The songs of 9/11 have become a pop subgenre: Call it attaxploitation. During the past year, pop stars turned out to soothe, rally, and inspire the nation, and initially they seemed unqualified to tackle the theme--especially when a hollow TV benefit asked you to imbue Enrique Iglesias's fulsome "Hero" with profundity. The occasion didn't need a "Hero." It begged for the sweep of a Mahler symphony, the stirring bombast that Philip Roth once noted could elicit an "elegiac orgy." Perhaps the attacks weren't really "beyond words," as so many pundits suggested. But they seemed at least beyond the words of a pop song.
Attaxploitation's mixture of elegy, bellicosity, and protest has flirted with crassness in its repackaging of tragedy, but it has also reminded us of pop's populism. In their sloppy immediacy, 9/11 songs have been as fascinating, troubling, and occasionally poignant as the public art and sloganeering that sprung up in the wake of the attacks. They're slapdash and heartbreaking like a curbside shrine, pithy and prickly like graffiti, and simultaneously opportunistic and sincere like a patriotic gas-station sign.
Bruce Springsteen's drive to connect with a large audience has often verged on the messianic, so it's not surprising that on his 9/11-themed The Rising (Sony), he treats his listeners like a collective Lazarus. The album's much-hyped conceptual baggage has made it contentious among critics: Kurt Loder gushed over it in Rolling Stone as if it were The Naked and the Dead, while Keith Harris scoffed at it in the Village Voice as if it were an America, Keep on Truckin' T-shirt kiosk hastily erected for the 9/12 lunch crowd. Only a few of the album's songs refer unmistakably to 9/11, but its theme of loss and transcendence still invites deconstruction: Even the release's most banal strokes can be given a depth, or cynicism, that isn't there. For example, Harris dismissed the album's highlight, "Let's Be Friends (Skin to Skin)," by imagining it as an opportunistic, apocalyptic come-on, ignoring the charms of the song's beach-soul swagger and its absence of specific 9/11 content.
Some of Harris's cynicism is understandable. The FDNY tribute, "Into the Fire," generously lobbies to uplift, but it does so to a fault. After a muted verse and chorus, the E Street Band joins in with a crashing entrance as manipulative as the orchestral score that accompanies horror-movie suspense scenes. Springsteen's easy metaphors ("smoky grave") are amplified by gospel choruses and drippy violin figures, as the song fruitlessly commands, "Feel this, now!" But alongside the arena-ready anthems are Springsteen's empathetic character studies and his skillful use of Spectorian bells and whistles.
As The Rising forced me to revisit the emotional hangover of September 2001, it wore down my initial resistance. By its inspired closer, "My City of Ruins," I was a blubbering heap. The Rising was, as Springsteen's music can be, cathartic. Two weeks later I read in Time that "My City" was written about the desolation of Asbury Park a few years before 2001. In some way, I felt tricked. My emotional reaction was dependent on the memory of 9/11, on the album's marketing spin and its skillful sequencing. But Springsteen, ever striving for timelessness, made his 9/11 offering allusive, and the result is an album that's likely to sound better in ten years--when it can be separated from its topical baggage, when its brassier components will seem less heavy-handed and its more modest efforts won't invite overcontextualization.
Predictably, September 11 has engendered many sentimental songs, the most insinuatingly lachrymose of which is Alan Jackson's "Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning)." A country hit this past spring, the song touches on every tear-jerking trigger and slushy cliché. In Jackson's romantic universe, every child is "innocent," every interstate "cold," every Bible "dusty." But wait, that Bible is dusty from lack of use! It's that kind of quotidian detail that softens the bathos, like when Jackson rhymes "[did you] go out and buy you a gun" with "[did you] turn on I Love Lucy reruns"--a quietly but intentionally funny contrast. And when, in the song's chorus, Jackson sings, "I watch CNN but I'm not sure I can tell you the difference in Iraq and Iran," it's not so much xenophobia as humility, which is, after all, one of country music's defining qualities.
Jackson's song, like many of its thematic sisters, has taken some shots for being overly sentimental, and it is. But so was Charles Dickens. (Granted, the comparison flatters Jackson, but it's instructive nonetheless.) Sentimentality helped define Dickens's 19th-century literary milieu, and it was a key component to his large-hearted populism. Similarly, Jackson calls on sentimentality because it is not restrained, aloof, or naturalistic: It's trying, like Jeff Tweedy, to break your heart.
Criticizing a country ballad for indulging in sentimentality is like slamming a salsa band for being too Latin. Just consider classic George Jones weepers such as "He Stopped Loving Her Today," in which the ache of lost love is expunged only by death. Notably, Jones's song affected its audience through storytelling, whereas Jackson's leans on the memory of 9/11 for its impact. Still, "Where Were You" arguably captures the day--at least for its Middle American audience--effectively enough to be its own statement. Unlike Springsteen, Jackson explicitly provides context. The song is less artful than, for example, The Rising's gorgeous "You're Missing," in which the singer inhabits the voice of a widow. And it probably won't age as well. But, for now, it's just as affecting, largely because of Jackson's honesty about his outsider perspective. And if you think Jackson's benevolent sap is country music's worst kind of response to 9/11, try stomaching Toby Keith blustering, "We'll put a boot in your ass/It's the American way."
If sung ironically, Keith's "Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue" might make an effective protest song akin to those on Sleater-Kinney's recent album One Beat (Kill Rock Stars). Like the Clash albums it draws inspiration from, One Beat is ideologically nonconformist and musically adventurous. It expresses the familiar post-9/11 sadness, but also rails against civil-liberties infractions, joining Public Enemy in the small group of doggedly antiwar attaxploitation artists. Sleater-Kinney's lyrics sometimes suffer from the stiltedness common to agitpop. ("But are we innocent, paragons of good?/Is our guilt erased by the pain that we've endured?" Those are good questions, and bad lyrics.) But their polemics are tempered by lyrical and vocal playfulness as well as the band's precise, galvanizing sonic wallop. Especially effective is "Step Aside," in which singer Corin Tucker sets up her soapbox ("disassemble your discrimination!") on a wonderfully imagined Sixties dance floor, punctuating the activism with loopy jive ("shake a tail for peace and love") like a politicized but just as fun Martha Reeves.
Some pundits have complained that 9/11 songs arrived too soon. But reflecting the culture and the political climate is one of the things songwriters do: Thank goodness the job doesn't belong just to editorialists but also to senescent rockers, cowboy crooners, and punk-rock housewives. If anything, it's too soon for pop to ignore 9/11. Sure, great music doesn't require profundity or timeliness. But non-country radio's obliviousness has been vexing this past year, especially as the chasm between its business-as-usual frivolity and the severity of current events becomes particularly pronounced.
The best 9/11 songs are both easy and risky: They grab attention and drive sales, but in doing so, they also expose their authors as saps or dissenters. In attaxploitation's drive to exceed the self and reach out to the listener, the genre sacrifices art-for-art's-sake pretense for magnanimity and civic engagement. And that ought to be a lot closer to the American way than Toby Keith's giddy ass kicking.