Touching a Nerve: How TV, Film, and Music Adjusted to 9/11

Touching a Nerve: How TV, Film, and Music Adjusted to 9/11

In commemoration of the 20th anniversary of 9/11, we look at the impact of 9/11 on millennials, Gen Zs and the pop culture we consume.

The idea that someone could be 19 years old and have no recollection of 9/11 shouldn’t feel weird, but it does.

Prior to the last year and a half of CO-consequences, 9/11 was perhaps the last disaster man-made, on our side of the planet that both my generation and the one below could appreciate its implications. The idea that a large constituent of Gen Zs never saw the flip in travel restrictions or the reputation of New York and the large-scale cultural shift that followed is just a reality of their demographic and perhaps a defining characteristic. Myself, 29 years old, did not have a youth that survived a pandemic or led a civil rights movement or reconsidered gender and sexuality...we had 9/11. Of course, I was too young to understand and even with a remedial hold on the politics or the death toll from the attack on the World Trade and America at large, I was too young to care. The solemn look and worry on my parents' faces were enough for me to clue in to the images being shown on their boxy Panasonic while they halted preparation for their work and our school that morning.

Any intrigue I placed in the cause as to why two airplanes had crashed into a pair of buildings that I had never seen before, was more curiosity than concern. My nine year old brain had no idea what a financial complex was or what this might symbolize to a foreign nation or that the US had a complicated relationship with the Middle East or that any of these things were somehow related. All that was clear was that a substantial number  of people had just died. “The U.S. is under attack.” This was the best explanation my father could give. I remember feeling that I should carry on with my life until our first class was halted for a school wide PA announcement from the principal. She called a moment of silence and strangely forewarned that the events of that morning would change the future indefinitely.

For the next two years, 9/11, Giuliani, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and his cabinet, CNN, Osama Bin Laden, and the New York Fire Department were omnipresent affecting what felt like every form of print and visual media. The sheer amount of video and photo coming from ground zero was overwhelming in its sadness. The missing family members, the first responders doing their very best, the New Yorkers who had to fight to keep pride in their city, an America that had not seen an attack on soil since Pearl Harbour. Television did not exist for the first month outside of news coverage and comedians had an even steeper mountain to climb. Theatre sales suffered and the fiction on both large and small screens was claimed by tragedy, paranoia & pessimism. 

We were not conditioned to handle an event at home as cataclysmic as 9/11 after an economically cushy 90’s and the tranquility of post-Cold War North America. 9/11 pulled the wizard out from behind the curtain, exposing him as a false idol and leaving disaster in its wake. Mistrust for the government was once again at a high, and the idea that things were not okay with a notion that they were going to get much worse was confirmed by the invasion of Iraq, its economic consequences, and the wave of xenophobia that followed.

As a kid I couldn’t open a Mad Magazine, watch an episode of Saturday Night Live, or flip on MTV without the constant barrage of 9/11 coverage which turned into analysis and then into imagery. Today geopolitical plotlines and Muslim paranoia from the pop media from the day seems like minutiae. You couldn’t even turn on the Disney channel without “9/11-core” subject matter, with movies like Cadet Kelly and Tiger Cruise affirming Disney’s stances on the military industrial complexes and first responders through Hilary Duff and Hayden Panettiere respectively. It would take roughly a decade for me to realize that the effects of 9/11 extended beyond the political, taking our culture that was directionless after a very fruitful Y2K and making it do something else entirely.

Visual mediums were split. Films looked to recreate, perhaps capitalize on the horror of the events and courage of its heroes for the big screen while others looked to examine the cultural dread and anxiety that was swallowing our national mood. Coincidental 9/11 imagery that appeared in films released prior to the attack featured in films like Donnie Darko and Collateral Damage have since attained an eerie cult status in their accidental premonitions. Comedians looked to pull their communities out of depression, while the real masters of subversion like Trey Parker and Matt Stone questioned the motive behind invading Iraq and the ethical muscles of their President.

Music did what it knows how to do and what it has tried to do for years. In the months following 9/11, big American bands did their best to offer catharsis and redemption through big rock like Bruce Springsteen’s The Rising, while Toby Keith’s Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)” took the far right route and asserted that “justice will be served and the battle will rage” with a middle finger to anti-patriotism. All That You Can’t Leave Behind the emotional third wind hit from U2 saw renewed life, with much of its material reframed for healing and renewal.

Those that didn’t join them, planned to beat them. Bands like System of a Down used their overtly political lyrics to mock and criticize the Bush administration who were hell bent on invasion and global defiance. Rage Against the Machine who were on the verge of breakup received another boost as their ethos took on new life despite all of their recordings being listed by Clear Channel as lyrically questionable material to be avoided by radio stations. Even Jadakiss, fresh off a legendary tenure with The Lox, used his single “Why?” to mic drop a question regarding the Bush administration’s incentives that was on the minds of a lot of Americans in general, “Why did Bush knock down the towers?”

But the best material that defined New York ultimately came from the very new wave of bands that were exploding within.

After the CBGBs era and until the garage rock revival, New York’s reputation as a band town remained strictly local as Giuliani’s broken windows policies created road bumps for the New York Underground. It was not until The Strokes began making waves in early 2001 and singing to RCA that New York was once again looked at as the epicentre of rock and roll with many indie, dance punk, and hard rock bands from the East Coast following suit.

9/11 may be best remembered musically through two albums that define New York pre- and post-9/11. Is This It by The Strokes represents a New York marked by promise and juvenility, where problems are merely social and first responders are a nuisance. Leaking the Summer of 2001 and finally releasing that October, Is This It not only made rock and roll cool again, its allegiance to principals and the CBGB aesthetic was inherently New York. Turn on the Bright Lights achieves another marquee album from a local staple in style and influence, Interpol who use the morbidity and tone of post punk to vividly portray their version of New York. This time though released the summer after the attacks, their city is in the midst of recovery and forever changed.

In commemoration of the 20th anniversary of 9/11, an event that not only affected our lives and our planet, but also the art that we consume and ruminate on, we have collected what we think is the best art made in the wake of 9/11 that challenges and is inseparable from the time they were created.

The Insane Slate of New Music Tuesday Albums that Dropped on 9/11:

Akercocke - The Goat of Mendes

Babyface - Face 2 Face

Ben Folds - Rockin' the Suburbs

Beulah  - The Coast Is Never Clear

Biohazard - Uncivilization

Bob Dylan - Love and Theft

Boz Scaggs - Dig

Damian Marley - Halfway Tree

Dream Theater - Live Scenes from New York

Fabolous - Ghetto Fabolous

Jay-Z - The Blueprint

John Hiatt - The Tiki Bar Is Open

Leftöver Crack - Mediocre Generica

Lennon - 5:30 Saturday Morning

Long Beach Dub Allstars - Wonders of the World

Mariah Carey - Glitter

Michael W. Smith - Worship

Nick Lowe - The Convincer

Nickelback - Silver Side Up

No Use for a Name - Live in a Dive: No Use for a Name

P.O.D. - Satellite

Professor Griff - And the Word Became Flesh

Roland Orzabal - Tomcats Screaming Outside

Slayer - God Hates Us All

Soil - Scars

Stone Gossard - Bayleaf

The Microphones - The Glow Pt. 2

The Moldy Peaches - The Moldy Peaches

They Might Be Giants - Mink Car

Toilet Böys - Toilet Böys

The Golden Age of Television

9/11 and its transpiration has undoubtedly seeped its way into television’s iconography. In The Leftovers, the Sudden Departure is allegorical for the collective trauma America experienced after the World Trade Center fell. Cults emerging in the aftermath of tragedy as people attempt to return to normalcy may have new implications during a pandemic, but The Leftovers' fictional cult the Guilty Remnant are just as emblematic of the Westboro Baptist Church as they are of anti-maskers. Only a few years before The Leftovers premiered, a seminal Breaking Bad episode aired in "ABQ". Often considered the point where Vince Gilligan started to kick things in high gear, planes crashing in midair as a karmic repercussion for Walter watching Jane die also serves as a metaphor for the American government’s chickens coming home to roost after decades of imperialistic foreign policy. Every year the examples continue to pile up.

But what is truly fascinating is how porous showrunners of the time were to the state of their country post-9/11 and how it directly influenced their art. In HBO’s two greatest achievements, The Sopranos and The Wire, this absorption of American turmoil is on full display.

David Chase decided to look at the situation through a domestic lens. Season 4 of The Sopranos follows Tony Soprano trying to guide both his marital and mob family through a 9/11-invoked economic recession. On top of providing some of the finest episodes the show ever produced, Season 4 elegantly commentates on post-9/11 America. Some of this commentary is rather direct. Tony begins the season with a biting monologue to his associates, reaming them out for low earnings and claiming that mafia affairs are “recession-proof”. Meadow finds herself working at a law firm defending clients being prosecuted due to Islamophobic post-9/11 policy; the episode “Christopher”, while admittedly a hilarious, Kubrickian satire about the general public’s ambivalence towards Indigenous communities, carries many connotations of the country’s boiling racial tensions post-2001.  

Shifts in American culture are also subtly articulated through the character's dealings. A spiraling rumour nearly gets both Johnny Sack and Ralphie killed, displaying the media's distortion of the truth and the grip it had on the country. Tony's attempt to defraud HUD portends the housing crisis just around the corner. Ending off with a calamitous bang, "Whitecaps" finishes a season-long portrait of America in decline with Tony and Carmela's separation – signalling darker times ahead for both the show and the country.

For Season 3 of The Wire, creator David Simon chose a different approach. As opposed to focusing on what was going on at home, Simon appeared more interested with America's actions abroad. Beginning with the demolition of the Franklin Terrace housing projects (subtle), an inflation in corner value turns into a deadly power skirmish between the Barksdale and the Stanfield drug organizations. Avon Barksdale applies a philosophy of traditional values to the importance of defeating his rival, Marlo Stanfield, but the truth of the matter is that he's only concerned with power and how he is perceived on the streets. 

While not unfamiliar with his own brand of duplicitous behaviour, Stringer Bell serves as the audience surrogate to this pointless power struggle. He knows just as well as we do that this war will end badly and we watch him try to stop Avon every step of the way. His efforts are futile. By the time Avon comes to his senses, his people are already in too deep. "If it's a lie," says Slim Charles, "then we fight on that lie… but we gotta fight." It is the finest allegory for America's wars on Iraq and Afghanistan ever put to screen; with the detrimental results of Afghanistan's invasion coming full circle as the Biden administration pulls out the troops, Simon's allegory becomes all the more potent.

Rewatching these seasons is watching two of television’s most important in top form. They also serve as a time capsule to a tumultuous period in American history. However, to call them time capsules may be too generous a term. If Major Bunny Colvin's monologue to Carver about policing is any indicator of progress… the country may be in a nearly identical state of flux to where it was after the Towers fell.

Good Movies about 9/11:

The 25th Hour (2002)

Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004)

Loose Change (2005)

United 93 (2006)

The Hurt Locker (2008)

The Report (2019)


Bad Movies about 9/11:

War of the Worlds (2005)

World Trade Center (2006)

W. (2008)

Vice (2018)

Can We Be Funny?

No art form struggled harder than comedy in the wake of 9/11. America was not ready to get out of bed let alone show up and laugh. Late night TV shows went into crisis mode and stopped taping for up to several weeks. Zoolander, an undisputed generational classic on the New York fashion scene hit theatres in the weeks following the attack and notably underperformed. The cold open for the SNL premiere on the 29th of September featured an address from Rudy Giuliani and the NYFD. It was this territory, a climate that was confused and afraid and anxious that comedians had to present themselves to, fundamentally playing a game of emotional detonation.

It’s what made Gilbert Gottfried’s 9/11 joke so memorable, if not questionable.

While things were being cancelled left, right, and centre, the legendary Friars Club decided to move forward with plans to host their annual roast for Playboy publishing magnate Hugh Hefner three weeks after the attacks. The always chipperly brash Gottfried joked that he had intended to catch a plane, but could not get a direct flight because they “said they have to stop at the Empire State Building first.” As you may have guessed, people were not ready, dropping boos, hisses, and an iconic “too soon” which many believe was the genesis of the stock reaction. Gottfried’s joke was unpredictable, simple, and yet made everyone at and outside the party scratch their heads at the edginess of the joke and the boldness of the man who told it. There were more than a few sour reactions, yet Gottfried was able to win the crowd back with his famous take on The Aristocrats, a classic bit, but a reversion that likely would not have got past the goalie today.

In the decades following, Gottfried’s joke has been raised consistently in the studies of 9/11 humour, and in turn our cathartic process to use comedy to heal. The Onion, South Park, and Joan Rivers would try similar tactics to various results.


The 9/11 comment that got Bill Maher fired:

In response to President Bush who referred to the terrorists responsible as cowards:

"We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That's cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, [it's] not cowardly."

Rappers Use Verse to Talk About 9/11

50 Cent - “Patiently Waiting”

"Sit and politic with passengers from 9/11."

"Shady Records was eighty seconds away from the towers."

Beastie Boys - “An Open Letter to NY”

Since 9/11, we're still livin'

And lovin’, life we've been given

Ain't nothing gonna' take that away from us

Were lookin' pretty and gritty cause in the city we trust

Dear New York, I know a lot has changed

2 towers down, but you're still in the game

Lupe Fiasco - “Words I Never Said”

I really think the War on Terror is a bunch of bullshit

Just a poor excuse for you to use up all your bullets

How much money does it take to really make a full clip?

9/11, building 7, did they really pull it?

Uh, And a bunch of other coverups

Your child's future was the first to go with budget cuts

Twista (feat Faith Evans) - Hope

"Wish God never gave the men power/

To be able to hurt the people inside the Twin Towers"

Wu Tang Clan [Ghostface Killah] - “Rulez”

Who the fuck knocked our buildings down?

Who the man behind the World Trade massacres, step up now

Where the four planes at, huh, is you insane, bitch?

Fly that shit over my hood and get blown to bits

No disrespect, that's where I rest my head

I understand you gotta rest yours true nigga, my people's dead

America, together we stand, divided we fall

Mr. Bush, sit down, I'm in charge of the war

Talib Kweli - “The Proud”

My heart go out to everybody at Ground Zero

Red, black, yellow, white and brown heroes

It's more complicated than black and white

To give your own life is the greatest sacrifice

Gorillaz & D12 - "911"

Placed on the planet, remain in poisonous warfare

Derelict Arabic terrorists in the air

Shit arrogant apparent to punish people by their heritage,

Nato barriers, Hate embarrassed




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