Music, Musicians, and the War on Terrorism
MUSIC, MUSICIANS, AND THE WAR ON TERRORISM
The Bush Administration's vaguely defined war on terrorism, stemming from the devastating attacks on September 11, 2001, has engaged the imagination of musicians and listeners. The larger political debates surrounding this war have bled into the distribution and reception of both old and new songs. As with other wars, music has been conscripted into fulfilling functions such as boosting morale and advancing various nationalistic, patriotic, and political ideologies. Attempts at regulating and even censoring certain types of music and ideas have become common.
On the evening of September 11, 2001, as the country found itself grieving and stunned after the hijackings and attacks in New York City, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C., over 200 members of Congress gathered on the east front steps of the Capitol Building in Washington and joined in an impromptu performance of "God Bless America," a 1918 Broadway show tune by Irving Berlin that had become popular during World War II. The mixture of nationalism and religion was comforting for some. The House of Representatives passed a resolution supporting the display of the words "God Bless America" in all U.S. public schools. When important New York City institutions like the New York Stock Exchange and Broadway theaters reopened in the days after the attack, "God Bless America" was sung. On the Sunday after September 11, many churches across the country sang "God Bless America" as a closing hymn, and at a Rosh Hashanah service a day later in New York City's Central Synagogue, the congregation joined in singing "My Country 'Tis of Thee." Yet others in the country found the blending of nationalism and religion unsettling or even unpatriotic.
As the attacks began on September 11, nearly all radio stations switched from playing music to airing news. In the following days following September 11, as music returned to the airwaves, radio stations frequently played patriotic songs. Many radio listeners requested Ray Charles's version of "America the Beautiful," chosen by the White House to be played at a memorial service in Washington's National Cathedral; other popular requests were "America the Beautiful," "The Star-Spangled Banner," and "God Bless America." A version of "The Star-Spangled Banner" performed by Whitney Houston, originally released in 1991 during Operation Desert Storm, became popular again, as did another Gulf War favorite, Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the U.S.A." The national anthem was sometimes bypassed for other patriotic songs because of its references to "bombs bursting in air," a potentially painful image for those who had watched planes exploding into skyscrapers. In another attempt at sensitivity, the Boston Symphony Orchestra canceled performances of three choruses from John Adams's 1991 opera, The Death of Klinghoffer, which tells the story of Palestinian terrorists who hijacked the cruise ship Achille Lauro and then murdered a U.S. Jew, Leon Klinghoffer. The reaction of music critics to the Boston Symphony's decision ranged from cries against censorship to praise for not romanticizing terrorism.
Issues other than sensitivity appeared to enter into the decision by Clear Channel Communications, owner of about 1,170 radio stations across the country, to put over 150 songs on a kind of blacklist. Released a week after the attacks, the list included songs connected to flying, like Don McLean's "American Pie" and Peter, Paul, and Mary's "Leaving on a Jet Plane," but also pacifist songs like John Lennon's "Imagine," as well as all songs by the left-leaning band Rage Against the Machine. Many radio programmers, including those working for Clear Channel-owned stations, blatantly disregarded the list.
As the war on terrorism progressed, some country musicians and their fans found themselves at varying points on the political spectrum. Natalie Maines, the lead singer for the Dixie Chicks, a country group originally from Texas, sparked a firestorm of controversy in the United States when she told a London audience on March 10, as war with Iraq appeared imminent, "Just so you know, we're ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas." Equating dissent with disloyalty, many country music fans and radio stations responded to Maines's statement with music boycotts and bans. Cumulus Media exercised company-wide blacklisting and ordered its forty-two country music stations to ban all Dixie Chicks music for a month. Trash cans were set out to collect their CDs, and piles of their recordings were run over by tractors.
Other country performers conformed to traditional patriotic and jingoistic methods for selling songs. Toby Keith's bellicose song "Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American)," which explains that the U.S. way of responding to threats is to "put a boot in your ass," was a commercial success, garnering nominations for best single and best song from the Academy of Country Music in 2003. "Have You Forgotten?" by Darryl Worley, a song popular among those supporting the war, makes a spurious connection between Iraq and the September 11 attacks; it has also been nominated for several country music awards. The blatant and aggressive militarism in songs like these, combined with the censorship of other types of music, suggests that the war on terrorism will curtail certain types of musical expression.
The war on terrorism has sharpened divisions between left and right in the United States, and the music Americans listen to is an important indicator of public opinion. As in past wars, music has become a means of expressing patriotism and dissent—which are not mutually exclusive. In the post-9/11 world, many have stressed that censorship can never be the proper response to dissent.
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Neil W. Lerner