Culture After September 11

January 1, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


ROBERT MACNEIL: Much has been written and said about how the world changed after September 11. That day seems to have affected everything from Washington politics to corporate lay-offs to whether Americans are willing to travel on the holidays.

Tonight we take a New Year’s look at the world of culture with three observers who write criticism for the New York Times: Caryn James is the paper’s television critic, Stephen Holden, its movie critic, and Jon Pareles its pop music critic. Starting with you, Karen, there were huge changes predicted in everything immediately after September 11. In general, can you see significant changes in the arts and popular culture since then?

CARYN JAMES, TV Critic, The New York Times: Well, what I’m surprised by is how many of those predictions were wrong because in the first few days what you heard was that people were going to turn away anything that had to do with terrorism, that movies were canceled. If you look, for instance, at the Arnold Schwarzenegger film collateral damage that was canceled right afterwards, people were saying then, that will never be released.

But I saw a trailer for it last week. Shows that are about terrorism on television really have a resurgence of popularity. I think all the predictions that people were going to shy away from dealing with the issue have been wrong.

ROBERT MACNEIL: Have they been wrong, Stephen?

STEPHEN HOLDEN, Movie Critic, The New York Times: Yes, of course in the case of movies, all the movies that are out now were made before September 11. It’s really too early to say. But my sense is that since the movie business was not affected at all by September 11, people went to the movies as much as they ever had, that things will be pretty much normal again except for the tone of the movies perhaps.

ROBERT MACNEIL: And Jon Pareles, in general, do you think those predictions were wrong?

JON PARELES, Music Critic, The New York Times: No, I don’t think they were wrong. For popular music some of them have come true. Popular music I think is shaped more quickly by audience response than movies or TV. And what we saw immediately after September 11 was that the whole range of emotions that people felt came through in what people wanted to hear from pop music. They wanted to hear something to comfort them.

They wanted to hear something to tell them that they were still okay. They wanted to hear something that captured the anger people felt. You could see that immediately in the benefit program, the telethon on September 21, where you had some people singing…

You had Neal Young singing John Lennon’s “Imagine,” which is all about wishing for peace and an end to nationalism and religion. You had Tom Petty singing “We Won’t Back Down.” You had that whole spectrum. Since then, it’s still coming through. One of the most popular singles since September 11 has been Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA,” which was a big hit in 1991 during the Gulf War.

People went out and bought that song like they bought the American flag. The other thing that happened is that there’s a big strain of popular music that’s been going on in rock that’s basically I feel really sorry for myself, my parents treated me bad so I can be obnoxious.

ROBERT MACNEIL: Suburban angst.

JON PARELES: Suburban angst. And that has been kind of superseded by bands that are offering something more global in outlook. One of the big beneficiaries of September 11 was a band called POD, which stands for payable on death but which is actually a Christian rap rock band. They have a song called alive that goes “I’m thankful for every breath I take. I won’t take it for granted.” That’s what people wanted to hear. They didn’t want to hear my parents treated me bad anymore.

ROBERT MACNEIL: You’ve written that context changes everything in pop music and you also quote Bruce Springsteen as saying that, where is the quote that music go… Songs go out and people use them as they need them.

JON PARELESS: Artists in a way are prophets. They sometimes don’t know what they’re saying when they say it. It takes the audience making that song to complete the process. Springsteen was specifically talking about my city of ruin, a song he wrote about the collapse of Asbury Park and the collapse of a romance and suddenly when he sang it on September 21 on TV it was about the collapse of the World Trade Towers.

ROBERT MACNEIL: Caryn, let’s turn to television, your field. It was interesting to me that back in November you wrote in the context of talking about news, oddly entertainment has often done a better job of addressing the country’s mood than news. I wonder if you still think that, a couple of months later, and what… Why you said that.

CARYN JAMES: I said that in November because that was the first wave of dramas that were dealing specifically with what happened things like NYPD Blue, Third Watch the NBC drama about New York police and firefighters, the West Wing’s episode on terrorism which wasn’t very good but addressed it in a way that really captured, I think, the mood of the country, the fact that people wanted to talk obsessively about this, wanted some reassurance that life would go on as Jon said.

And I think it was important for entertainment to do that at that moment. I think that news has been up and down about it. And I think at that moment probably in the middle of the anthrax business, which seemed to veer away from the best, serious coverage that came right after the attacks.

And I think now you see a real split on television between shows like “Friends” or “Will and Grace” that are escapist and don’t want to deal with it and shows like NYPD Blue that are immersed in the difference, whether they deal with it explicitly or not. But have to at least explain that we’re in a different world. If you’re a New York City police officer, you’re not in the same world you were last season on television.

ROBERT MACNEIL: Hasn’t the audience also enforced that or reinforced it by for instance going back to “Friends” in large numbers because it’s comfort food for them?

CARYN JAMES: Yes. Absolutely. The comfort show has been a big part of this season: “Everybody Loves Raymond,” “Friends,” shows that are very familiar and reassuring and escapist. On the other hand, you have shows like CSI, a forensic drama on CBS, that is very grizzly and is one of the most popular shows on television now. Partly I think that what’s happening is counterintuitive.

These shows that seem to be so tough and grisly, like “The Agency” about the CIA really tell us very reassuring things. The good guys win in the end. Maybe at the cost of a life but we’ll triumph. Everything will be okay. So there’s been a real hunger for that kind of drama as well.

ROBERT MACNEIL: Stephen, I imagine the question of context applies in what you said earlier even more to movies because they’ve all been made so far before September 11 and how movies are seen now in the new context.

STEPHEN HOLDEN, Movie Critic, The New York Times: I think that we bring our political passions to them. And our feelings about grief and rage and war. For instance, a movie like “In the Bedroom” very critically acclaimed film just came out. Who could have known how it would resonate now. It’s about a couple who… Whose son is killed, murdered in Maine, and they take action.

They take vigilante action. But much of the movie is about their grief and seeing the movie now as opposed to before September 11, it actually played at the Sun Dance Festival, it’s inescapably resonant with feelings of grief that millions of people feel in this country and the desire to take action rather than to be passive.

ROBERT MACNEIL: I felt that… We rented the other night the movie “Bounce” with Gwyneth Paltrow and Ben Affleck which has been out for a couple of years, right?


ROBERT MACNEIL: Last year. And it could have been made deliberately to react to the world trade center in a way because so much of it was about her survivor guilt and grief. Now, how are the movies now being made? Going to change? Can you say, do you think?

STEPHEN HOLDEN: I think they’ll pretty much stay the same. Right after the incident, “Training Day,” which is a very violent movie opened and did fabulous business. So no one was averse to watching violence on the screen. I do think that we’re going to have more heroism in films, that people…films will be less……

A little less cynical than they were. I think that what this whole series of events has done is bring back a real belief in heroes because we’ve seen real heroes. And that’s going to impact a lot of mainstream films.

ROBERT MACNEIL: A lot of people have noticed, I guess particularly in television, a turning to home, family, community. Can you see that in the… Jon, can you see that in the pop music field? Does that in any way represented in that?

JON PARELES: Well, see, the arts are a refuge for people. The arts are where everything works out fine, where your fantasies come true, where the terrorists get beaten in an hour and a half. So I have seen it in songs — another popular song this season has been Enya’s “Only Time” which is a very soothing song.

It asks a lot of questions but the music tells you that everything is going to be all right. It’s almost a lullaby. People do… People also like the frivolity as something you can handle, something that’s not open ended and scary. Art is often at the opposite end of journalism. It doesn’t tell you what is, it tells you what isn’t. It tells where you’d like to be.

ROBERT MACNEIL: Television is preeminently the movie for staying home close to the family. And you talked about the new popularity of things like “Friends.” But is that affecting the content in other ways or going to, do you think? Or do you think this is just a phase?

CARYN JAMES: It’s hard to say. I think in the short run you will certainly see more nostalgia shows, the Carol Burnett clip show and the Lucille Ball clip show were incredible successes.

Television tends to play it safe. I think in the short run you’ll see a lot more nostalgia and fluffy things. In the long run I think it’s really hard to say right now because if you had asked that question on September 12, we might have a very different from what we have now. I think now we’ve got a sense of purpose and optimism and I don’t think we know what’s going to happen next. So in the long run, it’s impossible to predict what’s going to happen.

ROBERT MACNEIL: Stephen, there’s also a lot of talk from artists since September 11 about a new seriousness or needing a new seriousness. Have you seen not only in films but elsewhere any evidence of that surfacing yet?

STEPHEN HOLDEN: No. I don’t think… I haven’t seen that. But I think we underestimate Hollywood in a certain way. Hollywood, for better or for worse, is a kind of reflection of the collective unconscious of this country. It’s very powerful. I think in a way Hollywood films in their mainstream way, in their crude way really anticipated what happened and anticipated a kind of…

The patriotism we’re going through. “Saving Private Ryan” and “Pearl Harbor” came out before this. It’s an odd thing, isn’t it, that Hollywood in a way prepared us, got us ready for this in a way. You can even say that certain movies like “The Siege” anticipated the actual disaster. You can see that that’s serious in a way, in a pop sort of way.

ROBERT MACNEIL: I wonder what each of you think about a comment by Teresa Wilts of the Washington Post. She wrote “even a national tragedy of cataclysmic proportions can alter our cultural DNA only so much. Popular culture reflects the basic id or impulses of the nation and it’s a huge business. Therefore it can be changed only so much.” Is she right or wrong about that? What do you think?

CARYN JAMES: I think she’s wrong.

ROBERT MACNEIL: You think she’s wrong.

CARYN JAMES: I think if there’s a fundamental cultural change, entertainment and the arts change too.

ROBERT MACNEIL: But is this a fundamental cultural change like World War I was?

CARYN JAMES: World War I is the obvious example. I don’t think we’ve seen that yet, because the pendulum is still going back and forth. If there are other attacks depending on what happens in the next year or so, it could become that. I don’t think it’s that fundamental a cultural change in our way of thinking about ourselves yet.

ROBERT MACNEIL: Is it a fundamental cultural change yet, Jon?

JON PARELES: There’s a great multiplicity in popular arts always. In World War II you had patriotic songs and the Andrews Sister and Bing Crosby singing “White Christmas.” There’s always a multiplicity of responses. So to think that everybody in culture is going to suddenly face the same direction, be patriotic, be serious is never going to happen.

What you’re going to see instead is musicians and film makers and even television writers sort of groping in the dark trying to figure out what they want to say and what people want. I mean I think of artists as kind of the antenna on the front of the caterpillar. They’re sort of wiggling up ahead in the space that the rest of the creature is going to occupy. And they don’t know yet. But they’re beaming in information that we’re going to need to use.

CARYN JAMES: There’s also a difference between art that is enduring and in the short run the immediate response that we’re talking about which is much more responsive to what the popular mood is — rather than avant-garde artists who are more like your caterpillar looking for what they can tell us we don’t already know.

ROBERT MACNEIL: Thank you all. I have to end it there. Thank you very much.