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After 9/11, Playing it Safe on the Radio Dial

Mark Anthony Neal on nationalism and popular music after 9/11

Part of the 15 Years After 9/11 Series

The shock of the World Trade Center attacks quickly reverberated in the world of popular music, says Mark Anthony Neal.

For instance, a group called The Coup featuring male rapper Boots Riley had just released a new album, “Party Music.”

“They ironically chose as the cover art of the album a photo, an illustration of the two of them hitting a detonator that explodes the World Trade Center,” said Neal, a professor of English and African and African American Studies at Duke. “Of course they immediately had to take all of those visuals down because they were going to be controversial. They were going to controversial anyway, but now it was different.”

Sensitivities ran high in the weeks following the attacks, Neal recalls. As a young parent, Neal himself wasn’t immune to that impulse: He found he had a new appetite for “safe,” unchallenging tunes and videos.

“It’s a moment of national trauma, and it changes the culture we consume,” Neal said. “I needed boring music at that point in time, I needed something calming. I found myself watching a lot of Nickelodeon for the first time, Disney Channel for the first time, just to sort of have soothing cultural references."

Many radio stations chose to play it safe in the months following the attacks. Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.” received a lot of airplay. Meanwhile, some stations refused to play the otherwise innocuous Kansas tune “Dust in the Wind” and the Carole King classic “I Feel the Earth Move,” Neal recalls.

“Folks didn’t want to make sudden moves,” Neal said. “If you were someone in the media, regardless of how you felt politically, you were cognizant of people who were afraid, who were angry, who were legitimately grieving. Suddenly there was going to be much more scrutiny on what we might think of as anti-American rhetoric.”

When the rapper Jadakiss released the single “Why?,” which suggested that President Bush was behind the 9/11 attacks, the blowback was swift, and his career never really recovered, Neal said.

And the chill lasted for some time. Perhaps no performers took more heat at the time than the country band the Dixie Chicks. When members of the Texas band spoke out against George W. Bush’s presidency and the Iraq war effort, they were lambasted by country music fans and dumped from radio playlists.

“When country music decided that they no longer wanted to play the Dixie Chicks, for all intents and purposes the Dixie Chicks disappeared,” Neal said.

Martie Maguire and Emily Robison of the Dixie Chicks on stage at Glasgow 2003
( The Dixie Chicks faced immense backlash for their political views. Photo by David Brown / Wikimedia )

The attacks happened in the era before Facebook and Twitter. Since then, the expansion of online culture has given artists more direct access to fans.

“You now have artists who have a certain kind of freedom to engage politically, both mainstream and underground artists,” Neal said. “That was not necessarily the case before and after 9/11.”

Echoes of 9/11 can still be heard in the music of older artists such as Bruce Springsteen, Neal said. But in these days of rapid response social media, traumatic events may be more likely to feed an outpouring of Tweets and Facebook posts than to inspire a pop song.

“Folks are obviously much more connected now and I think that connection creates some desensitivity,” Neal said. “So I think the music doesn’t have time to catch up with the trauma.”