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.

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DJRob