[Hype Hype Hooray] How 9/11 Changed Rock ‘n’ Roll, Part 2

Jamie normally snarks on the music industry and the indie blog scene, but for the next three installments he will explore how the attacks on September 11 changed the course of rock music (note: he’s not talking about pop music, just rock). I know it’s about 9/11, but don’t get all weird about it, ok?

Who the Hell Remembers The Concert For New York City?

Remember Alien Ant Farm’s “Smooth Criminal?” It held the number one spot on the Modern Rock chart on September 11. As we watched and re-watched scenes of those planes flying into the World Trade Center, somewhere in the back of our heads was that little kid from the video, moonwalking in a surgical mask.

A week and a half later, the song was appropriately replaced by Nickelback’s “How You Remind Me.”

As America mourned the tragedies in New York, Washington D.C. and Pennsylvania, rock music took a hard left turn away from the slick style of 1999, and landed right in the arms of all those sad, emotional “post-grunge” bands. This is how we ended up listening to “How You Remind Me” for AN ENTIRE DECADE.

In fact, Nickleback’s ode to shitty relationships was one of the biggest songs of all time. It conquered the Modern Rock chart, the Mainstream Rock chart and even the Hot 100. It’s estimated that, from it’s release in July 2001 through 2009, “How You Remind Me” was played about 1.2 million times, making it the most-played in the decade.

But while we drowned our post-9/11 sorrows with hearty choruses of “yeahhh-aah, yeahhh-aah,” the world’s top musicians were busy organizing a little shindig for the police and firefighters of New York. That shindig was called The Concert For New York City, and it was one of the biggest musical gatherings in modern history.

Don’t really remember much about it? You’re not alone. An informal poll of musically-inclined friends of mine shows that almost everybody has little to no recollection of the event. (The exception was Aaron, who for some reason has always had a copy of the live recording.) It’s strange, because the biggest names in music all played the show. Rolling Stone even named it one of the “50 Moments That Changed the History of Rock and Roll.”

To help jog your memory, I’m going to give you the names of just a few performers: Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, The Who, Jay-Z, Elton John, Janet Jackson, David Bowie, The Backstreet Boys, Destiny’s Child, John Mellencamp, Jon Bon Jovi, even Macy Gray. Celebrity appearances included the likes of Bill Clinton, Leonardo DiCaprio, Harrison Ford and even Adam Sandler as Operaman, singing about cutting off Osama bin Laden’s balls.

Yet, a lot of people don’t remember any of this–more people could probably tell you the lineup from Bonaroo 2008. The concert wasn’t a part of reality for many Americans, it was just the punctuation mark at the end of a horrible nightmare. The answer to why nobody remembers The Concert For New York City might simply be that we all blacked it out–like a drunken night of karaoke at the end of a bad day.

One of the most emotional moments of that whole 9/11 aftermath was during that show, watching these police officers and firefighters, crying with their families while singing along to Five For Fighting’s performance of “Superman (It’s Not Easy).”

That song’s message spoke right to the heart of a broken, but proud, America. This is a description ripped straight from the song’s Wikipedia page: “an ordinary man’s struggles to understand himself, to live up to expectations, and fulfill his responsibilities, even while he is aware of how much greater his responsibilities are.” In that moment, that was it. That was the feeling. Americans were angry, sad and confused, and we wanted to go and DO something about it.

In the world of military, that something was an eventual war in Iraq, but in the world of music, it was an onslaught of emotional rock music. The next year, we heard depressing singles from Puddle of Mudd (“Blurry”), Linkin Park (“In the End”), Godsmack (“I Stand Alone”), and System of a Down (“Aerials”). We endured an entire summer to the tune of “Hero” by Chad Kroeger and Josey Scott. The industry pumped steroids into the post-grunge genre and collected big on our emotions.

The only thing that came remotely close to breaking up the sadness was the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “By the Way.” And that’s a pretty sad song. Suddenly, rock music had a new face. Instead of burning out, the post-grunge scene was doused in flammables.

And so began the decade-long American rock obsession with sadness and anger. Modern rock radio was no longer a place to turn to for a fun time, it was a place to go to vent your emotions. It was a place where some Americans (especially younger, male Americans) could turn to for some comfort–as weird as that might sound.

As the music industry began to evolve over the rest of the decade, labels dug in deeper. They quickly realized that this whole sad rock scene was their last hope. As the world they once knew began to crumble beneath their feet, the post-grunge phenomenon became a place to hunker down. It was easy, it was popular and, most of all, it made some serious cash.

Next week: The Lucrative Death of Mainstream Rock

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

5 comments to [Hype Hype Hooray] How 9/11 Changed Rock ‘n’ Roll, Part 2

  • Abbyross4

    Hmm. This is a great look at the evolution of popular music, Jamie. I must say that I can’t immediately recall any of the songs you mentioned as busting up the charts post-9/11. Largely because I never listened to the radio at that point and avoided MTV. Of course, I know the names of the bands and I would know the songs if I heard them surely, but titles…erm, not so much. Guess I was concentrating on too much Interpol and …Trail of Dead roundabout that time. Question: were you listening to mainstream radio regularly at that point in your life? If so, when did you switch gears? Super curious. Nice work.

    Jamie Hale Reply:

    Ohhhh man, well bear in mind I was in the midst of my teenage angst years while this was going down, and this was also the time before satellite radio. I heard mainstream rock radio on the bus to school, in friends’ parents’ cars and in my dad’s truck whenever Led Zeppelin or Queen came on the classic rock station (which was a lot).

    That said, I was avidly against this scene from the start. Back in ’99 I was all about Smash Mouth and the Offspring and Green Day—I liked my music to mostly be enjoyable. So despite my constant exposure to these bands, I opted for groups like The Hives, The White Stripes and The Strokes, rock bands that made good music.

    One could say that mainstream rock’s turn for the depressing forced me into the indie scene for solace. I think that’s true for a lot of people, actually.

  • indiemusicpromo

    Really liked this piece, Jamie. Myself, I have a slightly different take. I’d say a lot of the bands you mentioned, and some you didn’t (Korn) don’t really have “authentic” emotions of any kind in their music, but rather aim for a demographic that wants a certain type of mindless jam or frequency. It’s just commercial music, plain and simple. Like with any underground movement, the original “grunge” acts, at least most of them, had some real emotion and grit in their music. 

    With Nickelback, I think it’s all business. Let’s sell units. The people who got swept up by Default, Nickelback, Puddle of Mudd, etc are probably the same folks who get swept up by Justin Bieber today. To me, it’s not just the mood but whether the mood is real or not. For example, Radiohead and Opeth play very dark, depressing music, but it’s excellent for their genres. I think the main gripe here is the heavy promotion and force-feeding of “faux” emotions. We know something’s off when we hear it – it sounds like it wants to be true but it’s so far from it. Bottom line – more people are getting sick of music that’s not honest.

    Jamie Hale Reply:

    Ah! And of course that is one of the biggest criticisms. It’s an unspoken reason in this piece about why critics don’t respect these bands. I largely feel that way on a critical level, but it’s interesting to listen to a Nickleback fan talk about the band (I had the pleasure with one drunken fan in Idaho last summer).

    To the fans of this music (and there are A LOT of them), the songs come with very real emotions. It’s odd, because what sounds corny and fake to critics somehow sounds raw and powerful to them. The rock industry has done a fantastic job catering to this particular audience and spoon-feeding them exactly what they want.

    I don’t want to say too much, because this is pretty much where I’ll be going with Part 3, so come back and check it out in two weeks. 

    indiemusicpromo Reply:

    Awesome, I’ll keep checking then.