Has the nation become more or less patriotic in the past two decades since 9/11? You could ask politicians or scholars, consult some polls, read a bunch of books, and probably come up with an answer.
But what if you listened for that answer instead?
About eight hours after the attacks, the first musical reaction to 9/11 took place on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, moments after a press conference and moment of silence with members of the House of Representatives and the Senate.
"Everybody kind of thought that the press conference was over,” said Martin Daughtry, an associate professor in New York University’s music department.
Instead the members of Congress broke out into song — "God Bless America," to be exact.
"God Bless America" on the Capitol steps
"After any personal trauma — a national trauma, a community trauma — when you're in that feeling of rawness, and fragility and precarity, the right tune can just kind of come in and unlock all those feelings and cause them to just kind of spurt out," Daughtry said.
The impromptu performance was "ultimately, kind of cathartic and comforting and productive,” he added. “It was a spontaneous kind of reaching toward music, in order to make sense of this event that was still unfolding."
“With the nation attacked on Sept. 11th, the need to kind of rally everyone around a common purpose seemed to be really strong….and music works really well at doing that.”
20 Years Since Sept. 11, 2001
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So, about that impromptu musical moment from Congress — Daughtry said it also displayed another connection between music and patriotism: the power to build a community.
Two commemorative concerts struck different tones
Following 9/11, a pair of tributes brought together the nation in different ways.
The first was a massive benefit concert just ten days after 9/11 called America: A Tribute to Heroes. Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel were there, along with Stevie Wonder, U2 and Celine Dion.
“That concert featured a large number of musicians and actors, and it was kind of designed to raise money for first responders and…victims of the attack, and it was kind of produced as a as a telethon,” Daughtry said. “The kind of contemplative vibe of that benefit concert contrasted a lot with a second concert that was held live in Madison Square Garden the following month.”
That concert was called the Concert for New York City, held on Oct. 20, 2001, full of British stars including The Who, Eric Clapton, David Bowie and members of The Rolling Stones. Destiny's Child performed "Emotion" and a gospel medley, and Macy Gray later covered The Beatles' "With a Little Help From My Friends."
“It had a lot more of what one might expect in terms of kind of patriotic rock and a lot more kind of [a] jingoistic, aggressive stance, as opposed to the stance of the first event that was much more oriented, it seemed, toward mourning,” Daughtry said. “There was somebody at the at the Madison Square Garden concert who said, ‘Hopefully, we can take some of this energy and direct it toward love and understanding,’ and that person was booed.”
As this played out in pop culture, it got Americans thinking about national identity.
With people spread all over and fragmented into so many different states, America is sort of an "abstraction," said Daughtry, referencing the work of scholar Benedict Anderson.
"None of us have…face-to-face interactions with the entirety of America, right?" says Daughtry. "The only way that America can exist is within the imagination of people who see themselves as members of it."
A lot of the musical performances post-9/11, especially at massive televised events, "[gave] people a sense that they're all listening together, they're all singing together…you have this kind of feeling of…common identity and purpose."
“One of the things that I think became very clear in the days and weeks following 9/11 was that music is an ambiguous tool. It's not a tool that only does one thing, it's a tool that can…facilitate reconciliation on one hand, but also be weaponized and facilitate aggression,” he said. “So, we saw in the days and weeks after 9/11, both of those things taking place in real time.”
We kept blasting this anthem cover (and country songs)
In the aftermath of 9/11 certain tracks were on repeat, like Whitney Houston's powerful rendition of the national anthem at the 1991 Super Bowl.
“It's just the most spectacular version of the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ probably ever recorded, and that performance was reissued and became something that people would listen to and weep during," Daughtry said.
That wasn't the only patriotic re-release of the time. Country artist Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” had already been rereleased once: in 1990, after a single release in 1984. The track (known for its line "I'm proud to be an American") was rereleased again in the wake of 9/11, resonating with an American population experiencing a reinvigorated sense of patriotism, especially through one particular genre: country music.
“Immediately after 9/11, there were already existing country songs that you know were ubiquitous on the airwaves, and country artists began composing songs. The most kind of famous or notorious among them is Toby Keith’s ‘Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue,’ the song that has the kind of shocking line: ‘We'll put a boot in your a--. It's the American way,’” Daughtry said. “That was a song that was quickly composed, recorded, and put out on the airwaves along with, you know, a number of other songs. Darryl Worley's 'Have You Forgotten?' was one that was really popular. Alan Jackson's 'Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)' was really popular.”
In the aftermath of a national tragedy, country music had a bevy of “pro America” ballads.
“I guess the kind of the image of the country artist as patriot was a very strong image, it was no stretch, you know? You didn't need to kind of stretch your imagination to find this image within popular culture of the country artists and kind of, the heartland,” he said. “One of the interesting things, you know, was to kind of look for country artists who diverged from that kind of general, conservative image.”
Musicians got critical of the U.S., too
While plenty of musicians put out (or rereleased) patriotic tunes around that time, one group was ostracized after speaking out against the military decisions that followed 9/11.
In 2003 ahead of the war in Iraq, Natalie Maines of The Chicks (formerly the Dixie Chicks) made a comment about then President George W. Bush during a performance in London, saying, “we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.”
“That unleashed just an enormous and quite aggressive reaction against these musicians from within the country music community,” Daughtry said.
The fallout was on the airwaves too — with many radio stations across the country pulling the Chicks’ music from rotation, as well as fans boycotting and protesting their music in front of arenas and at their shows. The group’s sales dropped and the Chicks became one of the first majorly visible acts to get “canceled.”
“The strength of that reaction prompted Natalie Maines to compose the piece ‘Not Ready to Make Nice,’ which kind of was a response to people within the country music community who were really criticizing her for a lack of patriotism,” Daughtry said.
Defining patriotism isn’t simple, and while the political landscape in America has shifted a lot in the past 20 years since 9/11, so has the soundtrack of the moment. Songs like “This Is America” by Childish Gambino and “This Land” by Gary Clark Jr. are just a few examples of Grammy-winning records crossing genres while starting conversations about the landscape and identity of this country.
“I think it's important to stress that patriotism doesn't necessarily mean a kind of an attitude that…’My country right or wrong.’ People on the political left and people who have kind of had opposition politics very often think of themselves as patriots, right? That criticizing the missteps of a nation is, you know, maybe perhaps the most patriotic act,” Daughtry said.
“I would not want to say that, you know, kind of jingoistic music or politically conservative music is the only kind of patriotic music that we have in this country. I think we have [music] from the hip-hop community and alternative music communities from 21st century punk is very much patriotic music," Daughtry added.
“We are seeing, you know, music that is engaging with national issues and, you know, leveling really sharp critiques, and those critiques are patriotic.”
Do songs mean the same thing to everyone?
With more millennials and Gen Z folks speaking up and speaking out, how exactly will they use music to define their messages and identities, and better yet: what are some of the songs that represent the current attitude of American patriotism?
Even Daughtry is unsure of how music can bridge that gap currently.
“There was a time where you might have imagined that the national anthem would be this kind of unifying thing that the vast majority of people could kind of get behind, but we're living through such a period of such intense polarization that, you know, it's hard to imagine a single song meaning the same thing to everyone in this country,” he said.
“Music is an ambiguous tool, and who knows? If there's some other kind of cataclysmic event, maybe people will reach back and kind of recuperate these songs in the same way that right after 9/11 people were reaching back, you know, deep into their historical record collections to find songs that unwittingly spoke to this moment.”
Where to hear the songs we're talking about
We made a Spotify playlist compiling all the songs mentioned by name in this article. Check it out at the link above if you want to hear the patriotic songs that were all over the airwaves at the time, and some that followed in the years after.