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(Credit: Hannah Busing)

How the tragedy of 9/11 changed music

In 1917, at the height of the First World War, the French artist Marcel Duchamp inexplicably unveiled a urinal he had hung in a gallery and simply signed “R. Mutt”. His point was simple: the war had rendered art obsolete. Art throughout its history had always been a boon to life and a cognizant mirror to society, but now the depths of depravity and despair were far more than a canvas could reflect or offer salvation from.

Duchamp’s urinal was an attempt to symbolise the absurdity of trying to encapsulate a world beyond reconciliation. However, it, in turn, was rendered absurd by a public who struggled to stem the flow of questions. And, in some ways, it may well have been farcical, but the fact remains that no finer, or at the very least pertinent, example exists of the direct link between cataclysm and the creativity collated from the rubble. 

When it comes to 9/11 it almost seems improper and insensitive to use terms like relativity; the devastation and scars that America and indeed the world faced on that day endure. However, the facts remain that in 2019 there were over five times more domestic homicides in America than causalities during 9/11, likewise, the current Ethiopian-Sudanese Tigray War has seen over six times more casualties this year alone and the sad reality is that it is a conflict that will be news to many.

These numbers, however, are not intended to belittle the tragedy of 9/11, more so to highlight that it was a catastrophe unlike any other, whereby the impact on society was far more multifaceted than any other act of terror, conflict or mass causalities that we had ever seen before. In short, it was a moment that changed the psyche of the world much more so than its fabric. 

Thus, its impact on art – the realm of the psyche itself – must also have been seismically profound. It simply stands to reason that if the world changed in an instant, in an almost symbolic way, then surely music, in particular, seeing as though it is the biggest artistic medium of our generation, also changed? It is, therefore, a huge cultural oddity that even 20 years later the response of music to the cataclysm remains relatively difficult to decipher from the outside looking in. While the fallout from the disaster and the fateful White House utterance of “You are either with us, or against us,” are measurable in the increasingly bipartisan, conspiratorial and divisive society that has followed, the cultural response is much more nuanced. I mean what exactly did Sum 41’s All Killer No Filler say about tragedy? What did Nelly’s Nellyville LP offer up in response?

On the surface, these huge albums that followed offered nothing to say that an unprecedented moment had just occurred. While certain New York indie bands would offer up odes to their city like Interpol’s masterful Turn On The Bright Lights, the mainstream at large seemed to be unmoved. What was the ‘Candle in the Wind’ song of 9/11? And where was the great Vietnam War era swathe of protest music amid the momentous and inevitable reverberations? Was it simply that the impact on culture would take longer to unfurl? This seems unlikely, music inherently moves relatively quickly. In the past, the Greenwich Village folk scene sprung up and produced Bob Dylan in no time and punk burst into bloom almost overnight.

The notion of punk is also a pertinent point when it comes to disavowing the softly touted notion that the commercialisation of music muted the response. In the bafflingly small amount of research that has investigated music’s reaction to 9/11, occasionally censorship is softly touted as an important factor, but this seems to forget that history has saw banned and censored records spawn revolutions almost because of the red tape they endure. While established voices in the industry may have been hesitant to alienate fanbases by breaching sensitivities entwined with media hysteria and the propaganda that waged in the aftermath, frankly the Dixie Chicks were never going to be the voice of the response anyway. As history has shown, if some emerging talents had something to say about the matter and a new and exciting way to propagate it, then a label would’ve signed them no matter how controversial they proved. Seemingly no such youngsters emerged, at least not any that tackled the times in America headlong in the same grand way that sixties alternative stars brought about liberalism in a movement that will be remembered a thousand years from now like the world-changing artistic renaissance of old. 

In fact, it comes from the canvas that an explanation might be sought for the obfuscated sonic response. Recently we spoke with iArt founder Alejandro Vigilante who was in New York City at the time of the disaster and began thinking of his creative rejoinder then and there. Vigilante tells me: “This idea came up after the falling of the Twin Towers because, for me, it was easier getting in touch with my friends and family in Argentina via email than phone calls. This traumatic event made me realise that this new way of communication and information will change the world in all senses.” Therefore, was it the case that music was already dealing with a far greater transition in the form of the internet so 9/11 was lost in the endless stream of absorption that the dial-up-data revolution represented?

In a pop-culture world before the rise of bedroom-bound entertainment and the murky sense of individualism and uber-commercialism, things were more straightforward. In the sexually oppressive 1950s Elvis Presley began twisting his hips in response to sexual liberation and the rise of contraceptives, that much can be deduced without much of a leap. Thereafter the revolution of Bob Dylan, The Beatles and co, in the 1960s vied against morally obvious issues like the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War and relished in the profound new possibilities to propagate a message for the masses in immersive technicolour, stereo-sound instantly. Then the punks battled against apathy and growing socio-economic division in an anarchic maelstrom that was so unmistakable as a movement it was clocked and cogitated by the old guard like David Bowie in a championing millisecond. 

Like Duchamp of old, the narrative these musical revolutions were battling against were clearly defined and the way they went about it was informed by what had come before. Duchamp had realism stretching out behind him, so he went the other way; the punks had cambric shirted psychedelic fiends singing about bluebells and incorporating the universe’s eternal drone, so they went short-term and spikey-haired with soot-covered sonnets to the streets that spawned them. Perhaps even more importantly, there was still an air of collectivism in these eras. The requiem for consistent youth culture was ultimately served up when everything moved online. There was no longer any need to conform to that which surrounded you or to seek out a niche of your own. The internet, home entertainment and everything else came along and blurred the milieu of culture-defining microcosms and dispersed them into the insignificant macrocosm of the world wide web.

Thus, with 9/11, the narrative was murky and what had gone before was an equally messy palette, with very few collective groups getting together to figure things out in a fortified way. In the fallout music seemed to say ‘what exactly should we battle against, and what exactly should we battle with’? And by the time that had been figured out, if it ever has in the wildly convoluted political era we now live in, the flashpoint of 9/11 had passed, and it was simply the harrowing memories that lingered. The strand of this complicated time in music comes out in the rise of indie that seemed to shoulder the rather more vapid pop-punk that had gone before. 

By no means was this soft melodic rock a dramatic or instant response, but it could certainly be noted that alternative music became slightly more introspective and measured. Odes to cities, bars and youth experiences seemed to be the musical language of the post-9/11 era outside of the unflinching commercial mainstream that remained unmoved. So, on the surface, the gentle rise of indie might not have had a lot to do with the tragedy that went before, but that may be because music tried to leave the complicated ways of the world behind and focus on the insular. The response to the latest global flashpoint in the form of George Floyd’s death and Covid-19 remains to be seen. 

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