Special Reports

Making sense of Sept. 11: Art and culture reflect Americans' conflicted feelings

In years past, Bruce Springsteen routinely sold out the Tacoma Dome whenever he came to town. The floor would be a sea of bodies, and the energy level would be so high it practically levitated the roof right off the place.

But not this year.

When Springsteen came to Tacoma on Aug. 21, his newest album "The Rising" was riding high on the charts. Inspired by the events of last Sept. 11, it contains some of the most powerful songs he's written in years, and they're powerfully performed by him and the E Street Band.

Given that "The Rising" had debuted at No. 1, given that Springsteen was in town less than a month before the one-year anniversary of Sept. 11, and given his enduring popularity, a sellout seemed a certainty.

It was not to be. There were scores of empty seats, and the crowd was the most subdued I've seen in the three Springsteen concerts I've attended at the Dome.

Songs from "The Rising" were respectfully received, but when Springsteen and the band tore into classics such as "Thunder Road" and "Born to Run," the crowd erupted in cheers and applause. It was like they'd been let out of jail - or church. They responded with joyful recognition to the old tunes. It's hard to know how to properly react to anthems of loss.

The Springsteen concert seemed to symbolize the mood in post-Sept. 11 America. Nearly a full year after the catastrophe, Americans still seem to be trying to sort out our feelings about the events of that terrible day. That uncertainty is reflected throughout our popular culture.

Joanne M. Lisosky, an associate professor in Pacific Lutheran University's Department of Communication and Theatre and an expert in television, said the nation "is struggling with the notion of being a victim, and we're not sure how to tell that particular story in song or film or fiction. 'Pity us' is not part and parcel of our collective cultural psyche."

University of Southern California English professor Leo Braudy, who has written extensively on popular culture, believes this post-Sept. 11 sense of national victimhood is behind the media's current obsession with stories about abducted children.

One of the major effects of the attacks, he said, was "the loss of a feeling of invulnerability" held by Americans, who have long believed that this country's geography has insulated us from the problems and hatreds of overseas nations.

The shattering of that sense of invulnerability has given rise to a kind of free-floating national paranoia, Braudy says, and the abduction fixation is a manifestation of that. Statistically, these kinds of abductions are rare, and their number is little changed from years past. What's driving the coverage is "an image of a kind of kidnapped innocence," he said. Collectively, "our innocence has been injured and undermined," and focusing on abductions reflects a craving to somehow regain that innocence.

Certainly Springsteen's songs on "The Rising" are filled with a sense of innocence lost and profound moral uncertainty. In "Empty Sky," he sings, "I want a kiss from your lips/I want an eye for an eye." Delivered by a character who is gazing at the gap in the skyline where the World Trade Center stood, remembering a loved one who died there, those two lines starkly illuminate the ambiguities of our reactions to the terror attacks. Love and remembrance. Vengeance and violence. Conflicting feelings. Which will prevail?

That conflict is evident not only in rock, where Neil Young's "Let's Roll" and Moby's cryptic "We Are All Made of Stars" are among the songs written in response to the attacks. Country music has seen a flood of Sept. 11-inspired tunes, the huge majority unabashedly patriotic in tone. Steven Schlenker, program and promotions director of country station KMNT-FM (102.9) in Centralia, puts their number in the thousands and says the outpouring began practically the moment the towers fell.

One of the first and best known songs is Alan Jackson's "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)," which he performed live for the first time at the 35th annual Country Music Association Awards on Oct. 21, 2001. It quickly zoomed to No. 1 on the country charts.

"Where Were You," with lyrics such as "did you weep for the children who lost their dear loved ones" and "did you burst out with pride for the red, white and blue," is a more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger song, with a generous overlay of patriotic fervor.

Toby Keith's "Unleashed" album reached the top of the charts due to a signature Sept. 11 song, "Courtesy of the Red, White & Blue (The Angry American)." As its title suggests, its spirit couldn't be more different than the sorrowing "Where Were You."

The song's most-quoted lyric puts Osama bin Laden (whom Keith doesn't explicitly name) on notice that "you'll be sorry you messed with the U.S. of A./Cause we'll put a boot in your ass/It's the American way."

While singers and songwriters found their voices fairly quickly after Sept. 11, artists in other fields seemed almost dumbstruck. In the visual arts, there has been little work influenced by the event. Tacoma saw a flurry of Sept. 11-related artistic activity last October when 31 artists from throughout Washington created works for a special show called "09.11.01: Artists Respond." But there hasn't been much follow-up.

Certainly there has been nothing comparable to "Guernica," Picasso's celebrated painting inspired by the bombing of that city during the Spanish Civil War, a painting the artist produced within two months of the April 1937 attack.

Gail Gibson, co-owner of the G. Gibson Gallery in Seattle, said Sept. 11 rarely comes up in conversations she has with artists. "I just think it's a low time for most Americans," Gibson said, and for artists in particular. "It takes a while to recover and to have work come out." She said she's sure such work will come out eventually.

Only a few plays with Sept. 11 themes have been staged, but they have been received enthusiastically by audiences.

At New York's Flea Theater, an 86-seat venue 13 blocks north of ground zero, "The Guys" has been playing to packed houses since January. At Milwaukee's 94-seat Theatre X, "Chomsky - 9/11" opened in March, had a largely sold-out, three-week run and then was revived a month later for another three weeks.

The two plays are as different in tone from one another as Jackson's "Where Were You" lament is from Keith's defiant "Courtesy of the Red, White & Blue."

The Theatre X "Chomsky" play was a baldly political piece in which five actors essentially recited passages from the writings of noted left-wing thinker and activist Noam Chomsky, most of them highly critical of the U.S. government and the media.

The Flea Theater's "The Guys" is a heartfelt, two-person work based on real life in which a journalism professor helps a New York fire captain write eulogies for firefighters killed in the collapse of the towers.

In Milwaukee, Theatre X producing director David Ravel said "Chomsky" became a kind of rallying point for people who felt U.S. policies overseas fueled the hijackers' hatreds and that the attacks were understandable as payback for those policies. Not a popular attitude, then or now. For those who held it though, the play "made them feel a little less lonely and a little less crazy," Ravel said.

"The Guys," by contrast, has been embraced - in one instance literally - by a wide spectrum of the public, including firefighters, said Carol Ostrow, producing director of the Flea. One night a firefighter in the front row leaped onto the stage at the end of the performance and wrapped actor Tom Wopat, who was playing the fire captain, in a huge hug.

In New York City, even today, "emotions are very, very close to the surface," Ostrow said, and the actors playing the roles feel those emotions keenly. "There are many New York actors who feel the need to do this play as a way to respond to this tragedy."

Among them are Bill Murray and Sigourney Weaver, who originated the roles (Weaver's husband, Jim Simpson, is director of "The Guys"); Susan Sarandon and her longtime companion, Tim Robbins; and Amy Irving (who was playing opposite Wopat on the night the firefighter ran onstage), Carol Kane and Marlo Thomas.

"The Guys" will be performed at Lincoln Center on Wednesday's anniversary of the attacks, Ostrow said. It will be one of several theatrical happenings marking the occasion. A three-day theatrical event titled "Brave New World" will also be mounted in New York to mark the anniversary of the attacks. Beginning Monday, 50 works - plays, multimedia pieces and musical performances, all inspired by the attacks and their aftermath - will be presented through Wednesday.

Among the artists contributing to "Brave New World" are playwrights John Patrick Shanley, Terrence McNally and John Guare and actors Edie Falco, Stanley Tucci and Cynthia Nixon.

As for "The Guys," it has been turned into a low-budget, independent movie with Sigourney Weaver and Anthony LaPaglia in the lead roles. The film is due to premiere on Wednesday at the Toronto Film Festival.

At the moment it stands almost alone. Hollywood has not been rushing to make movies with Sept. 11 themes. Professor Robert Thompson of Syracuse University, director of the school's Center for the Study of Popular Television and a frequent commentator on pop-culture issues, said he's not surprised. He doubts Hollywood will be making any movies about the Trade Center attacks for some time to come. The images of the planes crashing and the buildings falling have burned themselves too deeply into the national consciousness.

"It would seem almost blasphemous to try to dramatize them even more," Thompson said.

A made-for-television movie about Flight 93, which crashed into a Pennsylvania field as its passengers struggled with hijackers, is in the works, but that's a different case, Thompson said. "We don't know exactly what happened up there, but we do know it was something heroic. It's far enough away from the actual sacred ground that it allows us to deal with ... the noble issues of Sept. 11 without having to go into the heart of darkness."

Despite documentaries about the attacks such as CBS' "9/11" and HBO's "In Memoriam," despite allusions to the event in series such as "The West Wing" and "NYPD Blue" and despite the deluge of special programming tied to the one-year anniversary, television has largely shrugged off the disaster in the past year, said professor LeRoy Ashby, who teaches popular culture and 20th-century American history at Washington State University. He cited last March's celebrity boxing match between Paula Jones and Tanya Harding as a sure sign that TV has shaken off its Sept. 11 blues.

Thompson said Anna Nicole Smith's much-mocked cable series is further evidence that TV hasn't changed its ways. And he says that's not a bad thing.

"A culture that would change overnight - that's not a healthy culture. That's a fickle and unstable culture," he said.

"Part of the American identity ... is silliness. From dressing up in feathers and dumping tea in Boston Harbor to dressing up in feathers and going to WWE matches, there is a certain 'ugly American' exuberance that is part of the whole nation."

Thompson said David Letterman played a key role in helping America regain its sense of humor. Letterman, who broadcasts from New York, returned to the air on Sept. 17, the first of the late-night talk-show hosts to do so. Although he was subdued that first night, Letterman lightened up as the week went on.

"He opened the door and provided the model for every other comic and comedy program," Thompson said. A year after the attacks, Bin Laden jokes are a staple for Letterman, Jay Leno and others. But when it comes to the attacks themselves, humorists tread cautiously.

One of the first attempts to find some measure of humor in the events of Sept. 11 appeared on the Internet in the online edition of the satirical newspaper The Onion. Its "Hijackers Surprised To Find Selves In Hell" headline on Sept. 26 caused a media buzz and triggered what staff writer Joe Garden characterized as a "deluge" of positive e-mails. The headline and the story that accompanied it were produced after an emotional staff meeting that lasted eight hours.

"What we were trying to do was come up with a way to make commentary that didn't come off as ironic or meanspirited," Garden said. "We knew we had to treat this very seriously and very delicately.

"We all had the same umbrella idea: Be careful."

That uncertainty is very different from the response Dec. 7, 1941, the last time a sneak attack of foreign origin claimed thousands of American lives. After Pearl Harbor, the nation closed ranks, and music, movies, radio and all other aspects of the culture got behind the war effort in a way that has not been seen this time around.

Movies as different as "Mrs. Miniver" and "Casablanca," both released in 1942, and "Guadalcanal Diary" (1943) were among countless pictures made during the war that were intended to boost spirits on the home front and promote national unity. Glenn Miller's "American Patrol" and Spike Jones' novelty tune, "Der Fuehrer's Face" (sample lyrics: "Ist this Nutzi land not good? Would you leave it if you could? Ja this Nutzi land is good! Vee would leave it if we could") and hundreds of other wartime songs served the same purpose.

The key difference between then and now, Thompson said, is that "Pearl Harbor was the downbeat of an enormous symphony of tragedy. Everybody knew a husband or a boyfriend or a son or a comrade who went to that war. Most knew of people who didn't come back. There was rationing. This was a thing that became a lifestyle."

Sept. 11, by contrast, was "a horrible hiccup."

"It was this terrible day, this whole war jammed into a few seconds of these attacks." But so far there has been no follow-up incident of a similar magnitude.

"Optimism kicked in," Thompson said. "And that's where everybody is right now. There is a certain fear, a certain edginess, but the notion is, 'It's not going to happen again.'"

If something more does happen, he said, its effect on pop culture - and America - will likely be more profound and long-lasting than anything we've seen so far. If there's a second attack, Thompson said, Americans will feel "more under a state of siege. And if there's a third time, that begins to transform daily cultural life."

Soren Andersen: 253-597-8742, Ext. 6235