This Sunday will be 10 years since America was attacked on Sept. 11, 2001. In that time, a lot of musical ground has been covered. Some artists mention that day only in passing, as Jay-Z and Alicia Keys do in "Empire State of Mind," but some have crafted songs about 9/11 itself.
Some of these are heartfelt, sincere outpourings of emotion by people who were there or were genuinely moved by what happened. Some songs are knee-jerk gut reactions with little more thought put into them than goes into a sneeze. And of course, some of these songs are simply crass exploitation.
We're going to take a look at the best and worst of the songs we've encountered in the past ten years that were written about 9/11 or events pertaining to it. Something to understand before you even start hitting that "Add Comment" button: This means we're going to be mocking some people who probably had the best of intentions.
Tough shit. You want a better review, put out a better product, especially when it has to do with something as serious and lasting as 9/11, which is still at the top of the news. Let's start with the best...
5. Sage Francis, "Makeshift Patriot": Recorded in October 2001, Sage took just enough time to refine his prose while still exposing his raw nerves. The rapper from Providence, R.I., visited Ground Zero five days after the attacks, and this track recounts his frustration at the bandwagon patriots on the news and in the city, people all too quick to jump in line behind our leaders and cease asking critical questions.
He as much as predicts the subsequent creation of the Patriot Act, warning "Freedom will be defended at the cost of civil liberties." He decries a media which at the time was panicking America into a patriotic fervor by showing the attacks on the news over and over and over again, while a city and nation in mourning were still trying to heal. Pretty powerful stuff, a snapshot of the times, with an air of urgency, immediacy, and sadness.
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4. Bruce Springsteen, "The Rising": Springsteen has always known how to espouse hope without spouting cliches and overwrought sentiment, and here he displays this skill in an honest-to-God anthem. With key passages written from the perspective of a New York City firefighter ascending one of the burning towers, "The Rising" begs us to literally rise above the hate and the ugliness that led to September 11. It's a song not of revenge and war, but of peace and unity. And a hell of a singalong chorus to boot.
3. The Weepies, "Safe As Houses": The Weepies recount what it was like to not know if your loved ones were dead or alive on that day. Harrowing and sad, but with an undercurrent of real love.
2. The Low Anthem, "Boeing 737": This song imagines a conversation with Philipe Petit, the man who walked a tightrope between the twin towers in 1974, as chronicled in the excellent documentary Man On Wire. The conversation is interrupted when "prophets entered boldly into the bar," a fairly clear allusion to the 9/11 attacks.
This imagery brings to mind several questions: What if Petit and the towers had been destroyed before that historic tightrope walk could take place? How many Philipe Petits did we lose on 9/11, people who may have gone on to greatness? How many shared national experiences like Petit's 1974 walk have we missed out on because those 3,000 people were murdered? A thought-provoking song.
1. Mary-Chapin Carpenter, "Grand Central Station": As told from the perspective of a rescue worker on his way to work at Ground Zero, digging through the wreckage for bodies. He sees faces of the missing plastered on the walls of Grand Central Station and wonders if he'll be able to bring any of them home. A simple, powerful, and very human portrait.
Now that we've lifted your spirits and touched your heart, it's time for Rocks Off insult your intelligence and give you the douche chills. That's right, it's time for the worst...
5. Charlie Daniels Band, "This Ain't No Rag It's a Flag": "This Ain't No Rag It's a Flag" badly wants to be "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue" but lacks the subtlety and grace, which is saying something. Toby Keith at least has the taste to reflect briefly on his family and what having grown up around soldiers means to him before he starts his bombastic jingoism.
Charlie Daniels, on the other hand, jumps right in with cartoonish racism with the couplet "This ain't no rag, it's a flag/ And we don't wear it on our heads." Oh, Charlie. To be so simple-minded as to not only think that all Muslims are terrorists, but to also think that everyone who wears a turban is a Muslim (ask a Sikh about that). Daniels slings trite sentiment as if he's getting paid by the cliche: "We're gonna hunt you down like a mad dog"; "These colors don't run"; "Now it's time to rock and roll"; "When you mess with one, you mess with us all" and so forth.
It's one thing for performers to want to inspire the soldiers who fight for America. Daniels' chief objective seemed to be simply to let them know they were defending at least one total asshole.
4. Thriving Ivory, "Angels on the Moon": We have a hard time understanding the lyrics from this one, since they are melodramatically shrieked at us in a register only audible on the outward edges of the human hearing spectrum. They may be saying something beautiful, but we can't tell since the singer sounds like Rob Thomas on helium. As for the instrumentation, it's all hyper-dramatic, teen-drama-friendly pseudo-emo mush. There's no reason to listen to this song if you're past puberty.
3. Michael Jackson & Friends, "What More Can I Give?": The late King of Pop had some really well-produced songs; why, then, did this one make it to its final stages with nothing more than the simplest of Casio beats and synthesizers accompanying some of 2001's hottest singers? This song was never released, and it's a good thing. Jackson deserved to be remembered for better songs than this, and the 9/11 victims deserved more than poorly planned pop mediocrity.
2. Paul McCartney, "Freedom": The flipside to Sage Francis' "Makeshift Patriot," "Freedom" shows what can happen if you don't let a song cook for long enough before taking it out on the road. Namely, you end up repeating the same words over and over without adding any new ideas or personal touches, simply repeating the same words over and over while strumming the same simple chords over and over the same way you repeat the words, over and over, with no urgency or craft or thought. Over and over. It's a tad redundant, is the subtle point we're trying to drive home here.
1. Trade Martin, "We've Got to Stop the Mosque at Ground Zero": Plagued by poor production and awkward, simplistic writing, we don't think we can sum up this godawful pox on patriotism better than Jef With One F did when it first came out: : "It plays like a cut from the No Holds Barred soundtrack with lyrics that were probably written on the back of a Wal-Mart receipt showing the purchase of truck nuts."
And a shitload of beef jerky, too. Well said, Jef. And we'd like to also give props to the YouTube commenter who suggested this song be used if a sequel to Team America: World Police is ever made.
Wheatus, "Hometown": Yep, it's the same guy who sang that massively irritating 2000 hit "Teenage Dirtbag." Quite surprising, then, that he could produce such a well-written song, even if the electric piano does sound like it's soloing in a different key.
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Gorillaz feat. D-12, "911": Did Gorillaz lift hit-and-miss rap outfit D-12 up to their level? Nope, quite the reverse, actually. The production is throwaway and the rapping is uneven at best. It's no wonder this song was shelved and only released to the public on the Bad Company soundtrack. You remember, that dreaful Chris Rock/Anthony Hopkins movie that no one saw. You don't remember? Good. Good for you.