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U.S.: Artists Find Inspiration Amid the Rubble Of 11 September

  • Kathleen Moore

From rock songs and films to comic books and stand-up comedy, the 11 September terrorist attacks have inspired a variety of forms of artistic expression, especially in the United States. Some dwell on the loss of life and the pain felt by the victims' families, or on the anger of a country under attack. Others court controversy, like the song about John Walker Lindh, the "American Taliban," or the British drag queen who pokes fun at the entertainment industry's egocentric response to the attacks.

Prague, 10 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. rock singer and songwriter Bruce Springsteen is well-known for his hit "You're Missing," about a widow's grief for the husband who won't be coming home. "Coffee cups on the counter, jacket's on the chair.

"Paper's on the doorstep, but you're not there

"Everything is everything

"Everything is everything

"But you're missing."

"You're Missing" dwells on the suffering of those who lost family members in last September's terrorist attacks in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania. It's one of 15 songs on Springsteen's new album "The Rising," each of which deals in some way with the attacks, the victims, and even the perpetrators. One of the songs, "Paradise," muses on the motives of a suicide bomber.

"The Rising" is one of the most prominent examples of art inspired by the events of 11 September. In the past year, musicians, artists, writers, playwrights, and even comedians have drawn on the attacks as a theme in their work.

Almost 350 New York firefighters lost their lives as they tried to help the victims of the World Trade Center attacks. Two popular U.S. comic-book series feature firefighters as superheroes, while in Anne Nelson's play "The Guys," a journalist has to write eulogies for the funerals of eight men from one fire department.

Images of the attacks have rarely been out of the media. But even in the face of this saturation, visual artists proved they still could produce original and powerful work. Art Spiegelman's now-famous cover for "The New Yorker" magazine shows the World Trade Center's twin towers as a barely visible shadow on an all-black background.

Last month's mammoth arts festival, Scotland's Edinburgh Fringe, had 10 shows directly connected to 11 September, including a dance performance. Fringe director Paul Gudgin said that was unprecedented. "For the festival Fringe in Edinburgh to have one particular event or one theme, if you like, to attract that number of shows, is unbelievably rare. In fact, we don't think it's ever happened before in our history," Gudgin said.

Given the sheer amount of material generated, it's not surprising that some works have caused controversy.

One, a collective film entitled "11'09'01," caused a stir at the Venice Film Festival that ended this week, with some critics describing it as anti-American. Eleven international directors each contributed an 11-minute-nine-second short film for the project. The section by British director Ken Loach offended some by juxtaposing the events of 11 September with the U.S.-supported coup in Chile that took place on the same day in 1973. Another segment by Egyptian director Youssef Chahine was devoted to criticizing U.S. foreign policy.

One act at the Edinburgh Fringe, British drag queen Tina C, generated a lot of media coverage for her satire of the entertainment industry's response to 11 September. "I bet you couldn't find the real pathos of loss," she sings on "Kleenex to the World." "So I wrote this song to ram the point across."

Tina C advertised her performance with a poster showing her straddling the World Trade Center towers and swatting away a passenger jet. The image is shocking, but the point is clear: Celebrities' responses to the attacks were often egocentric.

It's hard not to see what she means, when many works in the avalanche of books inspired by 11 September include superfluous references to the authors themselves.

Walter Kirn of "The New York Times" gave a few examples. Here's dancer Judy Dworin's contribution in "To Mend the World: Women Reflect on 9-11": "It is September 11, what seems like a typical Tuesday morning. I am getting ready to meet my performance ensemble for our twice-weekly rehearsals at Trinity College." Another writer, A.M. Homes, tells us in another collection, "110 Stories," that after the second plane struck the World Trade Center, she ran a bath and picked up her camera.

Why, Kirn asks, should we care?

Many musicians have written songs inspired by 11 September. And more than any other genre, country musicians in the U.S. have tried to express the emotions of ordinary Americans in response to the tragedy.

Some 20 country artists have had success in the U.S. with such songs. One, "Everyday Angels" by Radney Foster, tells the tale of a fireman rushing to the scene. Another performer, Ray Stevens, provided some relief with his track mocking Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, "Osama Yo-Mama."

The most popular song so far has been country artist Alan Jackson's "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)," penned just after the attacks:

"I'm just a singer of simple songs

"I'm not a real political man

"I watch CNN, but I'm not sure I could

"Tell you the difference in Iraq and Iran

"But I know Jesus and I talk to God

"And I remember this from when I was young

"Faith, hope and love are some good things He gave us

"And the greatest is love."

Aaron Fox is a musicologist at New York's Columbia University. He said country music in the U.S. has a history of responding strongly and topically to war and other challenges to the country. "There are some tie-ins between the personal poetics, the more famous concerns of country music with the personal, the domestic, the feelings, and, of course, love gone bad in particular, that make it suited for a certain kind of response to tragedy on the national scale or to war on the international scale. That has to do with the rhetoric and politics of speaking directly to and from the emotions rather than appealing to or working through arguments in the realm of rational argument and political debates," Fox said.

Some country songs also stirred controversy. Steve Earle's ballad "John Walker's Blues" was widely denounced for being too sympathetic to John Walker Lindh, the so-called "American Taliban."

In the song, Earle sings from the point of view of a confused young man drawn to Islam, whose plans for jihad end in his capture in Afghanistan:

"Now they're draggin' me back with my head in a sack

"To the land of the infidel, A shadu la ilaha illa Allah."

For other reasons, Toby Keith's angry, flag-waving "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue" stirred up a storm of controversy when it was released this year. Keith upset liberals in particular with his summary of the American response to the attacks: "We'll put a boot in your ass/It's the American way":

"And the Statue of Liberty

"Started shakin' her fist

"And the eagle will fly

"Man, it's gonna be hell

"When you hear Mother Freedom

"Start ringin' her bell

"And it feels like the whole wide world is raining down on you

"Brought to you courtesy of the Red, White and Blue."

Fox said we can expect more jingoistic songs if the U.S. decides on military action against Iraq as the next stage in the war on terrorism. But he also expects musicians to produce deeper, more complicated material in response to 11 September as time goes on.

For now, Britain's "Economist" weekly suggests, Springsteen's album serves as a fitting memorial to the events of 11 September:

"God's drifting in heaven

"Devil's in the mailbox

"I got dust on my shoes

"Nothing but teardrops."