give,” that wasn’t officially released as a single until over two years after Sept. 11, 2001, maybe because of Sony, maybe because its executive producer directed porn?

Mariah Carey sings the National Anthem at the Superbowl, New Orleans, LA, February 2002. Photo: Theo Wargo/Getty

Everybody freaked out as a result of Sept. 11, including pop stars, as they are people, too. Since it’s often impossible to untangle advocacy from cash-in, it’s probably unwise to hold against them poor artistic choices in the face of earth-shattering devastation. But at least some people’s freak-outs were more colorful than others. Tori Amos‘ post-9/11 album Scarlet’s Walk was heralded as her most accessible in years (it’s probably more Under the Pink-level accessible than Little Earthquakes level accessible, but still!). A reevaluation of American culture that asked more than it answered, there was a humbleness to its grandiosity. On the other side of the spectrum was Mariah Carey, who repeatedly has referred to 9/11 to shake off her own responsibility for Glitter‘s failure and the ridicule she received as a result. “‘I don’t care if it was the best [album] of my life, anything released the week of 9/11/2001 was not going to work,” the New York Times quotes her as saying. Keep in mind that Nickelback‘s Silver Side Up went six times platinum, P.O.D.‘s Satellite went three times platinum, Jay-Z‘s The Blueprint went two times platinum and FabolousGhetto Fabolous went platinum. They, too, were released on Sept. 11, 2001 (Glitter, in contrast, went gold).

But there was something more honest in Mariah’s response than virtually anyone else’s because she openly made it about herself. Her comeback album that wasn’t, 2002′s Charmbracelet, was led by the single “Through the Rain,” a not self-empowering but Mariah-empowering ballad that let everyone know that even she could weather storms like failed vanity projects. What else can we expect from Mimi but, “Me! Me! Me!”? At least there was very little pretense involved there.

Really, it was already a mess for music by the time Sept. 11, 2001 rolled around, anyway. Aaliyah had died just over two weeks before and that shook up R&B pretty badly, especially as it pertained to two of its largest presences, Missy Elliott and Timbaland. They’d turn out some more hits, but nothing on the R&B tip with the killer synergy of Missy’s writing and Tim’s productions and Aaliyah’s ability to sound utterly cool while the tracks they made for her went nuts. If you look back on year-end pop lists from the early part of the 2000′s (2001, 2002, 2003), music fell into a depression — it was mostly midtempo, rarely exuberant and unwilling to  dance its troubles away (one of the biggest club bangers of 2004, Terror Squad‘s “Lean Back,” in fact was about not dancing). The shellshock could have to do with a lot of factors, but that pervasive (if vague) things-are-not-the-same, post-9/11 sentiment certainly could have been responsible.

But look, we made it through the rain. We still hear 9/11 responses, like Lupe Fiasco‘s recent and furious “Words I Never Said,” but they’re most effective when they’re matter of fact. Of course, there’s nothing like time to help cataclysm along on its journey to becoming the way things are. That said, Jay-Z’s half-line twin-towers salute (“Long live the World Trade”) in “Empire State of Mind,” and the fact that New York’s renewal and thriving allowed that song to exist at all eight years later is more poignant than virtually any other piece of overt 9/11 homage in pop. Sometimes it takes a while to be normal about things, is all.