On the Unifying Power of Angry 9/11 Songs: "It's Like Attending a Memorial"

Toby Keith at Shoreline last month.

It's a scene that's played out innumerable times since 2002 -- and with the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11 here, it will now be executed with even more patriotic fervor and bicep-flexing machismo. Behold, a Stetson-wearing, sleeveless Toby Keith, his American flag-emblazoned guitar gripped like it's a service rifle, delivering the money shot of his "Courtesy of the Red, White, & Blue (The Angry American)" to a roughhouse, flag-toting crowd:

"We'll put a boot in your ass / It's the American way!"

A decade on, the country star's crossover hit has become one of the most well-known pop tunes associated with 9/11. Like other songs that tapped into the nation's raw, collective anger, "Courtesy" was profoundly polarizing. Keith was either articulating thoughts many Americans were afraid to share or merely getting his jingoistic rocks off. Some embraced his cowboy hero persona, particularly during a time when having heroes was vital. Others thought he should stick to writing Cheech & Chong-inspired stoner ditties.

Michelle Wolf, professor of broadcast and electronic communication arts at San Francisco State University, says the anger expressed by Keith and other artists is easily traceable, one reason these songs -- despite their divisive qualities -- still resonate with listeners today.

"It's all about loss," she says. "We were violated as a nation on that day. These songs are expressing the anger that comes from that loss and anger is often easier to express than other emotions.

"For many people, the memory of 9/11 is always there. Naturally, it's going to vary by region. In New York, for example, there are many sites of mourning, as well as the visible reminders of what was lost. Regardless, the memory of that day will always remain, so these songs still generate a response in people."

During the summer of '02, one of the most explicit responses to "Courtesy" came from ABC News anchor Peter Jennings, who deemed the lyrics too incendiary for the network's July 4th special, which was expected to include a performance from the country singer-songwriter. (Jennings clearly wasn't thinking of the colossal "Oooh! Aaah!" potential in Keith belting out the line "We lit up your world like the Fourth of July!" while a hundred awesome fireworks exploded behind him.) Keith's riposte --"I find it interesting that he's not from the U.S." -- hinted at the idea that this tragedy wasn't up for the sharing, that 9/11 belongs solely to Americans simply because ... well, we're rather self-absorbed and think that everything belongs to us.

Another angry screed written in the tragedy's immediate aftermath explores this same concept: The Charlie Daniels Band's "This Ain't No Rag, It's a Flag" (released in November of 2001), which features a child reciting the Pledge of Allegiance over a sporting event-style chant of "U.S.A.!" Really, all that was missing was a group solemnly humming "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."

Anyway, Daniels does just as much sabre-rattling as Keith, spitting out couplets like "We're gonna hunt you down like a mad dog hound/Make you pay for the lives you stole" and "You can crawl back in your hole like a dirty little mole/But now it's time to pay the price." He proclaims the flag "a symbol of the land where the good guys live," imagery that hints at the kind of moral absolutism President Bush was often accused of. (The president delivered his famous "You're either with us or against us" quote the same month this song debuted.)

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Alan Scherstuhl
Alan Scherstuhl

I'm always fascinated by Alan Jackson's "Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning," which is the only 9/11 country radio hit that expressed true shock and confusion about what had happened. His confession that he's not quite clear about the difference "between Iraq and Iran" was criticized as know-nothingism, but I always heard it as a honest account of most Americans' geopolitical knowledge. The song is stunned, quiet, and entirely devoid of jingoism. 


The best song about the 9/11 tragedy without a doubt!!!!

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