Needed: a great 9/11 anthem

August 6, 2002



In May 1970, at President Richard M. Nixon's urging, the National Guard descended on the campus of Kent State University in Ohio to quell anti-war protests by the students there. As the tear gas rained down and the Guard moved in, the soldiers shot 13 unarmed demonstrators, killing four of them. The day after the clash, Neil Young composed a moving song about the incident called "Ohio," which he recorded with bandmates David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash. (Crosby famously broke into tears in the studio, and you can hear him sobbing during the dramatic finale of "How many more?") Within two weeks, the single was in the stores, and the song became a Top 20 hit.

The music world has been much slower to react to the far more cataclysmic events of Sept. 11. Nearly 11 months on, only a handful of songs about the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center have garnered significant airplay and mainstream attention (including, most notably, the single "The Rising," from Bruce Springsteen's album of the same name released last week).

None of those songs stands up as particularly great rock 'n' roll--at least not on the level of "Ohio."

Pop music remains our most potent cultural force for giving voice to complex emotions. Less than two weeks after Sept. 11, we were treated to a procession of cathartic performances on the national telethon "America: A Tribute to Heroes." But whether it was Young performing John Lennon's "Imagine" on that show or people from coast to coast joining in singing "God Bless America," we have turned primarily to songs from the canon, rather than new anthems written in response to current events.

Some critics contend that the events of Sept. 11 are still too fresh and too painful to elicit a nuanced musical response (though that wasn't the case with "Ohio"). Others say that the ramifications of those events have been too much for even our most eloquent artists to address, or that saturation coverage by the media has denied them the opportunity to say anything new, since it's "all been said" by the legions of talking heads.

Whatever the reason, it's interesting to note that the music most resonant of recent events--and the songs that stand as the best art--were all composed before the terrorist attacks, and they became eerily prescient only in retrospect.

These include "War on War" and "Ashes of American Flags" from Wilco's "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot"; "This House Is on Fire" from Natalie Merchant's "Motherland" ("There's a wild fire catching in the whip of the wind/That could start a conflagration like there has never been," Merchant sings of the WTO riots in Seattle), and much of "Love and Theft," the Bob Dylan album that arrived in stores on Sept. 11.

As for the songs that were actually written to stand as 9/11 anthems, with the exception of Steve Earle's, they have been a fairly hollow lot. Consider the following:


Paul McCartney, "Freedom": Son of a fireman, Sir Paul was the first out of the box with this hastily dashed-off tune, which he debuted during the "Concert for NYC." broadcast from Madison Square Garden. "I'm talkin' about freedom," Macca sings again and again, but he doesn't really say anything about it. "This is my right/A right given by God/To live a free life/To live in freedom," he contends--overlooking the fact that those who attacked America did so in the name of their own God, leaving open the question, "Whose side is He on?"


Neil Young, "Let's Roll": Young took an interesting approach for this single, focusing on the heroics of the passengers aboard the doomed United Airlines' Flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania while apparently en route to attack Washington, D.C. Like "Ohio," it was written in a rush of inspiration shortly after Young read of the events. But it lacks the earlier anthem's barbed anger ("Tin soldiers and Nixon comin' "), profound sadness and call for human understanding ("What if you knew her and found her dead on the ground?").

Instead, taking the catchphrase favored by Todd Beamer for its title, Young sings about the passengers' attempt to reclaim the airplane: "One's standing in the aisle way/Two more at the door/We've got to get inside there/Before they kill some more." He skirts the issue of the heroes' unimaginable sacrifice, choosing instead to dwell on a false hope that they may or may not have had, and adding little insight to their actions or emotions. "How this all got started/ I'll never understand/I hope someone can fly this thing/And get us back to land."


Toby Keith, "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)": This typically glossy and soulless Nashville ditty has driven the country crooner to the top of the charts with his album "Unleashed." But it's a superficial, jingoistic piece of propaganda, hollowly beating the war drums, claiming a victory that America has yet to achieve and showing little consideration for the many lives lost on every side.

Sings Keith: "Now this nation that I love/Has fallen under attack/A mighty sucker punch came flyin' in/From somewhere in the back/Soon as we could see clearly/ Through our big black eye/ Man, we lit up your world/Like the Fourth of July." Apparently, Keith has mistaken the War on Terrorism for a bout staged by the World Wrestling Federation.


Bruce Springsteen, "The Rising": Not surprisingly, on the first single from his new album, the Boss responds to Sept. 11 by placing himself inside the mind of the "average Joe" who he has always claimed to speak for: a fireman laboring valiantly to mount the 110 stories of one of the World Trade Center towers. "Can't see nothin' in front of me/Can't see nothin' coming up behind/I make my way through this darkness/I can't feel nothing but this chain that binds me/Lost track of how far I've gone/How far I've gone, how high I've climbed/On my back's a 60-pound stone/On my shoulder a half mile of line."

As he climbs, the rescuer prays for strength to help the victims ("May their precious blood bind me/Lord, as I stand before your fiery light"); thinks of his wife, Mary, back home in the garden, and flashes on better times ("A dream of life comes to me/Like a catfish dancin' on the end of my line"). But while his subject is certainly a worthy one, something about the Hallmark card romanticism here rings hollow, as if nailing the real emotions of such a man was just beyond the Boss' grasp.

How many New York firefighters have ever gone angling for catfish? Would such a man really be thinking about a "Mayberry, U.S.A." vignette at a time like that? And is that big chorus of "li li li's" really the eloquent resolution that such a song and a life deserve?


Steve Earle, "John Walker's Blues": Though he's being pilloried by the Nashville establishment and other bastions of conservatism, alternative country renegade Steve Earle has actually written a song that is far more nuanced and complex than any of the other 9/11 anthems. When he places himself inside the mind of John Walker Lindh, the so-called American Taliban, Earle doesn't condone or excuse his actions; he simply questions the allure of the cause Walker embraced. "Just an American boy/Raised on MTV/ And I've seen all them kids in the soda pop ads/None of them looked like me/So I started looking 'round/For a light out of the dim."

Earle finds the humanity both in this particular situation and, by extension, the global crisis, which is far more complicated than many songwriters and politicians have been willing to grant. "We came to fight the Jihad/Our hearts were pure and strong/And when death filled the air/We all offered up prayers/Prepared for our martyrdom," he sings. "But Allah had some other plan/Some secret not revealed/Now they're dragging me back/With my head in a sack/To the land of the infidels."

As poetic as those lines are, their true meaning becomes apparent only in the context of the music, with the sad resonance of Earle's mournful voice, and the even greater eloquence of a tortured feedback guitar solo that seems to say, "There are no winners in this conflict, only death and delusion on every side as we turn further from our quest for peace."

In the end, that guitar solo is the single most moving sound I've heard with a direct connection to Sept. 11. Sometimes, words can fail us, but music never does.


"Now this nation that I love/Has fallen under attack/A mighty sucker punch came flyin' in/ From somewhere in the back/Soon as we could see clearly/ Through our big black eye/ Man, we lit up your world/Like the Fourth of July."