Nothing about September 11 made sense, so of course there hasn’t been a lot of good music written about September 11. There hasn’t been a lot of music written about September 11. Since popular music became a facet of youth culture around 1956 or whatever, there hasn’t been a major historical event in this country’s history that’s inspired less music than September 11. Something like the Vietnam War or the government’s negligent treatment of Hurricane Katrina fits a lot more neatly into preestablished narratives: the government is shady, they don’t give a damn about the lives of people or more specifically poor people, and they’ll deny all responsibility for their bullshit for as long as they possibly can. September 11 inspires a similar kind of outrage, but it’s a few shades more complicated than that. Along with that outrage came a lot of other stuff: complete and utter surprise, pride (perhaps unfounded) in our country’s ability to pull together and weather the storm, dread that our government was going to use it as an excuse to do some foul shit, total helplessness in the knowledge that really bad things were happening out in the world and we didn’t really know what they were, creeping suspicion that our government is shady and that they don’t give a damn about the lives of poor people and that maybe that’d been part of what caused this whole mess even if they weren’t the immediate villains here. It’s hard to cram all those feelings into a three-minute pop song. And the attacks took place at a time when American pop music had generally moved away from cultural commentary and toward smaller personal interactions; the attacks might’ve changed a lot, but they didn’t change that.
Pop music’s first big response to the attacks was a “We Are the World”-esque all-star cover of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” that gathered most of the biggest names at the time (N SYNC and Backstreet on the same song!). They brutalized the original, of course, and they didn’t raise any questions or challenge any political ideas or say anything at all, which now that I think about it was probably a pretty rational response to something that no one could understand, even if most of them probably only did it because their handlers told them it’d make them look good, even if that really is genuine despondence in Fred Durst’s voice when he says “we got human beings using humans for bombs” on the unbelievably fucking awful part where he raps.
After that, the only branch of American pop that consistently talked about the attacks with any consistency was, predictably enough, country. Some of the responses from mainstream country were powerfully nuanced and movingly confused (Alan Jackson’s “Where Were You”), and some of them were depressingly, risibly reductive (Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue,” Darryl Worley’s “Have You Forgotten”), but all of them were at least responses. The bravado on those last two songs is certainly misguided, and I guess it’s worth noting that those songs came from people who don’t live in New York and a genre that’s made a cliche out of expressing contempt for the city, but it’s doesn’t seem fair to call out those responses for their irrationality in a situation where rationality isn’t even possible. Some of that bravado came through in rap, too. Ghostface on Wu-Tang’s “Rules”: “Who the fuck knocked our buildings down? / Who the man behind the World Trade Massacres? Step up now / Where the four planes at, huh? Is you insane, bitch? / Fly that shit over my head and get blown to bits … America, together we stand, divided we fall / Mr. Bush, sit down; I’m in charge of the war.” Lil Wyte on “US Soldier Boy”: “I’m a soldier, don’t get it twisted, get ya wig split / Fifty millimeter shells aiming for the terrorists / Must have missed cuz they still coming with some big shit / Osama fucked up real deep and there ain’t no time to fix it / He better be off the planet, two light years past the moon / Riding on a magic carpet, satellites gonna find him soon / He’s probably already dead, fucking with the USA / But if he’s not, he better not bring his ass up in the Bay.” Maybe it’s just my own political and aesthetic preferences that make me empathize more with those responses, but substantively, they aren’t a whole lot different from the Keith and Worley songs, and it’s also worth noting that “Rules” and “US Soldier Boy” are possibly the only two rap songs in existence that lyrically depict George W. Bush in even a remotely positive or maybe neutral light. There’s also a Bruce Springsteen concept album that I’ve never heard and a Steve Earle song where he imagines himself as a terrorist and probably a ton of other stuff that I’m probably forgetting. But the point stands: there’s not been a lot of musical response to September 11 because any musical response would feel painfully inadequate and most of the people who make music realize this. Maybe it’s wisdom or cowardice or some combination of the two that’s kept most songwriters from addressing something this confusing and important. Or maybe they figure their responses aren’t going to mean a whole lot more than ours.
And so my two favorite responses to the attacks are two songs that don’t try to make huge, sweeping points. One is Sleater-Kinney’s “Far Away,” the one where Corin Tucker sings about nursing her baby on her couch on the other side of the country and watching the towers fall on TV: “I look to the sky and ask it not to rain on my family tonight.” She gets in a quick and devastating jab at Bush, but the song is really just about one person’s utterly subjective experience. Her fear is personal, and that’s what makes it universal. The other response isn’t really a response; it’s just an omission. It’s on “A Dream,” the first song on Jay-Z’s Blueprint 2: The Gift and the Curse, an album that everyone hated but I liked. In the song, Jay’s imagining a beyond-the-grave conversation with Biggie Smalls; when Jay’s verse ends, Biggie’s voice comes in, and it’s doing the first verse from “Juicy,” the one we all know word for word. Except there’s one slight change, and it’s on the part where Biggie says “time to get paid, blow up like the World Trade”; the “World Trade” part is gone, and there’s only silence in its place. Biggie, of course, was talking about the first World Trade Center bombing, the one that took place not long before he recorded the song, and it must’ve sounded pretty goddam insensitive then. Jay probably took it out because Jay is a political man and he knew it’d sound even more insensitive in 2002. But the effect is even more powerfully mournful; on a song that’s already sad and contemplative, it’s a reminder of a greater sadness lurking outside the song’s scope. Those words are ghosts.