The Popular Culture of 9/11: A Look Back and a Current Assessment on the 5th Anniversary (Part 1)

This article is dedicated to the victims of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks of September 11, 2001.

Everyone copes with tragedy in their own way. I am a student of media history and popular culture, and so part of how I cope with tragedy (as well as many other things) is by attempting to understand it through the prisms of media history and popular culture. And so, as we recognize the 5th anniversary of the attacks of September 11, 2001, I offer this analysis of how the tragedy has been reflected in American popular culture.


On the morning of September 11, 2001, two planes crashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, one plane hitting each tower. Not long after, another plane crashed into the Pentagon building in Washington, DC. A fourth plane crashed in a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Later that morning, the two WTC towers collapsed in a thunderous quake that shook not only the island of Manhattan, but also the entirety of the American nation.

We soon learned that the planes were hijacked by terrorists belonging to an international terror organization called al-Qaida, which was based in Afghanistan and led by the nefarious Osama bin Laden. We learned that the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania was supposed to be flown into the U.S. Capitol and failed in that goal only because passengers learned of the earlier crashes and courageously fought back against the terrorists. We also learned that the attacks were orchestrated to disrupt American commerce and government and inflict the maximum possible symbolic damage, with the physical destruction, including the thousands of deaths, merely a corollary to that goal.

Unfortunately, the terrorists succeeded in disrupting American life, at least temporarily. Airports were closed and airplanes grounded countrywide for nearly a week after the attacks. A siege mentality gripped the nation for a week or two in the tragedy's aftermath, as the uncertainty of what was happening and the spectre of potential follow-up attacks led some citizens to stockpile food, gasoline, and emergency supplies. Businesses, national landmarks, and schools across the land either closed for a few days or witnessed drastic alterations to their normal routines.

In New York and Washington, the circumstances were more dire. Washingtonians lived for days (if not weeks, and to a certain extent still do) realizing that their home was now a giant target for those who sought to destroy America. (I have a friend who lives in DC and has often referred since to his city as the "Big Bullseye.") New York City, where the destruction was more severe and widespread, sifted through the rubble of the WTC and saved precious few of the thousands who were trapped. NYC leaders, especially Mayor Rudy Guiliani, responded compassionately, resourcefully, and effectively. Although death tolls were thought initially to surpass 5,000, the final count was in the vicinity of 3,000--still 3,000 too many.

All of the above is well-known, and I recount it to refresh our memories of the context of what happened on 9/11 and in the immediate aftermath. Although much less important, the entertainment and popular culture that Americans enjoy so much was also affected by the attacks of 9/11. This article (in two parts, today and tomorrow) will analyze and discuss the effects of 9/11 on American popular culture. The remainder of this part will discuss popular culture in the immediate and short-term aftermath of the attacks; tomorrow's installment will look at more recent 9/11-related developments, including discussions of this year's two motion pictures on the attacks, "United 93" and "World Trade Center."

Although news coverage of the attacks is outside the purview of this article, I cannot proceed without at least mentioning the role that the news media played in the days following the attacks. Similar to how network television news came of age with the Kennedy assassination in 1963 and how cable televsion news came of age with the Persian Gulf War in 1991, Internet news coverage matured on September 11, 2001. Although television news (network and cable) remained the primary means by which Americans learned of the attacks and followed the aftermath, most people supplemented that viewing with news updates, in-depth reportage, and images found on the websites of TV networks and print periodicals. For those interested in revisiting this online coverage, there is a detailed and fascinating archive of all forms of news reportage from 9/11 called "September 11 News.com." (In addition to the archive of webpages from 9/11/01, the site has screen grabs from news coverage and facsimiles of the front pages of dozens of newspapers and magazines from that day and the days following.)

Some Americans even first learned of the terrorist attacks through online means. I happen to be one of these people. Like everyone, I will never forget how I first found out about 9/11: I was chatting with a friend through instant messaging. As I did many mornings that fall, I woke up and logged onto my chat service. A regular chat friend IM'd me and asked me if I had heard about the attacks. I had not, and after a short briefing from my chat buddy, I turned on the TV set and switched my news consumption to more traditional forms.

My experience is probably not unique; the significance of it lies in the new prominance of online forms of communication. I come from a large extended family, several members of whom live in the NYC and DC areas. Not long before 9/11, a family web group had been started, and that day it was busy with messages both from those who lived near the attacks letting the family know that they were alright and from those expressing concern about their safety. These personal anecdotes of mine serve simply as examples of how 9/11 caused online communication to become a force in American popular culture.

To the greatest extent, in the days immediately following 9/11, most forms of American entertainment and popular culture came to a halt. Movie theatres, if they were open at all, sat largely empty. Broadway plays stopped performances and left their marquees dark in tribute to the victims in their city. Every major sports league cancelled games for a number of days. TV's Emmy awards, scheduled for a few days after the attacks, were postponed--twice, after the attacks and then again when the rescheduled date fell only a day or two after the retaliatory invasion of Afghanistan in early-October. Television networks of all kinds suspended regular programming in favor of news coverage of the tragedies. Even non-news channels carried news coverage from sister networks; MTV and VH1, for example, carried CBS news coverage (all three owned by parent company Viacom). When regular programming did resume after a few days, some programs did not return until several days later.

Perhaps the most well-known and respected return to normalcy was that of "The Late Show with David Letterman." Letterman's first broadcast after the attacks, on September 17, has become almost as historic as the news coverage of the tragedies. The normal opening credits sequence and raucous band fanfare was replaced with the simple image of an American flag that dissolved to an already-seated Letterman. The host then gave a heartfelt and emotional noncomic monologue in which he expressed dismay and disbelief at the attacks, expressed on behalf of New Yorkers the palpable sadness that permeated the city, and stated that that he needed to hear himself talk for a while if the show and those of subsequent nights were to continue. Letterman's two guests that night added to the show's solemn yet determined tone. Then-CBS News anchor Dan Rather wept as he tried to discuss the attacks. Regular guest Regis Philbin served as he often did for Letterman, as the amiable foil to Letterman's now-guarded repartee.

Once television and popular culture in all its forms returned to activity, small and sometimes subtle tributes to 9/11 could be found. Television programs featured muted signs of respect to the fallen, usually in the form of an "FDNY" or "NYPD" t-shirt or logo in the background, or similar such touches. For the remainder of the baseball season, the uniforms of major league baseball players from all teams sported a tribute patch (seen in the image at the beginning of this article). In other places, the attacks affected plans for future entertainment. Perhaps the most publicized example of this was with the teaser movie poster for "Spiderman" (to come out in summer '02); a planned poster featuring Spidey slinging his webs between the twin towers was recalled in the wake of the tragedy.

Popular recording artists responded in a number of ways to the terrorist attacks. The most high-profile example of this--an endeavor for which the popular music community was joined by the major television networks--was the telethon entitled "America: A Tribute to Heroes" that was broadcast on September 21, a mere ten days after 9/11. In a historic show of support, all the major networks simulcast the program, which included the participation of many actors presenting pledge-drive style appeals in between musical performances. Actors included George Clooney, Tom Hanks, Robert De Niro, Will Smith, Jim Carrey, Cameron Diaz, Robin Williams, Tom Cruise, Clint Eastwood, and Julia Roberts. Musicians included Stevie Wonder, U2, Faith Hill, Neil Young, Billy Joel, Limp Bizkit, Dixie Chicks, Dave Matthews, Paul Simon, Celine Dion, and Bruce Springsteen, who penned a new song, "My City of Ruins," for the broadcast and fundraising effort.

Additional efforts by recording artists followed in the months after 9/11. In the summer of 2002, Springsteen released a concept album called "The Rising" that expanded upon "My City of Ruins" and featured several songs that were inspired by the events of 9/11. Earlier in 2002, U2 offered a 9/11 tribute as part of their Super Bowl halftime performance. While U2 sang "MLK" and "Where the Streets Have No Name," the names of the victims of 9/11 were projected on a scrim behind the band (seen in the picture) and lead singer Bono dramatically revealed the American flag lining of his trademark leather jacket. While these tributes were liberal leaning, country music performers provided their own, more conservative tributes. Toby Keith released the song "Courtesy of the Red, White & Blue (The Angry American)," while Alan Jackson offered the more restrained "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)."

All of the 9/11-inspired pop culture that I have discussed thus far are very specific songs or events. A more generalized and vague effect followed the attacks as well. For some time after 9/11, engagement in entertainment and popular culture by fans was muted and restrained. Relishing in the tabloid details of celebrities' lives or enjoying the frivolity of mindless entertainment were thought in many cases to be inappropriate in light of the horror of the attacks. There was some chatter in the media about the "death of irony" in American mass culture, and the signalling of a shift in sensibilities on the part of large segments of the audience. These ideas turned out to be mere speculation on the part of media wags rather than reality in the lives of viewers or changes in strategy on the part of producers. One more substantive shift in media habits was the phenomenon of "cocooning" in which people opted to stay at home and watch television or rent DVDs in lieu of going out of the house for public entertainments, especially in those cities or areas where it was, in the months immediately following 9/11, sometimes still potentially hazardous to do so.

As far as a lasting effect on American popular culture, 9/11 faded from memory for the most part. Eventually, world events shifted away from the immediate concern for the terrorist threat and the changes it wrought on society. American entertainment did proceed with new movies and TV programs, new music and fads. The chief lingering legacy of 9/11 on American popular culture lies in the ways in which the story of that day has begun to be told in the various forms of media. Part two of this article tomorrow will discuss these ways with an emphasis on the movies "United 93" and "World Trade Center."

1 comment:

Fred said...

Not to rain on your parade my man, but "My City of Ruins" was actually written well before the 9/11 attacks. Lyrically it deals with the economic downturn of Springsteen's working-class Jersey milieu (did I spell that anywhere close to correct?). He performed it at the benefit, but did not write for it. Many, but by no means all, of the songs on "the Rising" were written in response to 9/11 and the changed world it brough about, but "My City of Ruins" is not one of them. Otherwise, nice piece.