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September 12, 2012 at 4:24 PMComments: 11 Faves: 0

Less than a Feelin'

By Kyle McCarthy from SLN More Blogs by This AuthorFrom the Culturology Blog Series

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.

Photo Credit:

James F. Clay

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  • While I most certainly agree with the idea that there is an utter lack of depth in the modern recording industry, I wouldn't necessarily say that our favorite artists abandoned us. I would say that it took them the same amount of time it took us to process how we actually felt about the event.

    Hell, I can't even think of how I would begin writing material about that event. Would I attack the US for being arrogant bastards and attempting to police the world? Would I attack religious extremists for refusing to adapt to the world? Would I attack the average person for only paying attention when people die? Would I play the sympathetic musician and write pithy ballads that make emotionally stunted people cry?

    Or, would I do what most of the recording industry did and be far to unattached to the public to write a song that would resonate with them?

  • Well said, Wollof, (I make a similar lament in the final paragraph) but if it has taken the music industry the same amount of time to process the event as it has taken the rest of us, where's the material? I've processed the tragedy, its aftermath, and its impact as much as the next apathetic, quasi-political American.

    The point is that American pop music has a rich history of recording and releasing profound socio-political statements through song in response to war, tragedy, injustice, enslavement, etc., but for some reason, we've gotten NONE of that in response to 9/11. All we've heard are a few previously released songs with weird speeches intertwined and some slop thrown together by racists and has beens. I rely on an album that (consciously) has NOTHING to do with 9/11 to interpret my feelings about that day!

    Maybe this is because the 9/11 became so much more than the event itself? I mean, think about everything that happened as a direct result. The Second Gulf War, the war in Afghanistan, the near collapse of the aviation industry, The Patriot Act, The Homeland Security Act, Bush II's second term, the racial divide. I think a lot of artists tended to focus more on these occurrences than the event. There were so many questionable decisions made in the aftermath that many musicians used their platform to attack Bush II directly instead of the issues. He definitely was an easy and appropriate target, but I think this had just as much to do with the boundaries of political correctness in the 21st Century as it did with that administration's ineptitude. It's become an extremely touch subject because it is so loaded.

  • I would posit that plenty of artists attacked the issues, but were black listed because of their attack. If you need any proof of this, I offer up Cire. Eric Johanson is one the most talented musicians of our time and, because he writes about these weighty issues, he has been left to wallow in the underground scene.

    I know this sounds a wee bit like a conspiracy, but you just listed a long line of legislation that fits the bill (pun most definitely intended). Our country knows that we are partly to blame for what happened in 2001. You can't walk the globe, forcing American Democracy on all those who hold the resources you want and not expect there to be a retaliation.

    That being said, our governing bodies did everything they could to pursue a positive outcome in the aftermath of 9/11. That positive outcome would have been completely undermined if the entire recording industry were allowed to produce anything but the patriotic drivel that came out afterward.

  • Cire is definitely a band that I plan on listening to! Probably as early as five minutes from now.

    I'm interested in the final point you address. Can you expand on that just a little bit to clarify?

  • We were sold patriotism across every media outlet that could peddle it. Our government's positive outcome dealt with maintaining consumer output, a sense of national pride, and trust in the governing body. They did this by stringing sappy media portrayals of a tragedy that was inevitable. They did this by degrading one of the oldest cultures of our modern world. They did this by lying to cover their ineptitude. They did this to cover that our way of life was already dying, even ten years ago.

    I was living in Sault Ste. Marie at the time, the location of the infamous Sault Locks, #7 on the supposed "terrorist hitlist." This meant martial law, the gateway to heinous acts of governing like the Patriot Act. I hear people speak of 9/11 like it was some type of uniting event for the US, when really it was just the first resounding toll of our death bell.

  • It is definitely true that the only music that was produced because of this tragedy was extremely patriotic. I was forced to listen to quite a bit of country a few years later and they are the only ones that specifically mentioned it in the music, with blatant patriotism. Whether or not the creation of the patriot act was a factor as to why this happened, I will leave that to the conspiracy theorists.

  • What is a conspiracy theory if not an embellishment of a factual element?

  • Which is why everyone commenting on this post has been earmarked for further investigation.

  • Oh I think that ship sailed long ago.

  • 9/11 and the massive wave of "patriotism" that followed are the only reasons the patriot act passed. That bill is a tyrannical powerhouse wrapped in the guise of freedom and patriotism. At a time where the media was pumping out a similar tune. The bill preys on a tragedy swept nation where people were perfectly willing to endorse any form of security without regards to their freedoms.

    The part that people should fear most effectively eliminates one's right to habeas corpus which essentially eliminates all one's rights. Habeas corpus translates to "produce the body" which means a prosecutor must have evidence to hold you in custody. With habeas corpus eliminated the government can seize and detain anyone on suspicion alone.

    All these AWESOME advancements to our freedoms were ushered in by a massive sense of patriotism and national pride. This Patriot Act passed while "the patriotic drivel" was spewing out distracting Americans from what was really in the bill. Talk about a great masking.

  • Preach it Kage! Right on the money man.

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