I was going to avoid writing anything about 9/11 but I just read this piece by former MTV and BBC music strategist Chris Price about the problem of finding suitable music to play on a day when ears are sensitive to every lyric and liable to take offence:
Out went anything too jiggy, too banging, too edgy or too poppy, which didn’t leave much to play with – this was Radio 1 after all. Next, lyrics: Let Me Blow Ya Mind by Eve – out. Castles in the Sky by Ian Van Dahl – out. U2’s Elevation – out. Within fifteen minutes of going to air, [Chris] Moyles had played every song in what remained of his first hour…. Musically we needed a kind of intermediary stage, one that would gently lift the national mood rather than yank the listener out of the doldrums and demand they feel fine again. We needed uplifting, anthemic guitar songs with shiny production and contemplative but hopeful lyrics that would bridge a gap between chill out and jiggy. We needed Yellow, Trouble and Don’t Panic. The days following September 11th 2001 may be the only time I have said this, but thank God for Coldplay.
As well as informing me that the In the Nursery Remix of Sabres of Paradise’s Haunted Dancehall was Radio 1’s go-to disaster music, Price’s piece reminded me of two things. Unlike him I didn’t attend the Mercury Prize ceremony but I was at the venue earlier in the day, waiting to interview Super Furry Animals, when I heard the news from a weirdly cheerful hotel doorman who, at that point, thought it was just a sorry indictment of American piloting skills. The interview finally took place two hours later, after the band and I had both dragged ourselves away from the TV to talk halfheartedly about pop music. It felt pointless and embarrassing to all of us and I have never felt more irrelevant as a journalist.
It was a know-your-place moment for a music critic. No on-the-ground reporting or opinion columns for me. Instead I wrote about the music that was played a lot over the following days (Bittersweet Symphony, One, Zero 7) and the songs that weren’t (Atomic Kitten’s Eternal Flame being an odd one), believing that was better than nothing. (If I remember rightly, a section on Clear Channel’s controversial “blacklist” in the US was cut for reasons of space.)
A few months later I wrote about hip hop’s curious response to 9/11 and the war in Afghanistan, and I guess that was the first step towards the book — a way of addressing politics through writing about music. Whether or not I have succeeded, I will never again feel quite as irrelevant as I did asking Super Furry Animals about their new album less than an hour after the towers fell.
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