20 years later: How America responded to 9/11–musically speaking; a look back at the songs that helped heal a nation

(September 9, 2021).  Music has a way of saying what many of us are feeling in ways that we cannot always express ourselves.  

Sometimes a song can even trigger emotions that we may be too stunned or numb to display in the moment of immediate anger or grief.  For instance, if the sight of watching the World Trade Center towers collapse on 9/11 knowing that thousands of people were still trapped inside didn’t spark tears, then hearing R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts” playing the following morning in a moment of reflection almost certainly would have.

In the immediate wake of 9/11 as U.S. radio stations shifted back to music programming from around-the-clock news coverage of the unfolding horrific attacks against America, they took on a new role: soother of a nation that badly needed healing.

Songs that were inspiring, poignant and largely patriotic began dotting the airwaves and eventually the Billboard charts as the music industry reacted to the attacks on NYC, Washington D.C. and Pennsylvania.  Tunes reflecting emotions ranging from sorrow and fear to pain and anger became the soundtrack for our recovery from the worst terrorist attack on American soil in our nation’s history.

Clockwise from top left: Alan Jackson, Lee Greenwood, Alicia Keys, Enya, Michael Stipe (of R.E.M.), Toby Keith, Jay-Z and Whitney Houston (all flanking an image of the World Trade Center Towers at center)

In the early hours and throughout the day of 9/11, many radio stations had abandoned their regular formats after the planes struck the World Trade Center towers and The Pentagon, and when the fourth plane crashed in a wooded area in Shanksville, PA after heroic attempts by passengers to thwart the terrorists’ plans to target either the White House or the U.S. Capitol building, according to later U.S. Intelligence reports.   

Regarding the day of the attack, Billboard reported that Broadcast Data Systems (now Nielsen MRC Data) detected an astonishing 50% drop in the number of songs played on 9/11.  The following day showed 26% fewer plays than the average daily sum.  

As the week progressed, radio stations slowly returned to regular music programming.  Songs with titles or themes that were considered insensitive or deemed inappropriate (like Neil Diamond’s immigration-friendly “America”) were largely avoided or even banned, particularly with pop and country radio as patriotic sentiment took over.

A prominent example of that patriotism occurred in the Windy City, itself feared to be a target that day, where the Radio Broadcasters of Chicago observed a moment of silence on Sept. 14 at 11:59 am before stations simultaneously played Ray Charles’ classic version of “America The Beautiful.”  

Even some non-patriotic songs took on new significance in the wake of the tragedy.  According to an article that ran in Billboard the following week, songs like Michael Jackson’s “Heal The World” (from his 1991 Dangerous album) and R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts” (from their 1992 opus Automatic for the People) generated huge listener response on the day after the attacks.

Other pop-rock songs like Don Henley’s “New York Minute” (from 1989’s The End of the Innocence) and Collective Soul’s “The World I Know” (from their 1995 self-titled album) were cited as examples that captured the emotions of one Billboard writer in particular as he recalled his radio listening experience in the days after the attacks.  The Verve’s introspective 1998 anthem “Bitter Sweet Symphony” took on even more poignancy in the aftermath of the attacks.  

According to Billboard, other sentimental songs that saw immediate bumps in radio play after 9/11 included Sarah McLaughlin’s “Angel” and “I Will Remember You,” Garth Brooks’ “The Dance” and “If Tomorrow Never Comes,” Eric Clapton’s “Tears In Heaven” and Bette Midler’s “From A Distance”—a song whose lengthy 1990-91 chart run had been aided by sentiment leading up to the first Gulf War (January 1991).

Delayed chart reaction…

The Billboard charts themselves were a bit of a conundrum in September 2001 from a historical perspective.  As a quirk of the calendar and how the charts were pre-dated, 9/11 occurred on the Tuesday during a week in which Billboard’s September 15 edition had already been published.  Accordingly, that issue’s charts reflected sales and radio activity from two weeks prior to the attacks.  It’s notable that radio and sales (CD, cassette and whatever vinyl was still available) were the chart’s only components at the time—streaming and (legal) digital downloads weren’t yet factors in 2001.

Even the following week’s Sept. 22 issue covered radio/sales activity through Sunday Sept. 9 and did not yet reflect any of 9/11’s impact.  So while the charts for the week ending Sept. 15 will always be cited by historians as the ones that were “in effect” when 9/11 occurred, it wasn’t until the issue dated Sept. 29 that 9/11 actually began to impact Billboard’s lists.

Artwork for Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA”

That impact was prominently reflected in the song that people turned to most in the wake of the attacks: Lee Greenwood’s 1984 single “God Bless the U.S.A.,” which entered the Hot 100 for the first time at No. 16 on Sept. 29, instantly becoming Greenwood’s biggest pop chart hit.

It was joined by Whitney Houston’s classic rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner,” which had peaked ten years earlier at No. 20 in the wake of the first Gulf War.  Arista Records decided to capitalize on the moment and re-released the single to stores on Sept. 25, which prompted a climb to a new peak of No. 6 the following month.  The song ultimately spent an additional 16 weeks on the chart.

Several newer songs also made strides on the Hot 100 chart in 9/11’s wake.  Enya’s “Only Time” moved from No. 27 to 18, instantly surpassing “Orinoco Flow” as her biggest hit (“Time” ultimately peaked at No. 10), and Enrique Iglesias’ “Hero” debuted at No. 44 en route to a No. 3 peak.  U2’s eerily and accurately titled “Stuck In a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of” entered the chart at No. 62 that week (it only got as high as No. 52).

Enya’s “Only Time” became her biggest hit in the wake of 9/11

In the second full week of impacts (the charts dated Oct. 6, 2001), a remake of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” by a group billed as All Star Tribute entered the Hot 100 at No. 50.  This superstar ensemble had been organized by U2’s Bono as an AIDS benefit and included some of the day’s hottest acts such as Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Destiny’s Child, Nelly, Fred Durst, Jennifer Lopez, Ja Rule, P. Diddy, Gwen Stefani, Alicia Keys, the Backstreet Boys and others.  Despite its AIDS epidemic focus, many fans associated the tune with the traumatic events that had just occurred, which helped its initial chart profile.  It leaped to its No. 27 peak the following week before quickly trailing off.

Country music saw the biggest impact 

When it came to patriotism in music, it was mostly country acts—not surprisingly—who got into the spirit, or at least benefited from it.  Aaron Tippin’s “Where the Stars and the Stripes and the Eagle Fly” entered the Hot 100 chart in October at No. 66 on its way to a No. 20 peak.  Brooks and Dunn’s already-charting “Only In America” saw a rebound to a No. 33 peak on the Hot 100.

Country superstar Faith Hill—already in her prime in terms of chart performance—had several winners on the charts in 9/11’s wake.  Her version of “The Star Spangled Banner” entered the country chart at No. 35 in that Sept. 29 Billboard issue.  Her “There Will Come A Day” re-entered the country chart at No. 45, and her poignant top-10 Hot 100 hit “There You’ll Be” rebounded and re-bulleted on that chart at No. 75.

Toby Keith

“Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)” by country’s Toby Keith wasn’t as immediate a reaction as people might have assumed in retrospect.  It didn’t surface on the charts until the following June when it debuted at No. 73 on the all-genre Hot 100 on its way to a No. 25 peak.  It got as high as No. 1 on the country charts, ironically during the weekend of July 4, 2002.

The song—which had been partially inspired by the death of Keith’s father earlier in 2001–also embodied the anger of many Americans still scarred by the attacks some nine months after they occurred, while the war in Afghanistan was in its infancy.  Keith has said that his main inspiration for the song, the lyrics of which were chided by some as ignorant and boorish, were the troops who were fighting that war in particular. 

Perhaps the most eloquent of country’s contributions was Alan Jackson’s “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning),” a song the country superstar specifically wrote and recorded to capture the sentiment and reaction to the 9/11 attacks.  Released just two months later on Nov. 7, the critically acclaimed “Where Were You” eventually peaked at No. 28 on the Hot 100 and, perhaps more importantly, topped the country list for five weeks.

Alan Jackson debuted “Where Were You” at the CMA Awards on November 7, 2001

The poignant tune had earned Jackson praise for its apolitical, non-vengeful approach to the topic, with lyrics that simply pondered a number of different scenarios people might have found themselves in when they first learned of the attacks…something anyone of cognitive age at the time would likely remember for the rest of their lives.  “Where Were You” earned Jackson multiple awards the following year, including Song of the Year at the Country Music Association awards and Best Country Song at the 2002 Grammys.

Driven by the immense connection of “Where Were You” to many still-grieving fans, Drive—the song’s parent album—became Jackson’s first chart-topper on the Billboard 200, spending five weeks at No. 1 on that chart.

A change at the top… 

In the first weeks following 9/11, the top of the all-genre Hot 100 singles chart seemed to be impacted as well, if not by a song that was contextually tied to the tragedy.

Prior to 9/11, the premiere chart’s No. 1 song had been by Jennifer Lopez—a smash remix of her hip-hop hit “I’m Real” featuring a rap by uncredited rising star Ja Rule.  Waiting in the wings at No. 2 was Alicia Keys’ smash debut ballad, “Fallin’,” which had already spent three weeks at No. 1 prior to Lopez’ hit.  Driven by its melancholic piano arrangement and even more somber lyrics featuring a forlorn protagonist, “Fallin’” returned to No. 1 in the first chart registering 9/11’s impact (dated 9/29) and remained there for three weeks, giving Keys one of the longest-running No. 1 songs of 2001.

“Fallin’” by Alicia Keys returned to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the wake of 9/11

Despite its lack of 9/11 relevance and subject matter that was clearly about an unrequited love interest, Keys’ “Fallin’” had a title that was ironically and unwittingly connected to the tragic events that had just transpired and a mood to go with that of the country’s, making it a near shoo-in for that return to the top.

Several high-profile albums were released on 9/11

Notwithstanding the country’s mood and the obvious disruption that 9/11 created for the music industry (and U.S. retailers in general), that Tuesday also happened to be new album-release day (now albums are released on Fridays).  

As such, several high-profile albums were released on 9/11 and had already hit stores before the attacks occurred.  Key among these were two albums considered to be the career zenith and nadir (at the time) for the two superstar artists involved.

On that day, Jay-Z released his sixth studio album, The Blueprint, which has since been lauded by many critics as his best.  The multi-platinum set has repeatedly appeared on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time (currently ranked No. 50) and contained classics like “Izzo (H.O.V.A.),” “Jigga,” “Girls, Girls, Girls,” “Takeover” (the Nas diss) and “Song Cry.”  The album debuted at No. 1 on September 29 with more than 440,000 copies sold on 9/11 and the ensuing days during the tracking period.

On the other hand, Mariah Carey’s much-panned movie soundtrack album Glitter was also released that day.  Critics largely viewed it as the worst of her eight studio albums released to date, and fans largely agreed.  The album debuted at No. 7 on the Billboard 200 on September 29 with just 116,000 copies sold (most artists would love that figure today).

At the time, Mariah blamed the “poor” sales week on 9/11 and claimed that critics were quick to criticize her for something largely beyond her control.  What didn’t help her case was that five(!) other albums had debuted higher than hers that week, including Jay-Z’s album that had sold nearly four times as much, plus releases by Nickelback, Fabolous, and Bob Dylan.

Despite this career low-point, Carey—who had also been experiencing some personal mental well-being issues—ultimately dug deep within to contribute to the 9/11 recovery effort with a song originally recorded for Glitter.  The ballad “Never Too Far” was mashed-up with her 1994 smash “Hero” for a medley that was released by her then-new label Virgin Records as a single.

Mariah stated that the song had been an outgrowth of reactions she’d received from fans at different charity events where she’d sung the two tunes. She stated that the song’s proceeds would go to the Heroes Fund, which specifically benefited families of police officers and relief workers who had responded to 9/11.

And the biggest irony,…

This blog is not known for allowing irony to go unnoticed and, as such, it’s worth pointing out that both Jay-Z and Mariah Carey have had many great career fortunes since they simultaneously released albums on 9/11.  

In fact, Jay and Mimi now happen to be the two solo artists with the most No. 1 albums (14) and singles (19) on the Billboard 200 and Hot 100 charts, respectively.  They both trail only one act—the same act—in these two categories: the Beatles who, with 19 No. 1 albums and 20 No. 1 singles, still rule the roost on both charts to this day.

Despite their seemingly diametrically opposed career directions at the time, Jay-Z and Mariah, as well as the many other artists discussed in this article and beyond, played a huge role in helping to heal a nation and return it to a sense of normalcy, as then-President George W. Bush had urged the country to do. 

And now, twenty years after 9/11, we remember the unspeakable tragedy that befell this nation, and we honor those Americans that perished or who were seriously impacted by the attacks.  

In many ways we all were impacted, and music was one of the ways we got through it all.

Whitney Houston’s rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” returned to prominence in 9/11’s wake

As a bonus treat, here’s a special Spotify playlist of all the songs mentioned in this article—songs that played a big part in the recovery of a wounded nation.

DJRob 

DJRob (he/him/his) is a freelance music blogger from somewhere on the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff!  You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog.

You can also register for free (below) to receive notifications of future articles.

DJRob

Two longstanding Billboard chart milestones are toppled in the same week…and both previous record-holders were alive to see it happen

(November 25, 2021).  Like dominoes, they both came tumbling down—first “American Pie” and then “The Twist”—two iconic pop songs that have been American institutions for half a century or more.  They both abandoned their posts of having owned two significant chart feats for as long as Billboard has been tracking such things with two announcements that came within 24 hours of one another this week.

From “American Pie” to “All Too Well (Taylor’s Version)”

First, on Monday (11/22), Billboard announced its latest weekly Hot 100 chart (dated November 27) and the crowning of a new No. 1 song–Taylor Swift’s “All Too Well (Taylor’s Version)”—a tune whose longest version clocks at more than ten minutes in duration.

Various versions of Taylor Swift’s “All Too Well (Taylor’s Version)” combine to make it the new No. 1 on the latest Hot 100 chart

By reaching the top spot, Swift’s hit—a re-recording of the song that first appeared on her original Red album in 2012–instantly becomes the longest No. 1 song in Hot 100 history.  Its 10 minutes and 12 seconds exceeds the run time of Don McLean’s classic “American Pie,” whose eight minutes and 42 seconds made it the prior longest-running No. 1 hit—a distinction it held for nearly 50 years (it reached the top in January 1972).

As if Taylor needed yet another record to break while she records (and re-records) albums at a breakneck pace, “All Too Well (Taylor’s Version)” is just one of 26 songs Swift places on this week’s chart—all from her new Red (Taylor’s Version) album—which establishes a new record for females on the Hot 100 (a record that Taylor previously held with 18 songs and which was tied by R&B singer Summer Walker just last week).

But the “American Pie” milestone is more significant, not only because it took nearly 50 years to break, but because the Don McLean hit has long been considered a slice of Americana and one of the greatest songs ever written.  Its long-debated lyrics chronicle the historical and cultural shifts in America beginning with “the day the music died” (or the 1959 plane crash that killed early rock-and-rollers Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper) and culminating in the late 1960s with the death of a Black man named Meredith Hunter during a Rolling Stones performance at the Altamont Free Concert in 1969.  It took all of eight minutes and 42 seconds just to cover those events plus a lot of cryptic references in between, the sources of which have been fodder for debate for decades.

On the other hand, Taylor’s new old hit has long been a fan favorite and one whose time has finally come—she not only extended the track by five minutes but she performed the longer version of “All Too Well (TV)” on SNL the day after the album was released, which no doubt boosted its already large profile.   Beyond her Swifties and chart geeks like yours truly, not many people would elevate “All Too Well” to the cultural importance that “American Pie” has attained (it is included in the Library of Congress for its historical and cultural significance).

The 45-rpm vinyl record picture sleeve for Don McLean’s 1971 hit, “American Pie”

Now, for those naysayers who think the current champ is solely benefiting from a chart quirk that allows multiple versions of a song to count as one, and that Taylor’s new shorter version of “All Too Well (Taylor’s Version)”—which clocks at only 5:29–also contributed to its No. 1 post, you’d be correct.  

I’d remind you, however, that McLean’s “American Pie” single (the vinyl, 45 rpm variety that was a Hot 100 prerequisite back in the days when “Pie” charted) only accommodated half the song on its A-side and the other half on its flip, due to technology limitations.  While classic rock stations and some pop ones took a chance in programming the full-length, 8-minute opus, many pop stations only played the 4-minute single edit upon its initial release. 

So, one could make the same argument that “Pie” gained additional popularity by virtue of a radio-friendly short version that no doubt exposed it to a much larger audience than the long version alone would have, just as Taylor’s latest chart topper has benefited from both long and short versions made available to consumers.

And for the record, singer/songwriter Don McLean, who has jokingly dismissed the cultural significance of “American Pie” by stating it merely means that he “never has to work again if he doesn’t want to,” has acknowledged Taylor’s latest achievement with the following tweet: “Let’s face it, nobody ever wants to lose that #1 spot, but if I had to lose it to somebody, I sure am glad it was another great singer/songwriter such as Taylor.”

From “The Twist” to “Blinding Lights”

The second history-changing event was announced on Tuesday (11/23) when Billboard unveiled its updated list of the top Hot 100 songs in the chart’s history.  And as predicted in this blog several months ago, the new chart king is “Blinding Lights” by Canadian pop superstar The Weeknd.

The Weeknd

“Blinding Lights” is the only new add to an all-time top 10 that was last refreshed in 2018.  It leads a list that includes only two songs that were recorded before 1990: Chubby Checker’s “The Twist”—which now sits at No. 2–and Bobby Darin’s “Mack The Knife,” now at No. 4.  The next oldest song in the top 10 is “Macarena (Bayside Boys Mix),” which topped the Hot 100 for 14 weeks in 1996.  The two other 20th-century tunes in the all-time top 10 are LeAnn Rimes’ “How Do I Live” (from 1997) and Santana’s “Smooth,” featuring Rob Thomas (1999).

So ubiquitous was “Blinding Lights” while it was charting that it might have remained on the weekly Hot 100 even longer had it not been for recent blockbuster album releases by superstars Kanye West and Drake, each of whom saw their latest albums generate 21 or more simultaneously charting songs that helped push older hits off the list.  It was the debut of songs from West’s Donda that finally pushed “Lights” off the Hot 100 in September.

Even The Weeknd’s own attempts to launch a new era (with the release of his latest single “Take My Breath”) was met with some resistance from folks not ready to declare an end to the era of “Blinding Lights” and its parent album, After Hours.  “Take My Breath” sits at No. 99 on the current Hot 100 chart, in only its fourth month of release.  “Blinding Lights” would likely be ranked higher than “Breath” even today if the former were still eligible to chart (old songs of its vintage are retired from the list once they fall below No. 25).

“Blinding Lights” only spent four weeks at No. 1 in spring 2020, but totaled an improbable, record-breaking 90 weeks on the Hot 100, while slashing records for time spent in the top five (43 weeks), top ten (57), and top 40 (86).

Here is the new list of the ten biggest Hot 100 hits in the chart’s 63-year history (it was launched in August 1958):

RankSongArtistPeak Year
1.“Blinding Lights”The Weeknd2020
2.“The Twist”Chubby Checker 1960/62
3.“Smooth”Santana ft. Rob Thomas 1999/2000
4.“Mack The Knife”Bobby Darin1959
5.“Uptown Funk”Mark Ronson ft. Bruno Mars2015
6.“How Do I Live”LeAnn Rimes 1997
7.“Party Rock Anthem”LMFAO ft. Lauren Bennett and GoonRock2012
8.“I Gotta Feeling”The Black Eyed Peas2009
9.“Macarena (Bayside Boys Mix)”Los Del Rio1996
10.Shape of You”Ed Sheeran 2017
Source: Billboard magazine’s tally of the biggest Hot 100 hits (as of November 23, 2021)

While no word has been heard from Chubby Checker on his dethroning by The Weeknd, the 80-year-old rocker is quoted on his website as stating his standing at the top of the all-time Hot 100 list would remain until at least 2065, or more than a hundred years after “The Twist” made its mark in history.  He captioned a booking-ad post: “Billboard’s First #1 Song of All Time until 2065.”

Chubby Checker’s website features this ad

Like “The Twist” before it, “Blinding Lights” was that lightning in a bottle that only happens once in a lifetime, so Chubby can certainly be forgiven for believing his chart feat would endure beyond his own expected lifetime (he would be 124 years old in 2065).  Still there’s no shame in being No. 2…for now.

And for those of you wondering where the all-time No. 1 longevity champ “Old Town Road” ranks on the refreshed all-time Hot 100 list, it sits way down at No. 41. While the Lil Nas X song spent an incredible 19 weeks at No. 1 in 2019, its relatively short time on the chart outside of the No. 1 spot meant that it didn’t accumulate as many points overall as the songs ranked above it.

Congratulations to Taylor Swift and The Weeknd on their latest accomplishments, and to Don McLean and Chubby Checker for their formidable record-holders whose legacies are no less important than they were just a few days ago.

DJRob

DJRob (he/him) is a freelance music blogger from somewhere on the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff!  You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog.

You can also register for free (below) to receive notifications of future articles.