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Tuesday, September 12, 2023

September 12, 2023: AmericanStudying The Rising: “Paradise” and “Worlds Apart”

[For this particular AmericanStudier, there’s no better way to think through another anniversary of September 11th, 2001 than to consider some of the many lessons we can learn from the best cultural work depicting that moment: Bruce Springsteen’s album The Rising (2002). So this week I’ll AmericanStudy pairs of songs from that vital work—please share your own responses, nominations for other vital 9/11 cultural works, and further thoughts for a crowd-sourced weekend post!]

On two very different ways to push past stereotypes of Muslims.

It’s not an easy subject to discuss, and of course one that can (and has) far too easily lead to racial profiling and hate crimes of all sorts (in 2001 and across the decades since), but there’s no way to engage September 11th, in cultural texts as in every form of conversation, without some portrayals of Muslim extremist terrorists, and specifically of suicide bombers. I hope it goes without saying to readers of this blog, and to anyone who knows me in any context, that I would always argue—and not even argue, but simply state, because these are true facts—that the 9/11 bombers in no way represented Islam, nor their Muslim communities, nor Muslim Americans (they were not from the United States at all, of course), and were just as fanatical and hateful as any other terrorists, past or present, foreign or domestic. But in the case of September 11th, 2001, fanatical and hateful terrorists calling themselves Muslims used suicide bombings to attack New York City and Washington, and I repeat that no cultural works about that day or those events can or should elide that complex but crucial layer to these histories and those involved in (as well as, in the case of Muslim Americans and Muslims worldwide, affected by) them.

One of the most complex and interesting songs on The Rising, the penultimate track “Paradise,” engages with suicide bombers and bombings very overtly and centrally. The song seems to move through distinct and equally ambiguous speakers in each verse, all dealing with death and the losses and uncertainties it produces (including about whether there is such a thing as the titular place beyond death), but the first verse’s speaker is pretty clearly a suicide bomber, one who takes “the schoolbooks” from a child’s “pack” (presumably the speaker’s own) and replaces them with “plastic, wire, and your kiss,” all of which that speaker then takes to a “crowded marketplace” where they will apparently detonate their bomb. We get no more specific identifying information than that, but in an album so clearly focused on September 11th, it is impossible not to think of this suicide bomber as a Muslim extremist like those behind the 9/11 attacks. On the one hand, then, this song seems to reinforce certain stereotypes about Muslims (if ones linked to specific 9/11 contexts to be sure); but on another, it adds multiple humanizing layers to those images, both in the opening verse (the relationship with the child who is the speaker’s addressee) and in the song as a whole (analogizing this bomber, at least in some ways, to the other speakers who have lost loved ones, quite possibly in the 9/11 attacks).

Again, complicated and difficult stuff, and if it were the only way that Springsteen’s album engages with Muslims I think that’d be a missed opportunity. But it’s not, and in the other overt such engagement, “Worlds Apart,” Springsteen offers a vitally distinct vision of that global community. The speaker and situation are similarly ambiguous, but to my mind the speaker is a Muslim and Arabic man, perhaps from Afghanistan (a “dry and troubled country” that longs for “Allah’s blessed rain,” and of course one very connected to the aftermath of 9/11 as of 2002), in an interfaith relationship with a Western woman (presumably an American one, given Springsteen’s own identity and the album’s overall focus). I would argue that the song’s best verse, and one of the very best on the album, is its second “Sometimes the truth just ain’t enough, or it’s too much in times like this/Let’s throw the truth away, we’ll find it in this kiss/In your skin upon my skin, in the beating of our hearts/May the living let us in, before the dead tear us apart.” I’m not sure I need to say much more after those potent lines, but will just add that that’s a reflection on intimacy, identity, community, and times like 9/11 and its aftermath—for Muslims and for all of us—without which this album would be sorely impoverished.

Next RisingStudying tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other 9/11 texts you’d highlight?

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