On October 21, in a crammed stadium in the nation's capital, Michael
Jackson, Mariah Carey and members of 'NSYNC stood among a horde of pop stars
and sang a tribute to the victims of the worst terrorist attack in American
Twenty-four hours earlier, in another coliseum blocks from the most
horrendous mark of the tragedy in New York, Paul McCartney headlined a rock and roll
all-star jam that included the Rolling Stones, the Who, Eric Clapton and
dozens of others, many of whom joined the former Beatle on a song he had
just written in response to September 11.
Around the same time, Bono, Britney Spears, Fred Durst and others were
gathering at sound stages around the country filming the video for their
cover of Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On," a joint fundraising single for
victims of AIDS and the terrorist attacks.
And in record company offices on both coasts, representatives for Celine
Dion, Dave Matthews, Bruce Springsteen and others were putting together the
highly anticipated CD and DVD versions of the "America: A Tribute to Heroes"
telethon that captivated millions of viewers a month earlier.
It was less than six weeks after hijacked commercial airplanes crashed into
the twin towers, the Pentagon and in western Pennsylvania, and America was struggling to get back to a normal life. It was a time when people were looking for something powerful to turn to and a time when the music industry was preparing to give
it to them.
Fast forward not even four months later, and there is hardly a sign of
post-September 11 comforting anywhere on the radio or in the upper echelon
of the album charts.
Jackson's "What More Can I Give," touted at the time as his next "We Are the
World," and rightfully so considering the talent involved (see " 'NSYNC Join
Jackson's Charity Single; Mariah, Celine Sing In Spanish"), has yet to be released and may not ever see the light of day. Jackson's reps and publicists for those involved with the single referred calls to Epic Records, who did not return repeated messages about the status of the song.
"What's Going On," packaged as a glossy EP with nine versions (one for every
musical taste), has sold 228,000 copies. McCartney's "Freedom" sold only 23,000
copies. Disappointing numbers considering newcomer Christina Milian's "AM to
PM" single has sold 308,000 in a few months' more time. And at radio and
video formats, neither tribute song proved to be a major hit.
As for the double albums that came out of "America: A Tribute to Heroes"
(see "Mariah Carey, Springsteen, Other Stars Sing For America On Telethon") and McCartney's "The Concert
for New York City" (see "McCartney, Jagger, Bowie, The Who Come To NY's Aid"), their sales have been
surprisingly disappointing as well. The former has sold just fewer than
600,000 copies, the latter about 431,000.
The fact that there is more than one single and album to compare may be the
reason none have made a massive impact, according to Paul Fischer, assistant
professor in the recording industry department at Middle Tennessee State
"The overwhelming number of high-density, star-studded concerts and
fundraisers post-September 11 made it hard to single any one out as an
iconic Event with a capital 'E,' " Fischer said. "In that sense, none of them
stands the way 'We Are the World' or Band Aid's ['Do They Know It's Christmas?'] did as a marker of the time."
In the cases of those benefit singles, the issue at hand, famine in Africa,
was not as sudden and did not hit home quite the way September 11 did, which Fischer said also makes a difference. Not every world event lends itself the same way to musical tributes.
"The tragic events [of September 11] are so big and so close to home that
they resist celebrity gloss," he explained. "Things really are different
now. The world seems more serious and entertainment has, for many, retreated
to its traditional role as brief distraction from daily concerns, rather
than being the focus of daily concern."
Marc Pollac, a senior editor at radio trade magazine Hits, believes the
timing of the September 11 benefit songs and albums was off. "They just took
too long to come out," he said. "The concerts were like three weeks after
September 11 and the albums were months after."
Meanwhile, songs already recorded and/or released before September 11
provided listeners with the immediate comfort needed. Enrique Iglesias'
"Hero," Enya's "Only Time," Live's "Overcome" and John Mellencamp's "Peaceful World" in turn proved more popular than songs directly relating to the terrorist attacks.
"Like any song, people want to interpret what they want from it, and 'Hero'
seems to have been released at the right time," Pollac said. "I just don't
know how much the public really cares about 'What's Going On' and
Larry Grossberg, a professor of musicology at the University of North
Carolina, has his own theories about the post-September 11 tributes he feels
the records are not selling well because people do not want
to be reminded of the tragic events.
"It may also be the case that the emotions people have toward the events of
September 11 are too complicated to be captured in a pop song,"
Grossberg said. "One has to consider the limitations of what pop music can
do. Most of the music immediately released focused on either the sadness and
tragedy or the anger and war side of it. For the latter, while anti-war
songs are often successful, it is not so common in pop, and certainly, this
has not felt like a war, so the typical kind of war song is unlikely to
work. Patriotic appeals, more common to country and western, might and have.
"And, truth be told," Grossberg added, "I just don't think any of the songs
are particularly great. But it is probably more than that. This is an odd
tragedy close to home, yet removed. Too close for comfort, yet in need of
being distanced. A difficult task for a pop songwriter."
Releasing benefit singles and albums for September 11 has also been
difficult for record labels, Fischer said. "They don't want to appear to be
trying to capitalize on these events by creating material that intentionally
ties into people's still very raw emotions," he said.
"Hero" and the other examples like it, Fischer said, have fared far better
than anything post-September 11. "It is easier and safer if existing songs
are re-contextualized for their resonances with people's feelings," he
explained. "It seems more natural, more heartfelt. It's even better if that
is done somewhere away from the business decision-making machinery. Word of
mouth about stuff that feels right in these unsettled times spreads
If Jackson's "What More Can I Give" is released, or when other songs written
in the wake of what happened last fall hit the airwaves, there's no telling
if America will welcome them with open arms.
"It can't be forced, and it can't be faced too directly," Fischer advised.
"Most people are working to find their own comfortable places for dealing
with this. They don't want to be told how to cope. It's too unprecedented.
We're all fumbling along and feeling our ways to a new point of