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Greatest tribute: No tribute songs
The wound was still fresh, but a handful of music lovers were already dreading the entertainment industry's inevitable role in the healing process, even making jokes about it.
The Tribune had sent me out to interview people about the role music was playing in their lives during this time of national shock and mourning following the events of Sept. 11. Most responded thoughtfully. Some thought music and entertainment of any sort were inappropriate for a few days, even weeks. Others were anxious to get back to business as normal, and that meant listening to the music they already loved, whether it was 'N Sync or Mozart. A number said they needed music more than ever as a form of therapy, as a way of coping with the psychic damage inflicted by the terrorist attacks.
But one response stood out: "You know what I'm terrified about now?" said a 40-year-old Chicagoan I met outside a record store on the North Side. "Not another terrorist strike. I'm terrified that Britney Spears, Destiny's Child, Michael Jackson and a whole bunch of other singers with lots of time on their hands are gonna get together in the next few days and record a tribute song about the World Trade Center. Then it really will be the end of the world as we know it."
That response, as tasteless as it may seem to some, raised a significant question, one that likely will be raised many times in coming weeks: Does tragedy justify bad art, even when it's for a "good cause"?
The Onion on the money
Last week, The Onion, after taking a week off in deference to the victims, devoted its issue to the tragedy's aftermath. The humor was typically dark, but one item in particular struck a chord: "President Urges Calm, Restraint Among Nation's Ballad Singers," the headline declared. Like every other "news" item in the weekly, the blurb was a fabrication, yet its first line rang true for those of us who remember "We Are the World" less than fondly: "In the wake of the recent national tragedy, President Bush is urging Mariah Carey, Michael Jackson and other singers to resist the urge to record mawkish, insipid all-star tribute ballads. `To America's recording artists, I just want to say, please, there has already been enough suffering,' Bush said."
It's a given
Of course, many tribute songs will be written, recorded and sold anyway in the coming weeks. Many of them will try to follow in the grand tradition of "We Are the World," the mother of all those "mawkish, insipid all-star tribute ballads." The song was written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie in 1984 and orchestrated by Quincy Jones, and it won four Grammy Awards in addition to raising $40 million for African hunger relief. The song held the public spellbound for a few months, as we gawked at the cavalcade of stars -- Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, Ray Charles -- and tried to pick out the individual voices as they emerged from the choir to croon a couple of lines.
Yet Bob Geldof, the guy who got the whole rock-stars-for-famine-relief ball rolling with another tribute song, "Do They Know It's Christmas," and participated in the "We Are the World" sessions, was appalled. It "sounds too much like the Pepsi generation," Geldof said of song. He added that most of the tribute records he'd heard were artistically "awful."
Now, everyone from the graying surf-rockers in the Ventures to, yes, Michael Jackson wants in on the feel-good, tribute-to-New York parade, and I wish them the best. Because we do need art and music and songs in our lives, especially after a national tragedy of this magnitude. Music can bring comfort, solace and understanding. And if it raises money for a worthy cause, who can complain -- aside from Bob Geldof?
But Geldof wasn't merely being a spoilsport. Underlying his seemingly callous dismissal of a cause he had championed was a harder truth. Separate "We Are the World" from its circumstances, and it is a thoroughly pedestrian song, rife with the kind of generic sentimentality that wouldn't pass muster at a songwriters workshop, let alone a recording session by any one of the rock and pop superstars who gritted their teeth that night and took one for the team.
What's needed now, in this weird, troubled time, is not more tribute songs, but more good art.
That notion has been the subtext of nearly every conversation and e-mail exchange I've had with anyone involved in music the last two weeks. A number of us questioned why we do what we do for a living, and how we can give it meaning after the events of Sept. 11.
That is why Laurie Anderson's performance at the Park West on the night of the tragedy was so affirming. It was remarkable that the show even happened. But Anderson, who lives in New York, happened to be in Chicago already to prepare for the concert, which had been scheduled for weeks.
That day, Anderson had spoken to her companion, Lou Reed, back home. He had witnessed the catastrophe from the rooftop of their Greenwich Village loft and was unhurt. Baseball had canceled all its games that day, and entertainment venues were closed. Anderson was shaken, but she never wavered from her desire to perform.
"Ballgames are about fun and celebration, as music is," she said a few hours before the concert. "But music is also about why we're here."
Anderson resisted the impulse to write a song about the day's events. She did not make a speech, except to dedicate the performance to those who had died. She simply played her music, and her songs were rich and broad enough to speak to the day's events in a way that was more poignant and profound than any tribute song could have been.
Her "Love Among the Sailors," recorded in 1994, closed the concert. It's a song about a plague that leaves a group of mariners stranded on an island. "There is no pure land now, no safe place," Anderson sang. "Come with us into the mountains, hombres, sailors, comrades."
That moment lingers, a reminder of the role music has played in our lives, and will continue to play. After a few weeks of relative silence, the music industry is already surging back into our lives. The publicity mills are again churning out propaganda about new albums, and bands are venturing back on the road in greater numbers to promote their songs.
But artists like Laurie Anderson raise the stakes for all of us. Their art says the trivial music will sound even more inconsequential in coming weeks, and the profound music will become even more meaningful.
That was the case during the nationally televised "America: A Tribute to Heroes" Sept. 21, when artists such as Paul Simon (who sang his "Bridge over Troubled Water"), Neil Young (a moving cover of John Lennon's "Imagine") and Wyclef Jean (an inspired reading of Bob Marley's "Redemption Song") performed songs that have not only stood the test of time, but on that night rose to the enormity of the occasion with grace, passion and dignity. We should hold every artist to that standard, even the authors of well-intentioned tribute songs.