How We Listened After September 11

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It’s easy to think about the months following September 11, 2001 as a rude awakening from an imagined bliss (doubly fictitious, in that the peace only ever appeared to exist, and that it wasn’t that blissful to begin with). Nevertheless, the events of that day had a dramatic—and traumatic—effect on Americans, not least through our consumption of popular culture. But before the slew of original compositions responding directly to the event (of which Sound of the City has compiled what, in their estimation, were the nine worst), many listeners were already looking to music for comfort, guidance, or other emotional needs, while rejecting other music that flew in the face of those needs. Here’s what people especially did—and did not—want to hear.

Lee Greenwood “God Bless The U.S.A.” and Whitney Houston “The Star-Spangled Banner”

In the second full chart week after 9/11, Houston’s 1991 rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” re-entered the Hot 100 at #50, and Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” debuted at #16 (in 1984, the song had hit the country charts but never crossed over). In a pattern that would be reversed once digital sales became common, the songs had two chart peaks—the first when radio’s support was strongest, and the second when physical singles were re-released. Sales of “God Bless the USA” were strong enough to keep it on the chart, but not to match its debut. “The Star-Spangled Banner,” on the other hand, hit #6 on the strength of sales (and continuing radio support).

Afroman “Because I Got High” and Smash Mouth “I’m A Believer”

After September 11, Americans largely did not want to hear music that felt out-of-tune with the events. “Because I Got High” reached #13 in the first week of September, and “I’m A Believer” reached #25 the week of September 11, but both posted dramatic chart drops in the weeks that followed. Of the many artists whose careers were said to have been affected by 9/11—basically everyone releasing an album around that time, except Jay-Z, whose The Blueprint performed well despite its 9/11 street date—Smashmouth and particularly Afroman have among the more statistically supported claims.

All-Star Tribute “What’s Going On”

Bono and Jermaine Dupri recruited a star-studded lineup to record a cover of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” to benefit Artists Against AIDS Worldwide, but though recording wrapped before September 2001, it wasn’t released until October—at which point it had been reconfigured to additionally benefit the United Way September 11 Fund. “What’s Going On” had a brief tenure on the charts—just 4 weeks—but it spiked up to #27 in that time, providing much-needed support not only to the United Way but also to the AIDS non-profits working in Africa that the song had initially been intended to support.

Enrique Iglesias “Hero”

“Hero” was released on September 3, 2011, but by late October it had reached the top ten, and in November reached its chart peak of #3, where it held for several more weeks. “Hero” was also the most popular of several songs that were “remixed” with 9/11 broadcasts overlaid. (Enya‘s “Only Time,” which also increased in popularity following the attacks, peaking at #10 in November, was another.)

Each of these songs’ drastic chart movements reflect the ways in which they met, or failed to met, the emotional needs of listeners. By late November, songs directly responding to the attacks began to appear (notably Alan Jackson‘s “Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning)” and Andre 3000‘s verse on Outkast‘s “The Whole World”). But until then, listeners returned en masse to patriotic favorites, turned away from the glibly joyful, and most notably, repurposed songs for themselves. “Hero” and “Only Time” were merely the widest-spread of many others; Vijith Assar writes at Sound of the City about how, for him, the Incubus album Morning View served that purpose. I personally can recall finding a match for my own feelings of helplessness in Radiohead‘s “Pyramid Song,” in addition to the songs listed above. Got examples of your own? We’d love it if you would share your recollections in the comments.

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