The Sound and the Fury

The hip-hop Nostradamus? The Coup's Party Music

BEFORE AMERICA WITNESSED the footage of two planes crashing into the towers of the World Trade Center, hip-hop artists the Coup saw the image on an album cover. Until recently, the Oakland-based group had planned to release their forthcoming album Party Music with cover art portraying the World Trade Center exploding. Group member Boots Riley--who is known for agit-prop rapping on albums like 1994's Genocide and Juice (Capitol)--is depicted holding a detonator in front of the towers. The Coup's label, 75 Ark, pulled the cover art from its Web site just hours after the events in New York. A new design is being planned.

Metaphors have never been more dangerous in the music community than they are right now. The Coup have long been supporters of activism rather than violence--Riley has worked with numerous youth groups and, along with co-Couper Pam the Funkstress, has long supported nonviolent solutions to inner-city problems. Yet with World Trade Center coverage running on endless loop through our brains, the political commentary in the Coup's songs like the upcoming "5 Million Ways to Kill a CEO" will most likely be lost on angry listeners who interpret the song as a literal call to arms.

For similar reasons, the New York dance-music duo heretofore known as I am the World Trade Center changed its name to "I am the...," fearing that the original significance of the name would not function very well in light of recent events. Perhaps the absence of the words World Trade Center in the band's moniker is more appropriate than an attempt to quickly fill in the space with something less incendiary. With a single laptop computer and only two members--both of whom originally hailed from the small indie town of Athens, Georgia--the name I am the World Trade Center once seemed a satirical reference to the band's structural and musical diminutiveness. Not anymore.

2001 has thus far been the year of ironic electronic music, with artists like Peaches and Blechtum from Blechdom acting as pioneers, but the larger metaphorical significance of bands like I am the World Trade Center suddenly seems highly irrelevant at a time when all sense of irony is lost. We're left with a highly developed sense of relativism. Whenever promotional e-mails reading "Our band is playing a show tonight!" reached the office last week, the punctuation looked like a sick punch line; the exclamation point is now an anticlimax. Music is a form of release, but even if we need it now more than ever, taking advantage of entertainment as a diversion from what is going on in the world around us can make us feel guilty or hedonistic.

Perhaps it is for the same reasons that the publication of City Pages' own Fall Arts issue the day after the attacks seemed so incongruous: All of the meanings of the featured performances had changed. We spent Tuesday watching the explosions in disbelief, panicking when we couldn't get in touch with friends and family in Manhattan, feeling numb, and the events we'd carefully listed were being canceled one by one. It was as if the physical realm we once lived in had literally disappeared.

I'd booked tickets for the CMJ Music Marathon, a four-day New York City festival of independent music that was scheduled for September 13-16. The festival was postponed until October. The musical events I had planned to attend in Minneapolis at Grumpy's and First Avenue on Wednesday night were canceled. Artists were scattered all over the country, unable to arrive for scheduled performances. (One exception was a reading at Intermedia Arts by Washington, D.C., punk writer Mark Andersen. After evacuating his plane on Tuesday morning at Reagan National Airport--where he emerged to see the smoke cloud rising above the Pentagon--Andersen rented a car and drove all the way here.) Even the artists who could reach their destinations were often among those who were too emotionally drained to perform. (Nick Cave called off his upcoming Minneapolis performance, declaring in a press release, "The band members feel that it is inappropriate and disrespectful to be performing concerts in a country that is, as described by its president and media, at war." Whether Cave means he's acting out of sympathy for the families of the victims or in protest of a retaliation-hungry government is unclear.)

The fact that sincerity is replacing irony in music is probably healthy for artists. But for now, it also means that performances are canceled. Top 40 songs are preempted by news broadcasts. MTV VJ John Norris becomes a reporter, probing the streets of Manhattan instead of interviewing pop stars. And as I write, there are still no planes in the sky. For a while, everything is going to be very quiet.

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