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Rock: Skimming deeper emotions
Last Sept. 11, Laurie Anderson was in Chicago preparing for a concert when disaster struck only blocks from her apartment in Manhattan. After she found that her companion, Lou Reed, was safe, she decided that her show must go on.
"They canceled all the baseball games," she said that day, "but I felt that was a different thing. Ballgames are about fun and celebration, as music is. But music is also about why we're here."
Anderson's performance at the Park West was magnificent, the anxiety, alienation and hope in her songs magnified by the day's cataclysmic events, and the concert illustrated the role music could play in our lives, even on a day when everything seemed up for grabs. Her music illuminated "why we're here."
But since then, artists and bands have been reluctant to grapple with the deeper emotions behind the events of Sept. 11. There have been a handful of high-profile songs directly addressing the terrorist strikes, such as Neil Young's "Let's Roll," Paul McCartney's "Freedom," Toby Keith's "Courtesy of the Red, White & Blue (The Angry American)," and Alan Jackson's "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)," but they have been notable primarily for their sentimentality and jingoism, superficial treatments of a complex subject ("I watch CNN but I'm not sure I can tell you/the difference in Iran and Iraq," Jackson's song declares).
Oddly, the most substantive commentaries on the state of the post-Sept. 11 nation were all written before the date, albums that seem to presage our anxiety: Wilco's "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot," Bob Dylan's "Love and Theft," Natalie Merchant's "Motherland" and David Bowie's "Heathen."
Though Bruce Springsteen's marketing campaign for his latest album, "The Rising," suggested that it was written in response to Sept. 11, the one song on the disc that seems to speak most directly about the tragedy -- "My City of Ruins" -- was actually written before the date. The loss-and-redemption songs on the rest of the disc are oblique enough that they could apply to almost any tragic situation.
In contrast, Steve Earle's forthcoming album, "Jerusalem," includes the song "John Walker's Blues," written from the perspective of the American arrested for joining the Taliban. "Lately I feel like the loneliest man in America," Earle writes in a note accompanying pre-release copies of the album.
He is certainly alone as an artist in his willingness to confront Sept. 11 in something other than the guise of flag-waving patriot or bereaved victim.
It is a state of affairs that Bowie, the British rocker who now lives in Manhattan with his family, finds disquieting. Earle's song is "what you'd expect from a generation of songwriters who are very prolific and very vocal in every other area," Bowie says. "But that's the first song like this I've heard of. It's very odd. It strikes me as interesting that there has been no questioning of American administration policy, subsequent to Sept. 11, which you would expect from a young, rebellious music form. If there is another side to these events, and I think there is, it hasn't been expressed."
He's right. Throughout the last half-century, popular music -- rock, R&B, country -- has played a crucial role in fomenting debate and raising consciousness about world events. But Sept. 11 has not perceptibly changed how artists have approached their art in the year since, and has yet to inspire music that has defined the times in the way Neil Young's "Ohio" did the Vietnam era or Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready" the civil-rights struggle. As Bowie says of his fellow artists: "Where is everybody?"
The same might be said for listeners. Since Sept. 11, record sales have dropped sharply, down 13 percent to 365 million compared to last year. While the top 50 tours in the first half of the year pulled in $538 million in revenue, up 17 percent, overall ticket sales were down 3 percent to 10.6 million.
Meanwhile, average ticket prices continued to soar, up $4 to $50. "The industry was badly hit right after Sept. 11, but overall sales aren't down because of that," says Gary Bongiovanni, editor of tour industry watchdog Pollstar. "Sales are down because of the economy, and trying to sell more a expensive product in a down economy."