Over the past few weeks I’ve read a great deal and had many conversations with friends and colleagues about what popular music can mean in the wake of the horrific terrorist attacks on the United States. Everyone has different ideas about the shape of things to come: irony, cuteness and cleverness are dead; violent lyrics and aggressive sounds will seem silly and cartoonish; singer-songwriters and work with spiritual depth will enjoy a resurgence; the teen tarts and hunks will slink off the media stage, sent up to their rooms in shame by an audience with bigger things on their minds and heavier weights on their souls.
Some or all of those predictions will prove true, at least for a while. The many benefits that the music industry has organized will set a tone of concern that will make it hard for the more anarchic aspects of popular music to find expression. And that’s fine, even appropriate. Some times are right for pushing the limits of our lives, and some times are right for finding the center of our lives. Right now, understandably, everyone wants to be reassured about what is really important, what resonates at the very core of who we are as human beings. There are no atheists in foxholes, the old saying runs. That may or may not be true. But I’m absolutely certain that no one in a foxhole ever worried much about being edgy or hip. We are all in foxholes now.
But I can tell you another thing, for sure: Plenty of people in foxholes hummed tunes to themselves or thought about song lyrics as they tried to come to terms with the prospect that they might not live to see another day. Sometimes the music in their minds was the greatest work ever composed in the history of our culture. Sometimes it was just a pop song that they just happened to hear a few days earlier, or shared with a loved one in safer times. Sometimes the music was ennobling and inspirational. Sometimes it was sweet and calming. Sometimes it was just something to think about to pass the time, to distract them from fear. But music always had a role to play even in those most threatening times.
And it has a purpose now. Amid all the theories about popular music that I’ve heard recently, the only one I’ve felt the need to argue against — and it came up surprisingly often — is that being concerned with popular music at a time like this is “trivial.” Writers and editors, music industry executives and even musicians have all expressed this view to me. It is simply wrong.
It’s not that music is some sort of universal good. The Nazis revered Wagner, as we all know, and, more recently, racist skinheads in Europe and the United States have used music to communicate their revolting views and attract young converts to their cause. Music is only as good as we are as people — and we know that isn’t always so good.
The world of music does have its trivial aspects — cheap glamour; celebrity worship; untrammeled egotism; exclusionary, hipper-than-thou posturing; an obsession with sales, status and money; tawdry, exploitive sex — but those things were trivial before the terrorist attacks, and they would continue to be even if the world were miraculously rid of violence.
But the music itself — from the dumbest, one-off hit to the most resonant, enduring statement — does have meaning. It all has a capacity to bring pleasure into our lives, and there is room for all of it. None of it is trivial.
As it happens, I got married on September 8th, the Saturday before the bombings. It was a spectacularly sunny day, and one that was filled with music — from the gospel sounds that greeted our guests as they entered the white, one-room, wooden church, to the Stevie Wonder songs (“I Believe When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever,” “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours”) with which we began and ended the ceremony, to the moving performance (“The Only Story I Tell”) by our friend Walter Salas-Humara of the Silos. Enough profound things happened and were said over that weekend to last a lifetime.
But in the two days after the wedding and before the bombings, the song that, ridiculously, kept running through my head was Digital Underground’s “The Humpty Dance.” In my mind I could see my friends and family racing for the dance floor as it began to thump out of the speakers, the tent bright and the sky darkening over the Catskill Mountains, all of us with crazy grins and sweat on our faces as we obeyed the song’s glorious, nonsensical injunction to “Hey, do the humpty-hump/Uh, do the humpty-hump.” It was a moment of sheer physical joy, uncomplicated, free and ecstatic. For all its silliness, the song managed at that moment to capture the possibilities of love and connection as fully as the eloquent vows we so carefully wrote and could barely speak for our tears and emotion.
As people who care about music, the best service we can do for ourselves during these sad, confusing days is to allow music to help restore us to the full range of our feelings. For that, we need “Oops! . . . I Did It Again” and “Chimes of Freedom.” We need “The Message” and “Nookie.” We need “A Change Is Gonna Come” and “Baby Got Back.” We need Steve Wonder and “The Humpty Dance.” If any of that is trivial, it’s no more trivial than any other spontaneous fun we had in our lives before a cowardly attack made us hesitant to laugh and love, the very things that make our lives worth living. No more trivial than that, indeed, and no less essential to our recovery.