Less than a Feelin'
“Music is the shorthand of emotion” – Tolstoy
Yesterday marked eleven years since the tragic events of September 11th, 2001. Like most people, I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I initially heard that the first tower had been hit by an airplane. I remember watching the second plane crash into the second tower shortly after in Mrs. Warju’s Senior English class.
I remember the utter helplessness that everyone in that room experienced. I remember the rage, the despair, and the sadness. Mostly, I remember the fear. Suddenly nothing felt safe anymore. Our security, physical and emotional, was stolen from us. Our very existence seemed to balance on a trembling limb.
To this day, though, I don’t associate my feelings about 9/11 with anything tangible. My actual thoughts and emotions are divorced from any concrete remembrance. They were far too overwhelming to be attached to a specific memory. Not only that, but it’s difficult to describe the feelings I experienced with any degree of clarity. As usual, music seems to be the best way to articulate the ineffable. With that said, the only way I can accurately interpret how I felt that day is by listening to Radiohead’s, Kid A.
There are two things that are strange about my personal connection with Kid A. The first, is that, on September 11th, 2001, I don’t think I’d actually listened to the album in its entirety yet. I was disappointed by the lack of guitars and Thom Yorke’s insistence on diversifying the band’s sound. The second, is that this association only exists because of an essay I read that claims that the album vaguely, but accurately, predicts the events of 9/11 and how we were supposed to feel as a result. I’ve projected the author’s suggestion into my own life to such an extent that my experience of 9/11 is dominated by an album that had already been released when the tragedy occurred. Obviously, this is unsatisfactory. You’d think that there would have been some meaningful music made in response to such a catastrophic loss of life and security that would have replaced my need to use Radiohead in order to feel, but you’d be wrong.
The lack of powerful, healing songs in the wake of 9/11 is surprising considering the history of socio-politically influenced music. Neil Young’s “Ohio” was written and released within two weeks of the tragic shooting on the campus of Kent State in 1970. Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” (written by Abel Meeropol) is concerned with the grotesque practice of lynching African Americans, and has stood the test of time as one of the greatest songs of the 21st Century. The Cranberries’ spoke out against The Troubles in Northern Ireland with “Zombie,” one of the most commercially and critically successful songs of the 1990s. So where is the culturally relevant music about such a significant event in American history?
In the immediate months following that day’s events, many popular songs were re-released for radio airplay with patriotic commentary woven throughout the melody. Ostensibly, the thinking behind these updated versions was to unite us as a country, and strangely, they did seem to bind us together for a time. How could they not? We were a nation of pissed off, depressed, and desperately bleating sheep searching for someone to tell us how to feel and what to do. Radio stations gladly took advantage of our confused state of emotions by infusing our favorite songs with propagandized speeches from both sides of the political aisle. (I take no issue with patriotism, but, in hindsight, doesn’t it feel like we were being herded?)
The tragedy also spawned some new music, but mostly from desperate artists in need of material. A wide range of musicians from Toby Keith to Paul McCartney capitalized on 9/11 by releasing tribute songs. (Actually, it seems as though Keith’s entire career has been predicated upon expressing jingoistic and racist rhetoric through his music with the hopes of rousing like-minded people to take a more active stance with their hatred.) Most of these tribute tunes range from horrible to unlistenable, but that didn’t prevent them from being written, recorded, and sold to an unassuming public. The modern music industry runs on dollars and cents, and 9/11 was veritable cash cow for many artists, but there was very little gained in emotional currency.
Music, perhaps more than any other art form, is inspired by and elicits emotion. If you don’t get anything from a particular piece of music, it’s probably a safe bet that the artist failed in their craft. This isn’t to say that every song should significantly heighten your emotional state, but it should evoke some sort of feeling.
Not all music has to be profound to make you feel, however. For instance, the Black Eyed Peas’ make relatively poor music designed to make people dance, and it usually succeeds. Therefore, regardless of personal taste, I’d have to say that Fergie and Co. do a good job within the parameters of their genre. So if Will.I.Am consciously accepts the responsibility to make me dance, where were our favorite musicians when we needed them to help us grieve?
The point here is that the contemporary music scene failed its audience horribly in response to September 11th, 2001. Maybe it was just too big of an event to encapsulate in a 3 ½ minute pop song. Maybe certain artists have too much reverence for human life to record anything dealing with the deaths of over 3,000 people. Maybe I expect too much from artists who, in reality, have no obligation to any of us, whatsoever. I’m really not sure, but it’s a little disconcerting that the strongest memory I have of that day was implanted in my brain by another writer about a band who made a totally unrelated album before the tragedy in question even occurred.