How 9/11 chilled musicians: "They were trying to push back against the new status quo. ... Some of them got smacked back"

Salon speaks to a Duke scholar about the Dixie Chicks and others as the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks nears

Published August 17, 2016 11:00PM (EDT)

Dixie Chicks   (AP/Urs Flueeler)
Dixie Chicks (AP/Urs Flueeler)

Every attack, war, and disaster leads to shifts in society, and the disaster of Sept. 11, 2001, engendered some powerful ones. A sense of national unity emerged, along with a rise in xenophobia and jingoism, and some of those shifts worked their way into popular music. Musicians who had been critical of American society found themselves censored or charged with anti-Americanism. The Strokes postponed a debut album, and a song called “New York City Cops” was left off the U.S. version. The outspoken rap group The Coup had to change its cover art for “Party Music” album, which originally showed a gleeful destruction of the World Trade Center, and the release was delayed. And in the run-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the Dixie Chicks expressed opposition to President George W. Bush’s martial ambitions and were met with a boycott of album sales and a major snub by the country radio establishment. (Singer Natalie Maines said at a concert in London that her band was "ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas.”)

Duke University scholar Mark Anthony Neal, who teaches English and black history, has been thinking about the upcoming 15th anniversary of the attacks that took down the towers of the World Trade Center. We spoke to Neal from Chicago, where he was traveling. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

So let’s talk a little about the way 9/11 shaped popular music. This was an event that had an effect on a bunch of different genres. Where did you see it most acutely? Was it country music that took the hardest hit?

In particular country music was the place that if you were going to go someplace after 9/11 to have the values of America reaffirmed, that’s where you would have gone to. And I think that’s where the Dixie Chicks really kind of cut against the grain, in that particular way. They’re already kind of in a tenuous space there because they’re not the traditional country music group at least in terms of presentation. So that when they start raising questions about the war afterwards and the buildup, it makes sense that country music would push back the way it did.

Remind people who weren’t paying attention back then what the conflict was with the Dixie Chicks after September 11th.

They raise questions about what became this immediate spin into the war. I’m always reminded of Congresswoman Barbara Lee out in California who was the only member of Congress who voted against the war immediately after 9/11. And it wasn’t so much in her mind a question ever about patriotism but to have some pause and be more thoughtful in terms of response. The Dixie Chicks echoed that, not so much in their music but in some of their commentary afterwards regarding the run-up and also [by] raising questions about what it was about American foreign policy at the time that might have even instigated the attacks.

Immediately after, the six months after 9/11, there wasn’t a whole lot of wiggle room for people to raise those kinds of questions. People who were, generally speaking, kind of anti-war progressives, a lot of those folks fell in line very quickly. I think we saw the same kind of dynamic for musicians; they were trying to push back against the new status quo that emerged after 9/11; some of them got smacked back.

Right. So what I think you’re mostly talking about is there was a period of jingoism and maybe xenophobia after 9/11. And there were some musicians who tried to resist it and they paid a price as far as radio play and sales.

Absolutely. I’d be curious to see what record sales were for Lee Greenwood immediately after 9/11. Because I know, as someone who doesn’t listen to country music, [an event after 9/11] was my intro to Lee Greenwood. My family and I — we had gone to one of these Yogi Bear camps in upstate New York. It was probably a week and half, two weeks after the attacks. And at some point, they gathered everybody who was there to kind of pledge allegiance to the flag . . . and then they started blasting Lee Greenwood, and I’m like, “OK, what the hell is this?”

So I think folks were clearly looking for a way to kind of rally. And it makes sense, [it’s] very human to rally around your flag at this particular moment. It gave pop music a pause.

You think about artists in the 1960s attempting to speak back to politics. If you think about N.W.A. and “Fuck Tha Police,” there was a feeling at that point in time that artists had much more of a freedom to express what they were feeling politically than in any other period of time. And it’s like 9/11 put that on pause.

So besides country, where else was this sort of chilling effect?

Hip-hop, obviously.

If you’re thinking about Bush I as the kind of lead-up into Bush II, you have an artist like Paris, who a decade earlier had recorded a track in which he depicted the assassination of a U.S. president on the album cover and in some ways had to disappear from the scene after that.

A group like The Coup, they do cover art for “Party Music” in which they are literally detonating a bomb on top of the World Trade Center on the cover art. . . . Hip-hop is in an interesting moment there where, when you think about it, being a group like The Coup, it tended to be the more progressive, underground artists that were making those kinds of critiques at the time.

This was the beginning of hip-hop’s salad days. Most mainstream artists were so invested in the bling at this point in time that most artists weren’t going to speak back to what was happening politically.

So you had these kinds of groups that were much more underground and in some ways, I think, they were much more protected because of that because mainstream audiences didn’t know who they were.

Did other genres see the kind of jingoism or censorship?

I can’t speak to that directly because of what I was listening to at the time. I do remember distinctly some of the policing of the airwaves. Particularly folks like Clear Channel wanting to make sure that they didn’t play any songs that might trigger things in folks after the attacks.

The one that stands out to me is “Dust in the Wind” by Kansas, which for me has always been, both in terms of the content and just the style of the song, just the most innocuous thing. It’s the epitome of late-1970s soft rock. And the fact that [radio stations] were policing to that level was very surprising to me.

The thing that we often forget about in these moments: All of these artists at one point or another are gathering in huge stadiums and stuff like that to kind of do tribute stuff. And I think everybody was invested in that.

If you’re a mainstream artist, regardless of genre, you’re showing your patriotism at this particular moment because you don’t want to be called out for not showing your patriotism.

I remember there were a bunch of folks who did something in Yankee Stadium. So you do those kinds of things. If you can write a check, you write a check. I don’t think it dramatically changed how pop audiences thought about their music, unless you were talking about more kind of fringe artists, like a Steve Earle. Just generally speaking, [at] the arc of his career, you might expect some pushback from an artist like that, but that had been his thing anyway.

So radio didn’t play “Dust in the Wind”?

At least Clear Channel instructed their programmers not to play “Dust in the Wind,” Carole King’s “I Feel the Earth Move.” There was a series of really innocuous songs. And they released it fairly quickly after the attacks, you know, “Don’t play these songs until further notice.”

Was there an increase in the process after the attacks on Iraq and Afghanistan? Was there a further tightening up on what musicians could sing and what radio could broadcast?

The bigger issue was not so much that artists felt [like] I can’t say what I want to say. But their success was so tied to other forms of commercial branding. The best way to think about it is to think about it in comparison to professional athletes. And I’ll use Michael Jordan as a good example of this.

You’re Jim Brown in the 1960s. You can be a radical. You can be progressive. You can be political because all you do is play football; that’s [the] only expectation. By the time we get to Jordan in the early ’90s, he’s not just simply representing himself as a ballplayer or the Chicago Bulls. He’s representing Nike; he’s representing Gatorade; he’s representing Hanes.

Artists themselves — because the recording industry itself doesn’t play them or make a lot of money— they make their money being on the road and if they can translate that into a relationship with Coca-Cola or someplace like that.

That’s where the relationship with some of these corporate entities that themselves are going to all buy into this moment of patriotism. I think that’s where artists had to be very careful in terms of what they expressed because it could in fact hurt their brand more than anything else.

Are there other historical periods we can remember where there was the same kind of pressure put on musicians and artists? You were saying something about how relationships to the marketplace have changed. Are there other times, whether Vietnam or the Kennedy assassination or other big moments where artists had to be self-conscious?

One of the best stories around this is an artist by the name Eugene McDaniels,  a singer-songwriter, African-American. Most folks know him because he wrote Roberta Flack’s “Feel Like Makin’ Love.” But he also was an artist with more traditional pop stuff, and he gets very political in the late 1960s, records two albums: One is called “Outlaw.” Another one is called the “Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse.”

And so he does this second album “Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse” that is very critical of Richard Nixon. And as the story goes, folks at Atlantic Records get a call from someone in Spiro Agnew’s office, the vice president at the time, raising questions about McDaniel’s music. McDaniel got dropped from the label immediately afterwards.

If we could look at where we are now, musically, could that kind of tightening up that you describe happen now. Or would it matter if it did? There are so many ways music can circulate. The gatekeepers don’t have the same control.  It’s not a handful of record labels and a few programmers anymore.

You think about the moment when Kanye said what he said about George Bush in 2005 after Katrina. And on the one hand, he faced very real criticism. On the other hand, I remember rumors circulating that he had a small deal with one of the two soda companies. And there were these rumors that he lost his deal because he was political. And I always thought that those rumors served the purpose of really dampening down on other artists deciding whether they were going to use their voice at this particular point in time also.

But if you think of the Kanye moment and just think about how Chaotics uses “Gold Digger” on YouTube to offer this critique of George Bush, you begin to see the elements of the technology that’s going to shift this conversation. By the time we get to this particular period of time now, radio doesn’t play that same sort of important role in terms of breaking music.

Artists — besides the fact that they no longer have to deal with traditional distributors, they can go directly to iTunes and whatever and upload their music. They have access to SoundCloud, YouTube and what have you and the ability for them to say what they need to say. And [to] not have to rely on these more traditional corporate interests allows them a certain amount of freedom.

By Scott Timberg

Scott Timberg is a former staff writer for Salon, focusing on culture. A longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, he runs the blog Culture Crash. He's the author of the book, "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class."

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9/11 9/11 Anniversary Dixie Chicks Music Politics September 11 The Strokes World Trade Center