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Friday, September 15, 2023

September 15, 2023: AmericanStudying The Rising: “My City of Ruins” and “Superman (It’s Not Easy)”

[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 how art can radically change in meaning alongside history.

The song, and one of the cultural works in any media, that became most overtly associated with September 11th and its aftermaths was released almost exactly a year before the attacks. America Town, the second studio album from Five for Fighting (the stage name of singer-songwriter Vladimir John Ondrasik), was released on September 26th, 2000 and included the song “Superman (It’s Not Easy).” That song, an interesting psychological examination of Superman’s inner perspective and emotions, was the album’s second single and had already become a minor hit by September 2001; but in the aftermath of the attacks it became an anthem for the first responders, an expression of their collective service and sacrifice on and after that horrific day. Five for Fighting’s live piano performance of it at the October 20th Concert for New York City was one of the most moving moments in a period of American and world history full of them, and cemented this song’s enduring status as a definitive artistic expression of the best of post-9/11 America.

Obviously all of Bruce Springsteen’s 2002 album The Rising comprised another, and much more intentional, such artistic expression. But interestingly enough, perhaps the single song from that album which became most overtly connected to 9/11 and its aftermaths—including a similar live performance at another benefit concert, September 12th, 2001’s televised special “America: A Tribute to Heroes”—was likewise written a year before that event. Springsteen first wrote the song “My City of Ruins” in November 2000 for a Christmas benefit concert for Asbury Park, New Jersey, the seaside community that had been such a vital element of Springsteen’s childhood and early musical career alike. By 2000 Asbury Park was in pretty rough shape (hence the need for a benefit concert), and so was the titular city of ruins to which Springsteen’s speaker repeatedly implores that it “come on, rise up!” By performing the song at the Tribute to Heroes benefit Springsteen already began to shift its association to post-September 11th New York City, however, and then his inclusion of it on The Rising—indeed, it is the album’s concluding track—cemented that new and enduring association.

The specific circumstances and ways in which these two songs became so closely associated with September 11th are thus quite different, but the fundamental facts are nonetheless similar: songs written in the fall of 2000 becoming repurposed a year later after the attacks and in the process coming to feel like collective artistic anthems of that moment and its emotions. And that’s what I would especially emphasize about this interesting and telling pair of 9/11 songs: a particular and potent form of what literary critics would call reader-response theory. That critical perspective argues that the meaning of texts is made not by the authors (nor by intrinsic elements within those texts), but by audiences through their engagement with and responses to the texts. In my understanding reader-response generally focuses on individual reader/audience member, but there’s no reason why we can’t think about collective such responses, and indeed when it comes to historical events that affect an entire community or nation, it makes sense that there would likewise be collective experiences of cultural and artistic works. Moreover, Springsteen sought to produce such a collective experience with his post-9/11 album The Rising, and it’s clear that he succeeded very fully indeed.

Crowd-sourced post this weekend,


PS. So one more time: what do you think? Other 9/11 texts you’d highlight?

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