Natalie Merchant finished recording her third solo album, Motherland, on September 9, so by no means should anyone listen to the disc’s first song, “This House Is On Fire,” and think it has anything to do with hijacked airplanes, collapsed skyscrapers and the thousands buried beneath the rubble. The song is about the dispute over the Florida ballots during the presidential election and the rioting that took place in Seattle during the World Trade Organization meetings. So by no means should anyone listen to “This House Is On Fire” and believe such lines as “It’s all gonna catch like a house on fire/Spark an evil blaze and burn higher” or “There’s a wild fire catching in the whip of the wind that could start a conflagration like there has never been” have anything to do with today’s–and tomorrow’s, and the day after that’s–headlines. It’s a song about old news, honest to God. And ignore the Arabic strings. Man, it’s just a coincidence.
“The song is about injustice and insurrection, and people can apply that to anything,” Merchant says. “I made it ambiguous as far as what situation it could be applied to. The thing that I’m a little concerned about is that the song could be interpreted as a battle cry. That’s what I’m afraid of, because that certainly isn’t something I intended. The other dangerous interpretation is that I’m actually speaking on the part of the terrorists. But the fact the song could be used by either side in the conflict proves it’s ambiguous enough that it wasn’t written about either side.”
Merchant speaks in a tone of voice that suggests this is not the first nor last time she will have to explain a song that sounds very different in a post-September 11 world. But she is not alone: After the terrorist attacks, suddenly handfuls of songs written and released just prior to September 11 have taken on entirely new meanings, often against the will of those who wrote them. And they are not the usual suspects, either–the rah-rah, flag-waving anthems resuscitated and repackaged by labels out to make a quick dime for relief funds or their own coffers, or the sappy songs about heroes now applied not to lovers but to firemen and cops. One could hardly misinterpret Enrique Iglesias when he swooningly croons, “Would you tremble if I touch your lips…I can be your hero, baby.”
But the same can’t be said for the likes of the Pernice Brothers’ “Flaming Wreck,” sung from the perspective of a passenger on a jetliner about to crash as “the cabin filled with smoke”; Wilco’s “Ashes of an American Flag,” in which front man Jeff Tweedy sighs, “I would like to salute the ashes of American flags/And all the fallen leaves filling up shopping bags”; or Sam Phillips’ “Taking Pictures,” in which she sings that “when I take a picture of the city it disappears/It’s only a photograph the city is gone/The places I go are never there.” They’re but a few of the songs that become the accidental soundtrack to grief, anger and recovery. They have nothing at all to do with the attacks, but we can’t listen to them without infusing them with our own pain, rage, fear and confusion.
“I think if you’re successful in making a piece of art that’s complete or can stand as art, it is no longer the creator’s anymore,” says Joe Pernice. “A song isn’t yours, and you have to let it become what it will become.” In the weeks after the attacks, Pernice couldn’t perform the wrenching “Flaming Wreck,” which is about nothing more than his fear of flying. Once it did creep back into the set list, even Pernice couldn’t help but feel an anguish never before present. “That song encapsulated the sadness everyone was feeling,” he says.
Certainly, no recent song has become more identified with a post-September 11 Manhattan than Ryan Adams’ “New York, New York” off his just-released album Gold. Meant only as a love song, in which a woman’s name is replaced by the city’s, it has taken on anthemic duties and withstood the weight of such a burden. The video, in which Adams is seen strumming a guitar with the World Trade Center peeking over his shoulder, is almost on a constant loop on MTV2; after filmmakers have gone in and digitally removed the twin towers from the likes of Zoolander and Serendipity, Adams’ video, filmed September 7, exists now almost as an act of defiance, though he would insist otherwise.
“We decided to stay with this video because it was what it was,” he told The New York Times last week. “We shot it on September 7; it’s the city as we knew it and saw it. If people don’t want to show the video or don’t like it, I understand. We’re not pushing it or anything, saying, ‘Here’s the video with the towers.’ It’s just out there.”
Album titles mean something different in the new context: The week after the attacks, Dreamworks artists Jimmy Eat World ditched the title of their latest album, released July 17. It is no longer called Bleed American. Even entire albums sound different, none more so than U2’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind, now a year old. Almost every song off that record sounds as though it could have been written on September 12: “Walk On” (“Who will only fly, fly for freedom”), “Peace on Earth” (“Tell the ones who hear no sound/Whose sons are living in the ground/Peace on Earth”), “New York” (“Irish, Italians, Jews and Hispanics/Religious nuts, political fanatics…living happily not like me and you”), “When I Look at the World” (“Can’t see for the smoke/I think of you and your holy book”). “Beautiful Day,” once a hit single accompanied by a video filled with airports and overhead jets, resonates on a different frequency. Little wonder that U2, which performed during the September 21 America: A Tribute to Heroes telethon and last month at Madison Square Garden for three sold-out nights, has been the house band at the world’s largest and longest wake.
In the days and weeks immediately following the attacks, the music industry scrambled to eradicate any vestige of songs and images that might rekindle the televised nightmare. Clear Channel issued to its 1,200 radio stations a list of songs to be excised from the playlist; some were obvious (Dave Matthews Band’s “Crash”), some were ridiculous (John Lennon’s “Imagine”). Hip-hoppers The Coup were forced to redo the cover to their album Party Music, on which band members were depicted “detonating” the World Trade Center. The Cranberries pulled a video full of images of airplanes, skyscrapers and the chalk-mark outline of a corpse, and Dave Matthews rethought the decision to release “When the World Ends” as a single. The Strokes deleted the song “New York City Cops” off its disc Is This It, which was already out in Europe. “Not only did we not want the release of our record to be overshadowed by some, like, quasi-political event, but we felt it wasn’t really appropriate,” says Strokes guitarist Nick Valensi of the band’s decision to pull the song.
But beneath the shadow of perpetual fear–our leaders try to calm us and call for us to return to “normal” even as they warn of impending attacks–music provides a balm and a tonic. The aforementioned songs, among so many older ones hauled out by Billy Joel or Paul McCartney or Paul Simon during various benefits and tributes, give us release: They let us cry, they make us smile, they take us away, they bring us home.
“A lot of people are now asking me, ‘What’s your role as an American artist?'” Merchant says. “I think I can give expression to thoughts and feelings that ordinary language can’t. It’s a heightened language of the emotion. It makes me cry, it calms my rage, it gives voice to my rage.”
For a little while, Jim Adkins of Jimmy Eat World had the hardest time playing the gorgeous “Hear You Me” off Bleed American; it is, he reminds, a song “about death and loss and the ultimate regret of not being able to change something and leaving things unsaid.” But after a while, he needed to play it, to sing such lines as, “On sleepless roads the sleepless go/May angels lead you in.” And during Wilco shows, just after the attacks, Jeff Tweedy could be heard thanking the crowd for coming to make music with this band–“especially now,” he always added.
Pop music for the longest time has felt hollow, cynical, bereft of honest emotion; it has become “our floozy,” as Merchant likes to say, “a cheap whore.” There have always been musicians making meaningful art, but they’ve been too long relegated to the sidelines; they don’t top the charts, don’t play TRL, don’t get on Saturday Night Live. Perhaps recent events will change all that: What, after all, does Britney Spears’ new album, out this week, have to offer save for more songs about why Britney loves being Britney (and why you should, too)? She and her ilk have always seemed trivial and superfluous; now, Spears exists in a vacuum, a fantasyland of silicone and hair gel.
“There’s a lot of ego in music,” Pernice says. “I write songs about what I’m feeling, and I spend time putting out product about my feelings. It’s a really self-centered thing, and events like what happened in New York make me take stock in my own life and get a grip on what the word ‘meaningful’ means. It changed everything.”
Never did music seem more important to Merchant than when she sang at the funeral of a man who died in the World Trade Center. His widow asked Merchant to sing a song by her late husband’s favorite artist, John Hiatt; the wife asked to hear his song “Have a Little Faith in Me.” It was not easy: Even now, recounting the moment, Merchant’s voice catches when she recites the lines, “When your back’s against the wall/I will catch you when you fall.”
“Never in my life has my role as a musician been more obvious,” Merchant says. “I was there to give people pause and to facilitate, to help them feel what they were feeling and to give them a place to feel it…The widow I sang for said that for her family, eating and music were the only things that make sense to her right now, and it’s what’s brought her some of the greatest comfort. That’s coming from someone who’s already lost a loved one in the war.”