Editor’s Note: Over the next several weeks, we’ll be publishing a special collection of theological reflections in honor of the tenth anniversary of 9/11.
I remember joking with a friend, sometime in 2002, that I’d support the Patriot Act if it contained a provision stating that only Bruce Springsteen could write songs about 9/11. It was a comment made in the midst of a good deal of frustration over the coarsening sense of solidarity that swept the nation in the weeks and months after the tragedy. In the early days after the attack, while that gritty dust still shrouded lower Manhattan, Americans drew deeply from a wellspring of empathy. “We’re all New Yorkers” was one of the popular, if overstated, refrains of the times.
It wasn’t long after that dust cloud dissipated over the harbor that the discourse around the event turned ugly. “9/11” became shorthand for emotional manipulation and a particularly aggressive form of patriotism. These sentiments found a home in the response of some significant American musicians.
I don’t mean to pick on country music, but it does seem that the Nashville machine was ready and waiting (as ever) with some heavily affected boilerplate. First out of the gate was Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue,” an indignant reveille blast calling for Americans to rise up and fight back at our nebulous enemy. There was Alan Jackson, opining about how he couldn’t tell ya’ the difference between Iraq and Iran (not exactly a relevant confession, though a distinction that would be obvious to anyone who watched the nightly news in the ’80s). You might also remember Darryl Worley’s execrable “Have You Forgotten?,” surely the nadir of post-9/11 songcraft, with its pornographic suggestion that TV stations show the WTC collapse every day. There were other songs, too, but these three represent the definitive American pop music reactions insofar as they captured the nation’s growing anger, anxiety, and xenophobia in the time after 9/11.
Both Keith’s and Worley’s songs traded on the feeling of national solidarity; there’s a strong “we the people” camaraderie in each lyric sheet, and their popularity shows that folks resonated with them. The we that the songs profess is a very nationalistic one, and I suppose that’s to be expected, given that the USA was the express target of Bin Laden, et al. But it’s also a weaponized we, a militaristic solidarity that inextricably links Americanness with the desire to kick a little ass. “We’ll put a boot in your ass—it’s the American way,” sings Keith, and Worley links our very existence on this patch of ground with our willingness to kill for it: “What about our freedom, and this piece of ground? We didn’t get to keep ‘em by backin’ down.”
I don’t want to disqualify anger as a genuine reaction to a grievance as massive as the one felt on 9/11. In fact, it’d be hard to argue that there’s a “genuine” way to frame what happened on that September morning, especially when I only experienced it via the television. But I also can’t give anger-fueled nationalism and militarism a pass in the name of solidarity.
I’m enough of a student of history to know that a grievance felt nationalistically is usually the start of something awful. It’s there that solidarity goes off the rails and becomes the fount of the mob mentality, where collective identity isn’t formed around who we are, or what we have in common, but in opposition to who we hate. It’s a solidarity drawn with thick boundaries separating who’s in and who’s out, one that divides as much as it unites. It sets us on edge against those we name as our enemies, and it has the habit of creating enemies where there are none, not just in the ranks of a shadowy terrorist organization, but also in other nations, another religion, a foreign tongue, an entire region of the globe. And the lethal danger of this kind of solidarity is amplified when the nation with the grievance is sitting on history’s largest stockpile of munitions, overseen by Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and other assorted vipers in the grass. To say they were eager to start a fight after 9/11 would be an understatement (my cynical side would argue that they were eager before 9/11, too).
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I’m Canadian, but I’ve spent nearly a third of my life in the United States. That means I’ve felt a deep connection to the land and its holidays, cultural events of note, and history. That connection can be uncomfortable, though, because jingoism abounds in such affairs. However, I’ve found in Bruce Springsteen’s music a means of connecting, of participating in this thing called “America,” in a way that seems true and whole-souled. His albums have been my sound track on election days, for the drive to the polling station. And I’ve searched his music for steadiness in times of national upheaval.
That’s why I really like that apocryphal story from those heady and world-altering post-9/11 days, recounting how an anonymous New Yorker stopped Springsteen on the street, exclaiming “We need you now!” If it’s true, I like to think she’d just endured another cable news–sponsored bout of sentimentality and xenophobia and that she was wondering where all our good poets, essayists, and musicians had gone, only to providentially run into the Boss himself.
The true origin of Springsteen’s 2002 album The Rising is perhaps a bit less serendipitous. Some of the songs were written prior to 9/11, their themes of life, loss and perseverance not inspired by the tragedy, but borne of the typical reflections of a fellow moving on into his fifties.
But art can take on all sorts of new and powerful meaning in the wake of world-changing events; just because some of the songs weren’t written about 9/11, they might as well have been.
There’s a lot on this album to please the ears. Springsteen’s voice has aged gorgeously into a warm, brandied preacher-shout, which, on the lower registers, sounds like it’s sung through Bob Dylan’s nose. And there’s the return of the E Street band, which is entirely welcome to those who missed the way Clarence Clemons’s saxophone threatened to blow your car doors off when you turned up your stereo on your morning commute. All of that anchors the real power of the record, which is found in how it engages and articulates the response of those most intimately acquainted with the catastrophe. Most of this album is written from the first-person perspective—a gutsy move for any writer to give voice to experiences as personal and harrowing as this and a welcome change from the violence and invective found in songs written by those who stood hundreds of miles from the tragedy and had no prospect of actually fighting in the war they so earnestly desired.
If Worley’s and Keith’s songs exemplified the ugliest of American reactions to 9/11, then I think Springsteen’s embody what’s best about our response. Or at least they illuminate the best that we can aspire to. And that’s not to say that Springsteen doesn’t play with the idea of vengeance, like his peers do. The album’s opener, “Lonesome Day,” is a reflection on a relationship ended unjustly; the narrator supposes “a little revenge, and this too shall pass,” but is well aware of the “bitter fruit” that such vengeance bears. “Empty Sky” recounts the desire to see “eye for eye” compensation for the cavernous gap left in the New York skyline.
But vengeance is a minor theme here; by “Into the Fire,” the anger at the loss in “Lonesome Day” has vanished. It’s replaced with profound, astonished gratitude for a life given in the rescue efforts at Ground Zero. In the chorus, this gratitude becomes a petition, a desire to live a life shaped by the one given by that dearly departed soul:
“May your faith give us faith / May your hope give us hope / May your love give us love.”
In this refrain one can hear the makings of a different kind of solidarity, one not set off against another group of people (be it al-Qaeda or the anti-war folks), but rooted in the desire to share a profoundly formative experience, one that can give rise to our better angels. In the inferno of the World Trade Center—the source of so much rage, hatred, and violence—it’s faith, hope, and love that remain and bind us together.
This desire for human touch, to be embraced and enfolded, spans the album, most acutely in the songs that deal with loss and separation. “Let’s Be Friends” tells of walls between people that need tearing down and of the promise of “skin on skin” intimacy in their rubble. “Mary’s Place” is the scene of a party, where “loving grace surrounds.” “Into the Fire” yearns for the kiss an absent lover, someone who’s followed an even higher calling, “somewhere upstairs, into the fire.”
It’s up there, in the fire, that is the setting for the album’s title song, and most stirring moment. “The Rising” tells of a firefighter lost in the confusion somewhere in the World Trade Center. The song’s bridge brings a moment of clarity, though, and a beatific “dream of life,” with Mary, in “the garden of a thousand sighs.” It’s a reverie of iconographic images, in which his children joyfully dance in a bright, clear sky. He yearns for an embrace, for the eucharistic intimacy of shared blood: “may I feel your arms around me / may I feel your blood mix with mine.” On a day of blackness and sorrow, longing, and emptiness, this man finds resolve to look at the smoke-filled sky and see not fear, enmity or hatred, but “fullness” and “blessed light.” And with that new resolve comes the chorus, which is an invitation for the rest of us to join hands, to “come on up for the rising” and transcend the awfulness of that day.
This is a stirring anthem even now, nearly ten years on. That quality didn’t escape Barack Obama, who convinced the typically nonpartisan Springsteen to perform acoustic renditions of The Rising on campaign stops through 2008. But to my ears, its enduring appeal is found in its articulation of the kind of people we ought to be when faced with great adversity. We ought to be the kind of folks who stick together, who rise together, without sowing further alienation and division. And it’s not so much a matter of rising to overcome in some triumphalistic sense. So much of this album is written about experiences in the very midst of struggle—its rising, then, is not the triumph after the battle. Instead, Springsteen’s The Rising is an invitation; one that echoes the words of Christ to his disciples in Gethsemane: “Rise, let us be on our way.” It’s a call for solidarity in the face of a time of trial, a summoning for us to learn that together we can find the strength to endure the very things that so easily tear us apart.