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The Anthems of September 11, 2001: A Look Back

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Perhaps this final act was meant
To clinch a lifetime’s argument
That nothing comes from violence and nothing ever could
–Sting, “Fragile”

In crises, we often turn to music for comfort or to express something we simply cannot put into words.  September 11, 2001 is no exception; on that very day, and for several months afterward, the radio played certain tracks that appropriately addressed how we felt, even if the songs were written decades before. 

One of the first songs to emerge was Sting’s “Fragile,” a delicate ballad from his 1987 album …Nothing Like the Sun.  The lyrics seemed to eerily describe the day’s tragic events: “If blood will flow when flesh and steel are one/ Drying in the color of the evening sun,” he sings, “Tomorrow’s rain will wash the stains away/ But something in our minds will always stay.”  That day, Sting was to perform in Tuscany; the concert was originally going to be streamed via the internet.  Sting elected to continue with the show, but broadcast only one song: the opener, “Fragile.”  The band’s beautiful arrangement, with particularly lovely backing vocals, proved to be a moving testament to the fragility of human life.

In the aftermath, radio stations struggled with which songs to air.  Were all tracks appropriate, or were some too violent or celebratory?  A news story quickly circulated online that Clear Channel Communications, a company that operates over 1,170 US stations, had issued a memorandum listing “banned” songs that should immediately be removed from playlists.  Clear Channel denied issuing such a directive, but stated that the list simply provided suggestions that stations did not have to follow.  Among the songs deemed inappropriate were Drowning Pool’s “Bodies,” AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell,” the Steve Miller Band’s “Jet Airliner,” and Carole King’s “I Feel the Earth Move.”  Curiously, the memo also cited John Lennon’s “Imagine” as potentially controversial due to the lines “Imagine there’s no country/ It isn’t hard to do/ Nothing to kill or die for/ And no religion too.”  Ironically Lennon intended the song to serve as a peace anthem, and the public seemed to view it as such.  During the America: A Tribute to Heroes telethon, aired on September 21, Neil Young covered the track; the subsequent benefit Come Together: A Night for John Lennon’s Words and Music also used the song as its centerpiece. 

Other previously released songs figured prominently in the days after 9/11.  Radio and television broadcasts used Enya’s 2000 new age anthem “Only Time” as a soundtrack, perhaps due to its somber but gentle tone.  The lyrics also do not attempt to answer life’s most complex questions: “Who can say where the road goes/ Where the day flows, only time?” she quietly sings.  Some stations edited in audio clips of reporters and survivors describing the horrors of the event.  Its grave tone reflected the country’s mood, and to this day “Only Time” remains inextricably linked with September 11.

During the America: A Tribute to Heroes telethon, two performances stood out as being particularly representative of the anger, sorrow, and determination we all experienced.  Tom Petty performed a blistering version of his solo hit “I Won’t Back Down,” staring down the camera as he clearly enunciated the lyrics “You can stand me up at the gates of hell/ But I won’t back down.”  Petty’s straightforward delivery echoed America’s perseverance in the face of tragedy.   Then newcomer Alicia Keys sang a riveting, stripped-down version of the Donny Hathaway classic “Someday We’ll All be Free,” her gospel-drenched vocals and straight-out-of-church piano adding hope to the proceedings.  “Hang onto the world as it spins, around/ Just don’t let the spin get you down,” she wails, urging listeners to move on and “keep your self respect.”  It stands as one of Keys’ greatest performances, and it still provides comfort. 

Two other tracks that rose in popularity were “Hero” by Enrique Iglesias and “Superman (It’s Not Easy)” by Five for Fighting.  The former track, intended as a love ballad, transformed into an ode for the firefighters, police, first responders, and ordinary citizens who risked their lives–or ultimately lost them–to save others.  “I can be your hero” became a catchphrase of the time.  A more interesting choice, “Superman (It’s Not Easy)” actually does not exalt the superhero.  Instead, Five for Fighting sings of a Superman who longs to be human, experiences intense loneliness, and suffers from extreme physical and emotional exhaustion.  “I can’t stand to fly,” the song begins, a rather shocking statement from a superhero.  But “even heroes have the right to bleed” and “have the right to dream.”  In other words, we are all simply human, and fragile at that.  Although Superman could live above such imperfections, in this track he actually desires those human qualities.  While this may seem a curious choice for a 9/11 anthem, it does stress our mortality and that even heroes are far from perfect.  We are all in the same boat, the track stresses. 

Time moved on to the 2002 Super Bowl; a sense of unease permeated the air, as if no one knew whether it was appropriate to celebrate such a seemingly superfluous pastime.  Leave it to U2 to rise to the occasion, performing a high-energy halftime show.  The most poignant moment came when the Edge began pounding out the telltale riff to “Where the Streets Have No Name.”  Large sheets resembling scrolls slowly unfurled behind the band, revealing the names of all who lost their lives that fateful day.  Bono tore into his vocals with passion, urging the crowd that these men and women have moved on to a better place: “I want to take shelter from the poison rain/ Where the streets have no name,” he almost shouted.  In a 2005 interview with Rolling Stone’s Jann Wenner, Bono described the song as “Do you want to go to that other place… where the streets have no name. You can call it ‘soul’ or ‘imagination,’ the place where you glimpse God, your potential, whatever.”  Somehow “Where the Streets Have No Name” became a triumphant ode to the dead, assuring their loved ones (and all of us) that they have traveled to a better place: “We’re beaten and blown by the wind/ Trampled in dust,” he sings.  “I’ll show you a place/ High on a desert plain/ Where the streets have no name.” 

Not surprisingly, some artists composed songs specifically addressing September 11, 2001.  Country’s Alan Jackson asked “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning),” and Toby Keith inspired criticism with his unabashedly fiery “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American).”  Bruce Springsteen released an entire album addressing the tragedy, The Rising, while Paul McCartney quickly penned the sing-along-friendly “Freedom.”  Rap’s Jay-Z, along with the aforementioned Keys, performed one of the best recent odes to New York, “Empire State of Mind.”  However, 9/11 hasn’t inspired the same kinds of era-defining songs as did 1960s and 1970s tracks protesting the Vietnam War.  Perhaps more time needs to pass before we can comfortably address such a horrific subject.

I would like to propose one more song for the 9/11 list; I do not recall that it received greater airplay during those initial days.  Still, I believe that it relates to a lasting effect of the day’s events: compassion and love for our fellow citizens.  Continuing to help others and forging even stronger relationships with our friends and family may be the best ways to mark honor the victims and heroes on this tenth anniversary, and no other song speaks to that sentiment better than James Taylor’s 1976 classic “Shower the People.” 

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About Kit O'Toole