The Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks changed the nation overnight. The sense of security and certainty that many Americans had before that awful morning 20 years ago was ripped away, ushering in a fragility and fear that caused many of us to change the way we looked at the world. What you might not recall as clearly, however, is how the worst terror attack in the nation’s history also changed the music we listened to.
In addition to inspiring now-iconic songs by Alan Jackson (“Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning),” Bruce Springsteen (“The Rising”) and Toby Keith (“Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American),” the coordinated attacks on New York and Washington, D.C. (a fourth plane crashed in a field in Shanksville, Pa.) that killed 2,977 people also resulted in the circulation of a list of more than 160 songs that a major radio chain said had “lyrically questionable” lyrics.
The move by the nation’s biggest radio conglomerate, Clear Channel Communications (now known as iHeart Media), was laid out in a memorandum that listed the 165 songs/artists the company suggested might be voluntarily paused on its nearly 1,200 stations on a temporary basis as the nation attempted to heal from the shocking terrorist assault.
Some, like the Bangles’ pop ditty “Walk Like an Egyptian” were seemingly put on ice simply because the title referenced a Middle Eastern nation — the majority of the 19 hijackers were affiliated with the militant Islamist group al-Queda and hailed from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon and Egypt — while agit-rock group Rage Against the Machine effectively saw their entire catalog of politically pungent songs facing a temporary blackout on more than 1,000 stations that reached more than 110 million listeners per week.
Pretty much any popular song that mentioned death, war, planes, fire or jumping made the list — which CC later said was a voluntary roster that bubbled up from some local programmers and not a strict corporate banning edict, as many assumed it to be. (When the list first leaked, a CC rep told the New York Times that the list was “not a mandate or order,” reporting that compliance varied from station-to-station.) Some seemingly made sense when taken purely at face value, such as Drowning Pool’s celebration of mosh pit madness “Bodies” (with its refrain of “let the bodies hit the floor”), Soundgarden’s “Blow Up the Outside World,” AC/DC’s “TNT,” Steve Miller’s “Jet Airliner” and Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire.”
But while none of those songs have any direct tie to terrorism (or even explicit violence, really), a number of other songs and acts on the list appeared to have been swept up based solely on keywords or phrases that could be easily misinterpreted when taken out of context: Dio (“Holy Diver”), Van Halen (“Jump”), Talking Heads (“Burning Down the House”), Dave Matthews Band (“Crash Into Me”), The Beatles (“Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds) and John Mellencamp (“Crumbling Down”). Others, such as John Lennon’s “Imagine” and Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” just made a lot of people scratch their heads; a spokesperson for iHeart had not returned a request for comment at press time.
Billboard reached out to a number of the acts on the list (which you can see in full here) whose songs were impacted at the time to find out how they reacted then and what they think about it two decades on. Below, they share their memories and feelings, in their own words. (Quotes have been edited for clarity and space.)
Stevie Benton, bassist, Drowning Pool (“Bodies”)
The song had been out six or eight weeks and it was No. 1 or No. 2 at active rock radio at the time, and we were riding high and feeling pretty — good about ourselves. Then 9/11 happens, and us and probably every American felt personally attacked and victimized and that was horrible and tough to deal with. Then a few days later that list comes out and “Bodies” is literally No. 1 on it — and we didn’t realize how dramatic the effect would be.
Suddenly our song, about a bunch of kids having fun at a concert [in the mosh pit], was somehow going to be forever linked with 9/11. And it turns out we were right — and here we are 20 years later, still talking about it. Every once in a while we’ll still come across someone who thinks “Bodies” is actually about 9/11, which is so frustrating. Even with that negative aspect, the song is still one of the biggest ones of that time and we’re proud of the cultural impact — but saddened that we’re kind of forever tied to that tragedy.
We continued to play it, and the dramatic decrease of radio spins at the time didn’t bother us — because we thought about, “Maybe someone hears it and it would hurt their feelings.” I think it had an impact on the trajectory of our career for sure. Up until that point it was nothing but up, up, up. And being tied to that list and 9/11 kind of changed our trajectory. But I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining, because 9/11 affected all of us.
One of the things that makes a song good is if there’s a bit of vagueness in it that lets it be interpreted by the listener, and lets them apply it to their own lives. But then if someone comes in and puts it on a list, and says it’s tied to this [event], that takes away some of that ambiguity. They robbed some of the songs of that, by leaving this impression in some people’s minds that they were about 9/11 or a bomb.
Richard Patrick, Filter (“Hey Man, Nice Shot”)
I remember thinking,”‘I feel bad that it’s triggering people.” [But I also] remember thinking, “this goes against freedom of speech” and I remember thinking, “I hope this is temporary,” all in one millisecond. And it was temporary. I can’t remember how long it lasted — I thought it was awfully big brother [of Clear Channel], and a massive attack on the First Amendment ethic of this country and very un-American.
There’s a time and a place [for the song], which was inspired by this public suicide of inspired by this [19870 public suicide of [Pennsylvania state treasurer] R. Budd Dwyer. I remember writing the song and Trent Reznor said, “I’d never tell anyone what this song is about.” We still play it live, absolutely, we’ve been playing it forever — and I actually wrote a song about 9/11, called “The Missing.”
We’ll definitely be playing this year on the anniversary, we actually have a show that night. It’s poetry, it’s art that was inspired by a tragic event and the song is a question, not necessarily an option… and it captivates people and is the bedrock of my little band’s existence. I think it’s dangerous that you’re gonna ban stuff, but I get that this country was devastated, and it was an open wound for weeks afterward.
It’s scary as s–t what people in positions of power did after 9/11… people at radio stations banned songs and said, “Let’s not let this change us.” But they did, and just fell into the hands of the terrorists who wanted to change America. And the first thing Clear Channel did was ban a bunch of music! That’s what the Taliban do: they ban music. It was a dangerous, dangerous line.
Wayne Swinny, guitarist Saliva: “Click Click Boom”
The events of 9/11 changed everything. I remember being on the phone with my tour manager watching live coverage when the second tower was hit. We both stood in silence realizing “this is no accident.” Of course we understood why our song “Click Click Boom” was pulled from radio — to do otherwise would have been completely insensitive to the victims and their families.
To clarify, however: The two “clicks” that the song referred to were the clicks of a ball point pen, and the “boom” was the song, the finished product, as it were. So the song really wasn’t about violence, it was more about Saliva exploding onto the music scene.
Bob Berryhill, guitarist/songwriter The Surfaris (“Wipe Out”)
I didn’t know at the time that it was banned, I never got a notice. I [recently] asked my son “what does this mean?” And he looked it up on Wikipedia and I saw the list of songs. [Edwin Starr’s] “War” I can understand, but they have Peter, Paul & Mary (“Leavin’ on a Jet Plane,” “Blowin’ in the Wind”) on there — and they are the most peace and love, flower child band you can imagine. It makes no sense.
When we play that song to this day, people jump out of their chairs and are so happy to hear it — it makes people feel good. It’s got that giggle and it’s only got the one word in it, “Wipeout,” which does not mean anything negative at all. I did not know at the time that it was [put on the list] and our music to me has always been uplifting and heartfelt and that song was created at a time when people had a great experience surfing. We play it at every concert still and nobody has ever come up to me and said, “That song is offensive.”
Marko DeSantis, guitarist Sugarcult: “Stuck in America”
We’re also celebrating the 20th anniversary of our debut album, Start Static, which came out on August 21, 2001 — which was three weeks to the day before 9/11. We’d been on Warped Tour that summer, shaking hands, and the stars were aligning for this fledgling rock group from Santa Barbara… and we put out this song called “Stuck in America” a few weeks before the record came out. To us things like radio were icing on the cake… and the song started playing well on radio and we were like, “F–k, we might have the makings of a hit before the record comes out!”
The label was stoked, we were excited and enjoying this fun, wild ride. And I was lying in bed and my parents called me [to say], “Turn on the TV and see what’s going on now.” And I saw what was happening with 9/11 — and the last thing on my mind was worrying about whether the song would still get played on radio. I was thinking, “This is the end of the world.” It was so confusing and scary, everyone felt that way. And then we started hearing after that that radio stations were dropping our song like flies.
They couldn’t in clear conscience play a song where the pre-chorus talks about “Everybody’s talking about blowin’ up the neighborhood/ Runnin’ just to get away.” It was like this binary decision: If there is any possible anti-American sentiment or anything other than “rah-rah let’s go America!” then you’re done. We 100% didn’t get into this racket under false pretenses, we know it’s the “music business, not music friends”… and they won’t play any song that will possibly alienate [advertisers].
We were not about censorship, but we volunteered to go in and had our singer recut the vocal to say “everybody’s talking about wakin’ up the neighborhood,” out of sensitivity. Because a lot of people had a mom or dad who didn’t come home for dinner, and were terrified about the future, and it was not the time to pound our chests with self-righteousness. We didn’t change it on the record, and to be honest, we were out there having a great time playing shows and spreading love, giving teens a chance to get together and let it all go and go nuts at a show.
I don’t know if radio played the other version, and it was the last thing on our minds [anyway]. It wasn’t like we panicked and said, “Oh s–t, our record will stop selling and we won’t be rock stars!” We came up with the idea and the song is not contingent on that line, and we felt we could change it if that will let the song have its purpose on radio. We always played the original version [live], and if you listen to that song it’s clearly not some anti-American song about terrorism. It’s about being young, and feeling that teenage disillusionment and dissatisfaction.
Did they overreact? Possibly. Did they overcorrect in a way that ended up hurting our career? No, we were just fine — other than missing a couple shows, big whoop. And we lost a bit of radio play, boo-hoo.
Don McLean, “American Pie”
I had no control over it. All of a sudden it was like Big Brother… first we had this cataclysmic 9/11 event. And then all of a sudden, I’m hearing, “What? They’re banning ‘Imagine’ from the radio? John Lennon?” And then you had this whole list and [you ask], “What gives them the right to do this?” All of a sudden we were back to the blacklist period of the 1950s. And I thought to myself, as I have many times, “I guess my career is over!”
After 9/11 happened, QVC [shopping network] were going to do a Don McLean afternoon and sell some stuff of mine. And I went there, and a guy came up to me and asked if I would sing a few songs for the audience — but [because of the CC list], “Would you mind not singing ‘American Pie?’” I said, “Wow, nobody has ever said that to me before! I’ll be happy not to sing it!”
All of a sudden I was blacklisted. I’m not even sure they wanted me on the television. When you think that they also included “Imagine” and many other songs, there’s no answer. After the show, the guy said to me, “The audience is still here, would you mind singing ‘American Pie?’ [off camera]. And I said, “I’m not singing that song.” I don’t really think about it anymore. It was some f–king nerd somewhere thinking about this s–t and they had the power to enact it. [The line from the song] “The day the music died” really summed up the whole thing.