Post-9/11 Tribute Albums And Singles: Big Plans, Not So Big Results

All-star remake of 'What's Going On,' McCartney's 'Freedom,' more suffer underwhelming sales.

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

history.

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

University.

"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

'Freedom.' "

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

quickly."

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

equilibrium."