Pop Optics: A Brief Reflection on 9/11

When I first thought about writing some sort of retrospective about 9/11, I wanted to do so from my perspective and through a lens I know well: pop culture. Specifically, how the aftermath of 9/11 (in)directly closed the door on nu-metal as much as it did the 90s and how music sonically shifted from one sound to another (and others). As I put it all together, I realized it was shit. It was meandering and lost. I couldn’t figure out what point I was trying to make and most of my anecdotes were barely half-assed, let alone quarter-assed.

I am not here to give only 25% of my ass. You people deserve the full 100% of this ass.

So I reconsidered and decided “fuck this” and deleted it. There’s nothing to say that hasn’t been and won’t be said till the end of time. 20 years ago, an act of terrorism upturned everything so of course even our pop culture was going to undergo a drastic transformation. Why I wanted to focus on nu-metal was because of the Clear Channel memorandum that was recommended to affiliate radio stations to not play certain songs or artists for an indefinite amount of time. It was either because the songs contained lyrics or topics that were too offensive or would remind people of the tragedy that happened, or maybe the bands or artists were too controversial.

Eat it, Dave Clark Five! You’re just too dangerous for the radio.

To me, that was the death knell (sorry) for an entire genre built upon the pretense that the world sucks and you have to reject it before it rejects you. Or maybe it was all of the bullshit faux-anger that was projected by a fair number of nu-metal bands. Who knows, I don’t care anymore. I’ve let that part of my life go and don’t really like to reflect on it all that much. Not because it’s painful or anything, but just because I don’t care.

I was a high school freshman when those planes crashed into the Twin Towers that comprised the World Trade Center. I was ready to embrace my second official year of teenage life and then flip a bird to all of the bullshit experiences that the world wanted to give me. I didn’t want to be a part of “society,” whatever the fuck it was then. Just a generic, invisible enemy. Everything was “society,” from those who gave me funny glances for how I was dressed or my dyed spiky hair, or maybe the music I listened to. Or maybe it was nothing, just some made up convention I could rage against while I ignored the untreated, undiagnosed depression that was festering within me. Maybe my early teen life was all bullshit and not the one big dark room I had intended it to be.

Either way, I don’t think I have anything of value to say about that day in September 2001. If anything, it was inevitable that there would be a desire to let go of certain aesthetics and media. As how the candidacy of a horndog hayseed from Arkansas and the loud angry sounds of slackers from Seattle helped to bring in the 90s, the collapse of a couple of skyscrapers brought it to an end and officially began the 2000s. We were a long way off from the “Willennium.”

That said, I can remember all of the uncertainty that would come in the days after. There was a shared national anxiety and panic regarding future attacks. We were no longer individuals, but all Americans, united as one as some of the commercials and politicians said. We were all New Yorkers. We needed to mourn, but not for long – we knew we’d have to move on, yet, I don’t really recall ever moving on. Cars everywhere were adorned with miniature flags that would easily fall to the roadside the minute you lowered the window. Houses on every block put up a flag, either in tribute or through peer pressure. God forbid your house is the only one without a flag, too. I know we had ours up for at least the next year. I don’t know when people gave up on the faux-patriotism bandwagon, but I think once we started to feel better about ourselves as a superpower, we felt like we didn’t have to try as hard. The War on Terror was in full swing and eventually we shifted focus from Afghanistan to Iraq. There was an Axis of Evil we had to combat, even though it was likely that the terrorists were funded by our wealthy friends in the Middle East. The news coverage waned towards the end of the month and by October, television programming had gone back to normal.

Radio, though, was still following the directive of their overlords while Hollywood was pushing back the release dates of their more violent films, or at least ones that they felt were “too soon.” I think the biggest victim of all of this was Tim Allen as his film Big Trouble got pushed back to a 2002 release. I saw it on vacation in Orlando at Universal Studios. Goddamn did that movie suck and never forget that Tim Allen is a fucking narc.

Anyway, with the radio not able to play a plethora of songs, it was easy for new music from unknown bands to get some airplay. This was the emergence of the garage rock and post-punk revivals, beginning with The Strokes. We realized that we didn’t need to listen to angry music all the time, or did we want to be angry anymore. It was catchy, bouncy, and upbeat. We could feel better about things again because we had new music on the radio. The refreshed take on rock would come in waves and replaced the rage of nu-metal with a more hip brooding cool. Eventually, we would make a return to more aggressive, heavy music, stuff that was more brutal, but was also a rejection of whatever nu-metal did. This was music that was raw, but more melodic, more harmonic, more… emotional. Everything was still dark, aesthetically, but it was also streaked with bright colors; lots of neon greens and pinks and purples and blues. It was outwardly vibrant while inside it was dark and working through how it was feeling about things.

This would soon be reflected in fashion. Gone were hyper-wide flared jeans and goggles that served no purpose and in were tight jeans, black hightops, and ties, even if you weren’t wearing a collared shirt. You just wore a necktie, simple as that.

I was there to witness these phases come and go, because they definitely seemed more temporary than other fads. 9/11 was a cataclysmic event, but it caused a ripple effect that was the equivalent of a tsunami crashing through the ocean of pop culture and our interactions with it. I remember people cheering loudly throughout the first Spider-Man film, which itself (and the soundtrack) was an emphatic punctuation to end our period of ennui. We finally had a hero we could rally behind. The dawn of the superhero genre had kicked into gear and we were about to embark on a brave new journey out of the dark and into the light. It’s okay, though. We have a Spider-Man to sling a web and catch us before we fall to our doom.

I’m struggling with how to best conclude this article. I don’t think there’s any way that’ll be satisfactory to me. This isn’t something I reflect on often, probably because I am still able to recall things from when it happened. I was there, I can’t forget it – I just opt to not think about it.

With deft finality, I will say that 9/11 was what definitely put an end to the cultural ties of the 1990s and brutally pushed us into the next state.

That all said, I leave it to you, the reader, to discuss what things (non-political) you noticed changed in the wake of 9/11 and whether you think it was ultimately for better or for worse.