It’s been nine years since September 11th, 2001. There’s a lot to say about that day, and a lot of more important things to remember than a bevy of clicks and whistles, so let me begin by stating I’m well aware that what I’m about to explore carries nowhere near the gravity of just bout any other related topic one could report on. That in mind, while the sentiment at the time is understandable, in the world of music journalism it’s bizarre to see how little of that three-month stretch of August-October 2001 has been remembered. Outside Aaliyah’s death, the Concert for New York City, The Coup’s Album Cover snafu and the debate of whether the months-later releases of Bruce Springstein’s The Rising or Eminem’s The Eminem Show is the first proper post-9/11 album, most recollections make it seem like music was just not played for a while. That in mind, let’s take a look back at the bizarre haze that was the music industry around 9/11.
Let’s start with the day itself. 9-11-01 was designated to be one of the industry’s “Super Tuesdays,” a single release date where several big name releases drop at once with hopes that products would be cross-promoted and the consumer would purchase two or three at a time. On this day alone you had Bob Dylan’s Love and Theft, Slayer’s God Hates Us All, Ben Folds’ Rockin’ the Suburbs, the Glitter soundtrack, Jay-Z’s The Blueprint and Nickleback’s breakthrough American release Silver Side Up. All things considered, had the attacks not happened, this one day had all these important releases that, for better or worse, either captured their respective genres at the moment or went on to define where music went for the rest of the decade.
Following 9/11, radio really was at a bizarre standstill. I recall reading an interview with a popular DJ at the time who described the days following as “just not the right time to play ‘Bootyliscious.'” We all grieve in different ways, and there is a level of mood and taste that goes into sensitive times like this, particularly if you’re a major media outlet, but nobody really knew what to do. Radio mega-conglomerate Clear Channel famously released this list of songs no station should play due to “questionable lyrics” that included everything from the somewhat understandable albeit oversensitive “Bennie and the Jets” by Elton John and “Bodies” by Drowning Pool, to the puzzling “He’s Not Heavy, He’s My Brother” by the Hollies and “She’s Not There” by the Zombies, to the laughable banning of “all songs by Rage Against the Machine.” This opening of empty space on the radio forced programmers to play anything that they could to get people’s minds off the attacks, which lead to the Insane Clown Posse’s promotional Halloween song getting regular Clear Channel rotation and becoming the biggest pre-“Miracles” hit of their careers. MTV also began taking call-ins from the likes of Ja Rule (which in nine years has somehow still not returned to the internet) and airing promos from artists like Bad Ronald, telling us that if we need to talk to someone about how we’re feeling, we should. They would shoot promos with any celebrity who would talk to them to help fill airtime, including one with Whoopi Goldberg that I recall her stating “this is the end of all that reality TV, but cause television will never get realer than this.” Any time these weren’t airing, MTV was filling space with this unfathomably awful remake of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” that even in a post ‘We Are the World 25’-world may be the most awful celebrity circle-jerk ever committed to wax, culminating in without hyperbole the absolute worst moment of Fred Durst’s career as he was called in on THE MORNING OF 9/11 to tack on a verse and give this charity single originally meant for AIDS relief a whole new relevance.
But where did all of this slingshot from? Well, the previous August was a time in popular music so bizarre it’s been all but written out of the history books. The industry had just had its back-to-back biggest years ever, with albums moving 10 million units on a regular basis. Napster had just been completely wiped out, and the biggest stars in the world were boy bands, nu-metal, teenage sex kittens and white rappers. Even the “failures” were going platinum and people were making money hand over fist. While many revisionists have falsely attributed Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP as ending the boy band-era, N’SYNC’s final album Celebrity, which came out a year later, still sold 4.4 million copies and was 2001’s top seller, along with Staind’s Break the Cycle, not to mention the previous year’s Linkin Park album Hybrid Theory and Shaggy’s Hotshot that finally found an audience and managed to outsell them both. Michael Jackson had also reunited with the Jackson 5 one last time and prepped the release of his forthcoming Invincible by playing his final show in New York City as recently as September 10th.
Yet, despite these trends, that summer was a time of “let’s just see what sticks” where record labels were backing random, bizarre artists and pushing their weirdness out into the world. It marked the return of the novelty song, a niche whose fun was extinguished as the planes hit the towers and the artists involved, even quicker than usual, were never heard from again. Let’s take a look back at the careers that time forgot.
Afroman – “Because I Got High”
Starting things off we have Afroman who has remained the most visible of the 9/11 novelty casualties. “Because I Got High,” or as MTV edited the Kevin Smith directed-clip, “Because I Got (handlebar bell sound),” was the likeliest of unlikely hits and to this day has become something of a cult favorite. The same could be said about Afroman himself who has maintained something of a Phish-like following who will follow him to the ends of the Earth and purchase everything he puts out.
Bad Ronald – “Let’s Begin (Shoot the S**t)”
Here’s something bizarre. Like I said, 2001 was a year where the streets ran red with the blood of failed white rappers. The tremendous success of Eminem resulted in some bizarre reverse-affirmative action effect where every label had to have some rhyming caucazoid. The Neptunes’ Star Trak imprint had Lee Harvey, Bad Boy has Kain and, not to be outdone, Reprise Records assembled three white rappers (and the DJ from beloved Twin Cities rap outfit The Oddjobs) to form the proto-Asher Roth frat rap Voltron known as Bad Ronald. While they did benefit from a legitimately well done Mark Klasfeld (Scarface’s “On My Block,” Juvenile’s “Ha”) directed video, (which a quick Google search proved to be very popular in the adult-baby communities), their success just wasn’t meant to be. I do remember the review of their self-titled album getting a particularly scathing review in Rolling Stone, declaring “finally the Bloodhound Gang have someone to look down upon.”
Little T and One Track Mike – “Shaniqua”
Warner Music Group has deactivated the audio on this clip because even they are capable of mercy. If you really want to hear it again, it’s here and it’s awful. A classic example of a catchy chorus and a bunch of noises on either side of it, it’s aged so poorly that Crazy Town’s “Butterfly” is a Chateau Lafite Bordeaux by comparison. I mean, even as someone who has the lyrics to “Surfin Bird” memorized, I find “milking a purple cow” a particularly embarrassing moment in pop culture. Well, at least it doesn’t have Fred Durst rapping about “human beings using human beings for a bomb.” You feelin’ me right?
This post is dedicated in loving memory of Rich Cronin.