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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, September 9, 2002

Attacks inspired outpouring of musical dreck

 •  Artists use their media to deal with 9/11 grief
 •  Celebrities remember the day that changed so many lives

By Derek Paiva
Advertiser Entertainment Writer

Bruce Springsteen's contribution to the post-attack musical tributes, "The Rising," was more graceful than most.

Associated Press

The music may have been guided by the heart, but that doesn't mean it always had a whole lot of heart.

After Sept. 11, a lot of music attempted to make sense of a nation-rattling event. Sadly, however, the music, events and gestures ultimately offered by the music industry rarely rose above levels of mediocrity or just plain weirdness.

The hits started rolling in right away.

On Sept. 11, Texas-based radio conglomerate Clear Channel Communications suggested its program directors shield listeners from the likes of John Lennon's "Imagine," Foo Fighters' "Learn To Fly" and more than 150 other songs it deemed inappropriate for broadcast given the nation's bereavement.

The hastily cobbled-together list (which was withdrawn two days later) also included Dave Matthews Band's "Crash Into Me," The Beatles' "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da," everything by Rage Against The Machine, and inexplicably, Cat Stevens' "Peace Train."

To paraphrase another song on Clear Channel's hit list ... it was all a bit ironic.

September's somber national telethon, "America: A Tribute To Heroes," and the next month's rousing "Concert for New York City" in Madison Square Garden — both of which raised millions of dollars for the families of Sept. 11 victims — were turned into modestly-selling soundtrack CDs.

The best of the two, "America" boasted inspired performances by Wyclef Jean ("Redemption Song"), Alicia Keys ("Someday We'll All Be Free"), Neil Young ("Imagine") and other music A-listers. It also contained an exquisitely spare version of Bruce Springsteen's "My City of Ruins," a composition that eventually appeared on his "The Rising" CD this year.

A glut of other "all-star" tribute/benefit albums hardly matched up musically.

Lee Greenwood's rolled-out-for-the-umpteenth-national-crisis anthem "God Bless The USA" found its way onto two of these, "United We Stand" and "God Bless America." The albums and others like it could hardly be faulted for offering most or all of their profits to Sept. 11 charities. But their quickly-cobbled patriotism-by-the-numbers track lists inexplicably matched up Mahalia Jackson, Bob Dylan, John Lennon, and Simon and Garfunkel classics with pap by the likes of George Thorogood, Chris LeDoux and Billy Gilman.

By year's end, similar all-star tribute albums largely stopped appearing as public interest in buying them waned.

Post-Sept. 11 compositions such as Paul McCartney's board-stiff "Freedom" and Neil Young's amateurish Flight 93 recounting, "Let's Roll," offered up only numbing musical inertia and poorly conceived sentimentality.

As it turned out, the most comforting music came from recordings conceived long before the attacks.

U2's "Walk On" was originally written to honor Burmese democracy advocate Aung San Suu Kyi. But its hopeful lyrics ("Walk on. What you got they can't steal it. No they can't even feel it") addressed and captured the mood of the country without the life-in-a-vacuum literal overkill often evident in post-Sept. 11 songwriting.

In this sense, even Sting's hushed, contemplative and 15-year-old "Fragile" proved oddly soothing.

Likewise, Ryan Adams' sadly underplayed Manhattan love letter, "New York, New York," with its rousing chorus ("I'll always be thinkin' of you ... I'll always love you though, New York") offered the kind of sweet, heartbreaking power pop that post-attack songwriters might have more wisely aimed for. Even more heartbreaking was the unplanned poignancy of the song's video, which featured Adams crooning in front of a Twin Towers Manhattan skyline just four days before Sept. 11.

On the other hand, listening to the turgid atmospherics and fortune-cookie sentiments of Enya's CNN-resurrected "Only Time" may have given comfort to some. But broadcast to excruciating excess on a number of radio formats, the song quickly became the aural equivalent of Xanax. The same for Enrique Iglesias' otherwise unbearable "Hero," which like "Only Time," benefited from repeated broadcast over news images of the tragedy and rescue effort.

After Sept. 11, subtlety seemed about as unpopular with country music artists as the possibility of a new Shania Twain CD. The keepers of the twang began dusting off American flags, thumping Bibles and vowing to beat the bejesus out of the enemy almost as quickly as they found studios to record their rants. Nothing much here was good, so I'll start with with the only mildly nauseating.

In late 2001, country superstar Alan Jackson turned in "Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning)," a plain-spoken ballad that queried down-home reaction to Sept. 11 events. At best, a mixed effort — a few lyrics evocatively captured the day ("Did you just sit down and cry?"), while others were too head-scratchingly right wing ("Did you turn off that violent movie you're watchin?") — the song nevertheless helped catapult Jackson's album "Drive" to the top of Billboard's Top 200 album chart.

"Where Were You" was recently nominated for 10 Country Music Association Awards, a record for most nominations in a single year.

And then there was Toby Keith's simply insipid "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)," a redneck anthem so reeking of clanging freedom bells, jingoistic imagery and grade-school English lyrics that it made Greenwood's "God Bless" prose sound like Dylan.

Keith's view of Americans from his trailer-park perch? "The big dog will fight when you rattle his cage," he sang. "And you'll be sorry you messed with the U. S. of A. 'Cause we'll put a boot in your ass. It's the American way." Uh-huh, and that's why the rest of the world loves and respects us so darn much, Toby. The single inexplicably went to No. 1 on the country chart, while Keith's "Unleashed" CD debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard pop album chart. Go figure.

Charlie Daniels, with his "This Ain't No Rag It's A Flag," promised to hunt al-Qaida members "down like a mad-dog hound," the song offered up a few nuggets of flag history ("It's a symbol of the land where the good guys live") and even some helpful couture tips ("We don't wear it on our heads").

With all the drivel that preceded it, it's no wonder Bruce Springsteen's graceful, but ultimately flawed, July release "The Rising" was hailed by Time magazine as "the first significant piece of pop art to respond to the events" of Sept. 11.

Indeed, "The Rising" is full of expressive, poignant compositions that document rather than preach, contemplate rather than rage, and seek understanding rather than revenge. In other words, everything one would expect on the subject from a songwriter as intelligent and elegant as Springsteen. Springsteen's prose fails him only when he substitutes the voices of others for his own potent one and occasionally winds up lyrically clutching at straws.

In most cases, the utter mediocrity of music addressing the events of Sept. 11 is probably less a reflection of questionable talent or taste on the part of musicians than proximity to an event still being turned inside-out for reason and understanding by all of us.

In time and with some distance, we may look back at heartfelt but lackluster tribute compositions like "Freedom," "Let's Roll," and "Where Were You" as something greater artistically than they seem today. Removed from being so close to the still-open wounds of the past year, Springsteen's "The Rising" may wind up a definitive time capsule of these times.

For now, though, it might be about time we all just walked on, musically speaking, from Sept. 11.