Illusions are a chronic affliction of experts on a deadline. I suspect he was suffering from a mild case when, four months after 9/11, I wrote a column for The Wall Street Journal. Impressed by the fact that Diana Krall’s “The Look of Love,” an album by traditional pop standards, was the eighth best-selling CD of any genre on Amazon.com – he had just heard the title track at an Upper West Side McDonald’s. from New York – I speculated that the horrors of that day had aroused an appetite in Americans for simple, non-ironic beauty. “What we wanted in our time of need,” I wrote, “was beauty, and we never doubted for a moment that such a thing exists.”
Similarly, 10 days after 9/11, I was amazed by the musical performances I heard on “USA: A Tribute to Heroes,” a fundraising broadcast in which 21 pop musicians played and sang songs of pain. , hope and courage. None of these musicians showed the slightest doubt that a monstrous harm had been done to America and that we had to do something about it.
I remember most clearly from the broadcast a hard-hitting and no-nonsense rendition by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers of a song called “I Won’t Back Down.” Although it was not written for political reasons, that night it acquired the laconic force – and yes, the beauty – of a quasi-national hymn: “You can plant me at the gates of hell / But I will not back down.” In singing it, I’m sure Petty spoke for everyone in “USA: A Tribute to Heroes.”
Everyone he knew shared that sense of unanimity in 2001 and the early part of 2002. Back then, American flags flew proudly through the streets of New York, and works of art, both elite and popular, were created with the same galvanizing spirit that caused those flags to fly. Some of them, like Bruce Springsteen’s album “The Rising” (2002) featured poignant depictions of heroism, the kind that we turn to great artists when we want to see or hear heightened versions of what’s in our hearts.
Not long after 9/11, Springsteen was pulled over on a street corner by a passing stranger, rolled down his window, and yelled, “We need you now!” We did so, and he delivered, writing new songs and reusing old ones to tell us how we all felt.
One of the latest was “My City of Ruins,” which Springsteen had sung in “A Tribute to Heroes,” presenting it as “a prayer for our fallen brothers and sisters.” It says, “The church door is open / I can hear the organ song / But the congregation is gone.” It had been written in 2000 as a lament for the decline of Asbury Park, NJ, but it was also ideal for the new occasion, and I will never forget the somber chorus that Springsteen sang over and over again on a television that was lit by candles: “ Come on, get up! Come on, get up!”.
However, lest we forget, the deep ambiguity of meaning is built into the nerves of art. Regardless of what you thought “I Won’t Back Down” meant on September 21, 2001, it is wise to note that Petty’s attorneys had sent George W. Bush a cease and desist letter when he used “ I Won’t Back Down ”as a campaign song in 2000, which Petty himself performed at Al Gore’s house after he granted that much-disputed choice.
By 2003, the short-lived patriotic unanimity created by 9/11 had similarly dissipated, and America was once again the same old fractious and divided old man. It’s no wonder that Hollywood, whose center-left residents are often uncomfortable with depictions of patriotism, mostly steered clear of making movies about 9/11 and the Gulf War.
However, there were some exceptions, notably the unforgettable and powerful “United 93” (2006) by Paul Greengrass, which told the story of the heroic passengers who shot down a hijacked plane on 9/11 at the cost of their own lives, and Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker” (2008) and “Zero Dark Thirty” (2012), in which the Gulf War and the search for Osama bin Laden were portrayed with identical masterful skill.
However, the events of 9/11 continued to find their way to the surface of our pop culture for some time thereafter, not in war movies, but in purely popular entertainment. The 2012 release of Joss Whedon’s immensely successful “The Avengers” is a prime example of that stealthy process at work: it kicked off more than a decade after 9/11 and a year after the Bin Laden assassination, and it’s impossible not to. See those events reflected in the film’s climax, in which a team of Marvel Comics superheroes thwarts an attempt by aliens to destroy New York.
An even more telling parallel can be found in Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight,” released four years earlier, in which Batman battles a seemingly psychotic Joker whose murderous behavior makes no sense to his thoroughly rational and deeply moral foe. Baffled by the existence of such a man, he assures Alfred, his butler and mentor, that “criminals are not complicated.” To which Alfred responds with an often-quoted explanation, at least as applicable to 9/11 as it is to the movie’s plot: “Some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They cannot be bought, intimidated, reasoned with, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn. “
By then, sadly, a good number of Americans were willing to view Nolan’s intentions with suspicion in thus describing the insane villain who longed to set Gotham City on fire. The sense of purpose that had united America in its hour of need had long ago given way to the centrifugal force of ideology, and our artists were, and are, less and less inclined to imagine a world in which we know with certainty what it means to be evil and need beauty like we need bread. A normal world, in other words, because that is the normal state of things, and perhaps it is better this way: humanity cannot live forever at the high temperature necessary to heat the refining fire of beauty.
All of which reminds me of the present moment. As I write these words, I don’t know how the situation in Afghanistan will develop, but in the mountains of reports I read after 9/11, I remember finding a fact about the Taliban that hit me like a speeding car: they had banned all the secular music forms of their society, declaring it to be “un-Islamic” and therefore sinful.
I took note of that odd and odious manifestation of Puritanism when I wrote in my 2002 column about “going to concert halls, theaters and galleries – and, yes, nightclubs – in search of beauty in all its forms … Needless to say that Bin Laden and his Taliban cronies, those who banned music in Afghanistan, would not approve. For them, and for all other fanatics who murder in the name of a god, earthly beauty is a mere illusion, a distraction from the One True Cause. But they are wrong about that, just as they are wrong about everything else. Beauty is real, as real as evil, and it is worth fighting for ”.
I understood that part well.
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How 9/11 Changed Pop Culture in America