On September 12, everybody said the world would never be the same. Since then, many have tried to take that back. One movie mogul went so far as to explain to the Times that anything anyone said that week couldn’t be taken literally, we were all too wrought up, and that therefore he’d be releasing his regularly scheduled violent piffle. Even the urgings of our elected leaders that Americans get back to living their lives can fall into this category. Sometimes such advisories seem like plain good sense; other times they seem like feel-good rah-rah. I’m not sure what it’s like in the rest of the country, although I suspect the trauma’s a little more abstract there. But here in New York most people I know feel torn both ways. Parties where acquaintances haven’t seen each other for a while only break out of where-were-you-when mode after the second round of drinks. A journalist who has just spent a focused hour sharing her long professional experience with college students interrupts some postpanel gossip about the hip hop wars: “I really only want to think about Afghanistan.” A bandleader who hasn’t said or sung a word as he negotiates his difficult guitar pieces tells the sparse crowd, “Let’s hear it for New York,” and after the yells and whistles announces, “This one’s called ‘Just Plain Scared.'”
This is called contradiction, and Americans have never had much taste for it. But there it is. We know that if we don’t get back
somehow, those who conspired to take the lives of so many of our
fellow humans on September 11 have achieved their larger goal—which is taking part of each of our lives as well. But we also know
that the world those lives occur in isn’t the place we thought it
was. The most drastic change, once again experienced most intensely
in New York, is that for the first time since 1814 or at best 1865
each American knows he or she is vulnerable to acts of war, so that
sometimes we’re just plain scared. But for most Americans who think
as much as the people in this room—which is to say, not all that
much maybe, but some—there’s also the uncomfortable sense that
national policies we never much liked are suddenly impinging all
too fucking directly on our lives. Even if we’d never heard of the
Revolutionary Association of Women in Afghanistan, for instance, we
knew the Taliban were bad guys. Remember the Buddhist statues they
blew up? But we figured, Well, what can we do about it? Now that
question is our question. And in a more general way, scenarios of
poverty and oppression in the Middle East and elsewhere, actions
and policies that we may well have deplored in principle, are now
running up to bite us in the ass whether we deplored them or not.
So then. As our panel topic asks, what is the role of entertainment
in times of national tragedy? Or as I prefer to think of it, what
happens to music after the fall? We’re obviously not going to
answer that question here today. But before our panelists tell you
about their concrete plans and share their ideas and their hopes
and fears, I’d like to try to break it down a little, into three
subtopics: the economic, the political, and the artistic.
Economically, there’s an overwhelming specific. At every level, the
music industry depends on transportation—not just of goods, but of
people. This CMJ wasn’t smaller just because it was scheduled to
begin September 12, making it one of thousands of New York
businesses done serious damage by the WTC attack. It was also
smaller because people are reluctant to fly—in part because
they’re nervous about hijacking, but perhaps more importantly, and
more lastingly, because air travel has suddenly become far less
efficient. It just takes longer, and maybe those extra two or three
hours render specific trips cost-ineffective. For the vanning bands
this may not matter much, although when I saw the Handsome Family
a few weeks ago they’d just spent three hours on the other side of
the Lincoln Tunnel. But for acts successful enough to afford to
leapfrog a little, touring is going to become more problematic,
straining the national club network that has meant so much to the
grassroots development of independent music. And for acts from
outside America, it will be even worse, just at a time when
internationalization is crucial.
On top of that, of course, there’s the question of how this
particular war effort, in which home security will impose new
distractions and demand new cautions, is going to impact an economy
that wasn’t exactly thriving before it began. Not positively, most
agree. At the major labels, where the cost-cutters are always
waiting with their red ink, a new round of downsizing seems quite
possible. And the midlevel where so much of the artistic action has
moved, and where most of those who attend this conference set their
sights, has always lived on the margins and in the interstices—always kept itself going on the discretionary income of the young.
What happens if that dries up a little? What happens if fewer
clubgoers can afford the fare, fewer indie shops make their nut?
Politically, there’s also an overwhelming specific—civil
liberties. A culture of unity stifles dissent by its very nature,
without necessarily prohibiting expression. Take the Clear Channel
flap, with its list of banned songs that may not actually have been
banned but certainly got everyone thinking about what was
“appropriate” and what wasn’t. Make no mistake—more than any other
branch of popular culture, music is committed to expressing the
impolite, the irreverent, the forbidden. Will this decrease?
Increase? Are we prepared to fight back if new curbs are imposed by
corporations or the government? Are we sure that in every case it
will be right to fight back?
In addition, if those who don’t concur will please pardon what I
know is an oversimplification, music is on the side of what I’ll
call the peace party. That doesn’t mean we always oppose military
action—for the record, I don’t in this case. But we do keep a
close eye on it. We remain very aware of dangers, costs, moral
conundrums. Usually, most of us try to be oblique about this.
Having concluded that protest music rarely effects many
conversions, that however much we hate and fear imperialism and
exploitation preaching about it is very hard to do right, we follow
a program of free your ass and your mind will follow. Should that
change, and how?
That brings us to the artistic and more broadly the spiritual.
Except for Lorraine, who has a very different take from mine,
everyone else on this panel is a doer. They make music, set policy.
As a critic, I’m basically a responder, still quite an excitable
one after all these years, and I find that my ears have been slow
to right themselves. I still can’t listen to new albums by the
Strokes or Macy Gray, both of which I was looking forward to
sinking my teeth into—they feel too ego-driven, rooted in some
other reality. But I haven’t soured on them, not yet—I still hope
there’s a time in the not too distant future when that will change.
I don’t know what will happen—except everything, as usual.
There’ll be escape music, and there’ll be reality music, and the
escape music will sell better than the reality music, and that’s
OK, because the edge and spirit of the reality music feeds off the
confidence and abandon of the escape music. Or maybe some hero or
movement will come along or grow a quantum and put it all together.
That’s a hope, almost a utopian hope. I’d trade it in on those two
rectangular obelisks I never much liked looking at in a
millisecond. But that’s not a choice any of us have.
Return to Christgau’s Rock&Roll& column
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 23, 2001