September 11th Changed Music—And Not In The Way You Think

Anger and aggression topped the charts in the fall of 2001, but the musical legacy of the 9/11 terror attacks is quite the opposite.

This is a special weekend edition of the Zogblog. Regular installments of my new serialized book We Are All Musicians Now will resume next Friday.

As a wounded nation processed the atrocities of September 11th in real time two decades ago, an album surged to the top of the charts that mirrored the country’s rage: Jay-Z’s The Blueprint. The record featured militaristic lyrics (“Hey little soldier, you ain’t ready for war”) atop bellicose beats from upstart producer Kanye West, as Jay-Z challenged foes big (Nas) and small (Prodigy of Mobb Deep) to all-out verbal warfare.

The Blueprint’s tone was both a product and reflection of all the emotions that bubbled up for everyone after 9/11—sadness and fear transforming into rage and aggression. And the trauma of September 11th changed the tune of American music in a similar way across the spectrum of genres. Right?

Wrong. It’s true Jay-Z dropped his classic album on September 11th, 2001, but that happened to be an accident. Though The Blueprint reflected the mood of the nation at large, Jay-Z recorded it well before the towers fell. The album was mostly a product of his frustration with legal proceedings following his alleged stabbing of a producer—one he suspected of bootlegging a prior album. In fact, The Blueprint only came out that fateful Tuesday after fears of another leak pushed its launch up by a week.

The Blueprint is a microcosm of 9/11’s impact on popular music. More specifically, it represents the mostly-incorrect perception of 9/11’s impact on popular music: that the attacks led to a more belligerent sound across the board. Indeed, you may remember listening to a lot of angsty songs in the fall of 2001, but musicians recorded most of the aggressive Nu Metal and horrorcore hip-hop that dominated turn-of-the-millennium airwaves long before the first plane hit the North Tower. 

Just look at Nielsen’s list of top-selling albums for the decade beginning in 2000, topped by the Beatles and N*Sync. Sure, there are dystopian-feeling titles on there, from Eminem’s Marshall Mathers LP (No. 4, 10.3 million copies) to Linkin Park’s Hybrid Theory (No. 7, 9.7 million copies). But both debuted in mid-to-late 2000. Believe it or not, only three of the top ten were recorded after September 11th, 2001.

Some of this has less to do with national zeitgeist than with the seismic changes walloping the music industry at the time. The rise of Napster and other peer-to-peer filesharing services decimated album sales over the course of the decade. In fact, none of the top ten albums came out after 2004, a strong indication of declining (legal) music consumption.

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A better indicator of the tunes popular after 9/11 is another Nielsen list: the one detailing the most-played songs on the radio. The decade’s top three? Lifehouse’s “Hanging By A Moment” (No. 3, 1.11 million), Train’s “Drops Of Jupiter” (No. 2, 1.15 million) and Nickelback’s “How You Remind Me (No. 1, 1.22 million). Keep in mind that each of those radio spins resulted in thousands, maybe tens of thousands of listens.

Yes, eight of those top ten were recorded before September 11th. But with the lone exception of Three Doors Down’s “Kryptonite” (No. 5, 1.06 million), none of the most-played songs were moody and brooding. They mostly matched the tone of the only two tracks in the top ten recorded after 9/11: Lee Ann Womack’s “I Hope You Dance” (No. 7, 1.03 million) and Hoobastank’s “The Reason” (No 10, 982k). 

And then there’s country music. Rather than moving away from the emotions stirred up by the attack, the genre’s top artists dug deeper. As the War on Terror expanded from Afghanistan to Iraq, the vibe shifted from a specific post-9/11 grievance to general jingoism. 

Take, for example, Darryl Worley’s 2003 ballad “Have You Forgotten?” The song aimed to justify the invasion of Iraq with mind-boggling lyrics like, “Some say this country’s just out looking for a fight / After 9/11, man, I’d have to say that’s right.”

Perhaps the best example of country music’s continued obsession with sprawling conflict in the Middle East came from Toby Keith. His 2002 album Unleashed featured songs like “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue” (and lines like “We’ll put a boot in your ass, it’s the American way.”) The following year, he doubled down with Shock’n Y’all, its title an apparent reference to the U.S. strategy during the invasion of Iraq. He packed it with tracks such as “American Solider” and “The Taliban Song.” (Seriously!) 

Keith went on to sell 24.5 million albums in the 2000s, fourth best among all artists, and millions more than Jay-Z or Britney Spears. So, as country crooners whipped parts of the heartland into a frenzy over wars further and further detached from September 11th, the coasts and cities indulged in escapism, partying to the Black-Eyed Peas and what Editor Nick likes to call “butt rock” (sorry, Nickelback). 

Country music aside, on balance, the songs we listened to over the course of a decade that opened with 9/11 weren’t dark and aggressive—in fact, they were just the opposite.

We’ll all spend some time reflecting on 9/11 this weekend. As you read all the think pieces on how the attacks changed the United States, just remember that the easy narrative isn’t always the right one. And, as we look ahead to the music of a post-pandemic world, don’t expect a raft of brooding ballads about being stuck inside.

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