Clichés for a Reason


After sending out an open call in late September, The Village Voice received roughly 800 submissions for our benefit compilation of new love songs to New York City. (It’ll be out in March.) They came from all over the country—from famous musicians and from people who’d never recorded before. They sent everything from giant, lush, studio-produced song cycles to a taped-over Columbia Records cassette sampler with someone squeaking “New Yawk City, New Yawk, New Yawk” over and over for . . . a very long time. And even though the announcement had asked specifically for love songs, about NYC in particular, almost everyone just wanted to talk about Topic A.

The overwhelming majority of the submissions, that is, are about September 11 and its aftereffects—the horror of watching the towers fall, the bravery of the Flight 93 passengers, the desire to kick bin Laden in the head, etc. Only about a fifth are even vaguely love songs. There’s a little subgenre about the people who jumped from the burning towers, and at least half a dozen songs called “911.” A few titles are variations on “The Day the Whole World Changed.” A bunch are “We Are America” or “I Am America” or “We Are Americans.” Clichés? Yeah, for a reason—they’re ideas that artists needed to express in their work.

A lot of the tapes and CD-Rs that came in are really pretty awful, honestly. But that’s not the interesting thing about them. In aggregate, they’re awe-inspiring, a cross section of the folk music of this moment: the songs people write and sing whether or not there’s anyone listening. 9-11 is responsible for more cultural production than any other single event of the last 50 years (only Princess Diana’s death even comes close), most of it on a private, individual level. That Onion story, “Not Knowing What Else to Do, Woman Bakes American-Flag Cake,” is about right, except that hundreds of people recorded songs instead, and then sent them to us. (And thousands more didn’t send them to us: lists another 520 songs with “9-11” in their titles alone, about two-thirds of them on-topic, plus 83 more called “September 11” or something similar.) Songs are better than cakes, anyway.

I’m not going to name anyone who wasn’t chosen for the final compilation—partly because Voice readers are likely never going to be able to hear their songs even if you want to, and partly because the critic’s prerogative doesn’t extend to artists whose work hasn’t been made public. Especially if the critic is representing an organization that could’ve made that work public and didn’t. Still, there are some meaningful patterns in the ways songwriters responded to the attacks and their aftermath.

For one thing, most of them obviously wanted to come up with something inspirational to say, which isn’t easy. A song called “God (Heart) NY” declares that God’s love is “so great he can let a couple of buildings fall,” which is suspect both logically and theologically. The plinky hip-hop number called “Ground Zero” strains to invoke similarly dubious uplift in its chorus: “We wanna thank you/For havin’ so much pride/We wanna thank you/For the people who lived and died inside.” The heroine of “Little Ozark Girl” seems like she’s going to make good until her plane crashes in the last verse—”Twin towers on fire when men conspire/To destroy our American way”; the narrator informs her that “now you’ll be the one to shine among those stars up in the sky.” And we are not, as one song puts it, “all heroes” simply because we live in the city.

What’s most striking about the 9-11 tributes en masse, though, is how similar their language is, no matter what their sentiments are. Like Wordsworth said, poetry comes from “emotion recollected in tranquillity,” but the people who were writing in September or October hadn’t really had a tranquil moment in a while. What they had left were the words that everyone was using to address the indescribable, and a lot of their lyrics rely on phrases that have lost their meaning from recent overuse (some of them imported from other songs). “Home of the brave,” “liberty and justice for all,” “sea to shining sea,” “never be the same,” “senseless attack,” the inevitable and frustratingly incomplete “united we stand” . . . One song goes, “I saw the news today, oh man”; another begins “now more than ever” and ends with a rousing chorus of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Plenty of the lyrics are declarations of patriotism, a concept few clarify beyond being pro-Us and anti-Them: “I will rise out of this dust/Because I’m American/Because I must.” (It’s curious how many have references to “rising again”—the “rise again” verse is a standard feature of English-language folk music, but rarely is it this literal.) One song called “U.S.A.” wades so deep into received language that it loses sense altogether: “All we believe in is pride in democracy/Let’s lead the way to a life that our children will see . . . Oh say can you see/Oh say can you see.”

It’s not impossible to find a fresh angle for a song about something this huge and recent—the Moldy Peaches’ Kimya Dawson sang a great one December 26 at Sidewalk Café—but it’s hard to get enough perspective. One result is statements of the obvious, as in the tune whose chorus goes, “The towers have fallen, all the dust has swirled/There won’t be any tradin’ at the center of the world.” (It happens to accomplished songwriters too. Neil Young’s “Let’s Roll” fails in basically the same way.) The flip side of the same problem is generalized vagueness: “Seize upon the hour and begin/So I guess it’s time you found your second wind,” rambles “Second Wind,” which unsurprisingly cops some Billy Joel moves, though more from “Movin’ Out.” (Paul McCartney’s “Freedom” says just as little.) Also, the trick of establishing historical context by mixing in taped newscasts, particularly of G.W. Bush’s “I can hear you, the rest of the world hears you” speech, is very popular, and gets old very quickly.

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.

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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