Clichés for a Reason

Not Knowing What Else to Do, Singers Sing 9-11 Songs

For their music and arrangements, the 9-11 songwriters tend to reach out to familiar, comforting modes that are formally associated with their subjects: early Bob Dylan for complaints about social injustice, uptempo country for announcements that we're going to get the bastards, the '80s midtempo rocker for I-miss-you-so-much sentiments, the "Wind Beneath My Wings"-style power ballad climaxing in a wailing guitar solo for declarations of passionate hope. These are all forms with multiple, specific conventions, which their adherents follow as closely as they can. They sing like Sheryl Crow, Bruce, Sinatra, Michael Bolton—like anyone except themselves. Maybe that means those styles, especially the currently unfashionable ones, are what people want to hear more of right now; when was the last time you heard a Buffy Sainte-Marie-type soprano-vibrato-enunciation-acoustic-guitar combination on the radio?

Unfortunately, approximations of "professionalism," or of particular professionals, are rarely as good as the real thing. The more wholeheartedly amateur performers embrace their own eccentricities, the better they sound: cheers to the guys who rap over a boom-box playing the Bee Gees' "New York Mining Disaster 1941," to the nervous woman singing an a cappella song about her fears of vengeance, and to the fellow with the heavy European accent, cheap karaoke synth, and flamenco guitar whose toe-tapper's high point goes, "I loave New York!/Terroreeessm will be cruuushed!"

Some songwriters punted—sending the Voice not particularly germane old recordings, or what seemed to be all-purpose instrumentals. That's the dilemma of sharing private art: An old composition may take on new meaning, or a guitar solo may be addressed to the city, but even a programmatic title doesn't mean that anyone but its creator will understand how. A few bands happened to have written an NYC love song a while ago, which was fine. On the other hand, somebody sent in a song called "Television Jerk" with a 1976 copyright. Oh please.

illustration: Kevin C. Pyle

Among the actual new love songs to New York, the most popular mode is the old-style American list song: the uptown and the downtown, the boroughs, the subway, all the things you can do in the city. (Fair enough: That is what a lot of people love about this place.) Again, reliable formulas keep turning up—"Give my regards to Bleecker Street/Remember me to Washington Square," goes one called "New Yorkers." Even among the ostensible love songs, though, Topic A's gravitational force is hard to escape. "Alive Again" goes on about stars and bars and "Central Park, Times Square, Dick Clark," but the first line is still "the terrorists struck without a warning."

If it sounds like the 9-11 songs are uniformly bad art or novelties, they aren't. As always, there are prominent exceptions to the trends, and as usual, the best songs are among those exceptions. But even the most derivative seem born of necessity more than calculation. "When we no longer mourn/Will we keep on reliving September?" one woman sings. Everyone hopes not, but her song is itself a way to get to the end of mourning.

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