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The events of September 11, 2001 were so shocking, so deeply unsettling that many Americans found them almost incomprehensible. The same could be said of the titans of American popular culture, who in the weeks immediately following the attacks struggled to determine what was — and what was not — acceptable.
Photo: MTV News
The entertainment world's knee-jerk reaction was to withdraw all art deemed potentially upsetting to the public. Songs such as Drowning Pool's "Bodies" were removed from radio station playlists. Other, seemingly more benign tracks such as the Bangles' "Walk Like an Egyptian" and Van Halen's "Jump" also were shelved in the name of good taste. At the same time, Arnold Schwarzenegger's "Collateral Damage" had its release date postponed as Hollywood assumed the public was not ready for such violent cinematic fare.
Meanwhile, late-night talk show hosts, who had built their careers on poking fun at public officials and mocking current events, found themselves in a quandary. Was it appropriate for David Letterman, Jon Stewart and Conan O'Brien to be looking for laughs in the shadow of 9/11?
In his emotional return to the airwaves after September 11, a teary Letterman made the case that humor could play an important role in the healing process. His sentiments were echoed by many other entertainers in the days that followed.
For its part, MTV took a break from its regular programming during the days just after September 11 and instead served up videos with inspirational messages, such as Lenny Kravitz's "Let Love Rule" and Bob Marley's "One Love." During "TRL" 's sombre, music-less return to the airwaves on the Friday after the attack, Carson Daly hosted guest appearances by the Beastie Boys while taking calls from Moby and other artists.
Online, MTV served as a sounding board for those who wanted to speak out on the tragedies while MTV News covered the music world's reaction.
By the start of 2002, pop culture was up to its old tricks again as sex, violence and general vulgarity returned to center stage. And the public seemed as hungry as ever for such entertainment.
In February, U2 gave an emotional tribute to the fallen heroes of September 11 during the official Super Bowl halftime show, but NBC counter-programmed with its "Playboy Centerfold Fear Factor Halftime Show." Then in May, Hollywood released the thriller "The Sum of All Fears," which depicted a terrorist organization with plans to detonate a nuclear device at the Super Bowl. At one point, the city of Baltimore is completed obliterated by an atomic blast. The film debuted at number one and has grossed over $118 million, according to IMDB.com.
Pop culture and the public had demonstrated a resiliency to tragedy. After a relatively brief pause, the race to the bottom was back on.
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