What's the tasteful way to make a buck during a time of national tragedy? That's the question the pop culture industry has been gingerly grappling with a month on from the horrific attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. In those strikes' immediate aftermath, entertainment practically vanished from public view. 'N Sync and Blink-182 fans flipping on MTV's Total Request Live, hoping to catch a few soothing homilies from host Carson Daly, were met by a network news feed. Local radio stations such as Power 96 (WPOW-FM 96.5) took much the same tack, preempting their steady diet of upbeat hits for a seemingly endless stream of distraught telephone callers. As syndicated Top 40 disc jockey Rick Dees so ably explained, "It just didn't seem like the time to be playing 'Bootylicious.'" Certainly as the voice of wisdom behind the heartfelt "Disco Duck," Dees knows from trauma.
It wasn't until the weekend that most television and radio outlets returned to "normal" programming; NBC tested the waters by running freshly overhauled promos for its Friends season premiere. Out went the bouncy theme song and the show's shiny, happy faces. Now the cast was portrayed in stark black and white, striking concerned poses straight out of an Ingmar Bergman film.
Hollywood studios quickly adopted this sober tone as well: The Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle Collateral Damage (featuring bloodthirsty Colombian terrorists) and Disney's Big Trouble (whose plot revolves around a bomb hidden on an airplane) found themselves indefinitely held back from theaters. Perhaps the most surreal turn was Sex and the City creator Darren Star announcing that he was carefully reviewing upcoming episodes of his program and editing out any momentary glimpses of the World Trade Center. Earlier in the season an entire Sex and the City episode had revolved around the relative pros and cons of analingus -- earning the show record ratings in the process. Now, however, Star believed those same viewers' delicate sensibilities would be offended by a brief shot of the Twin Towers. Who's kidding whom here?
A look at the pop charts sends a very different message about the national mood -- or at least that of its younger generations. The number one album for the past three weeks has been neither a treacly ode to healing nor an angry jeremiad aimed overseas. (As the Onion archly satirized, "President Urges Calm, Restraint Among Nation's Ballad Singers": "To America's recording artists, I just want to say, please, there has already been enough suffering," Bush said. "The last thing we need right now is a soaring Barbra Streisand-Brian McKnight duet titled One for All.'")
Instead, according to SoundScan, the biggest-selling record since its day of release -- September 11 -- has been hip-hop titan Jay-Z's The Blueprint. "I dropped the same day as the Twin Towers," Jay-Z proudly declaimed to a New York City concert audience two weeks later. Recession or not, he reminded everyone, he still had a hit straight out of the gate. Alan Greenspan would've been proud.
At the October 1 Billboardlive concert here in Miami, Jay-Z was no less blithe about The Blueprint's unabashed salute to the good life. "You are now looking at one smart black boy," he crowed to the audience over a comically speeded-up Bobby Byrd sample. "Mama ain't raised no fool/Put me anywhere on God's green earth and I will triple my worth."
That's more than idle boasting. Jay-Z's bio is the stuff of hip-hop mythology: from a childhood in Brooklyn's Marcy housing projects to a teenage stint as a crack dealer to his reinvention as a rap mogul with millions of albums sold via his Roc-A-Fella imprint; Roc-A-Fella Films, a production house with a Miramax distribution deal; and a top-selling fashion line, Rocawear.
Of course self-tributes (albeit supremely funky ones) are about the extent of Jay-Z's oeuvre. Each of his albums focuses on little more than calling out rivals, getting paid, and then getting laid (though not always in that order). The Blueprint is no exception. In "Song Cry," a bizarre attempt at apologizing to a jilted lover, he explains, "I was only fuckin' those girls/I was gonna get right back."
Supposedly such self-absorption is passé in the wake of September 11. Haven't sensibilities radically shifted? As hip-hop impresario and Def Jam Records (home to Jay-Z's Roc-A-Fella) head Russell Simmons told the New York Times: "This kind of incident reminds artists that there's more than dancing and singing.... I think a lot of people in the hip-hop community are going to start picking up newspapers, learning about foreign policy, and analyzing what they read in the news. How big your car is is a boring subject now."
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That's an uplifting theory, but it remains just that. At Jay-Z's gig, which attracted a true cross section of Miami youth -- from wannabe thugs to South Beach fashionistas back from their Hamptons summer -- there was little grief in the air. In fact the only note of woe was sounded by a pack of teens who were barred from going up to the 21-and-older-only balcony. And young or old, black or white, male or female, everybody sang along at the top of their lungs to this city's unofficial anthem, "Big Pimpin'." One inspired attendee even tossed a handful of dollar bills out over the crowd, just to cement the video-ready moment.
Jay-Z isn't oblivious to the societal changes wrought by September 11 -- he just has a different take on responding to them. Case in point: the brand-new Rocawear shirt he sported onstage. It was an oversize black, button-down number, with 9-11-01 emblazoned in gold on the front, a U.S. flag on the left sleeve, and a sergeant's stripes on the right sleeve. For added effect an assortment of firemen's and military insignia also adorned the front. After a short intermission that he called a "Cristal break," Jay-Z stripped down to a simple black Rocawear T-shirt with just the 9-11-01 legend on it, perfect for shoppers desiring a minimalist look. According to a Rocawear spokeswoman, a portion of the shirts' proceeds will be donated to relief efforts, which should make for some guilt-free accessorizing.
There were only two things on his mind, Jay-Z explained to his adulating fans at Billboardlive, most of whom had paid $45 a head to get in: "We came here to have a good time, and we came here to make some money." A crass sentiment? Sure. But it's also honest -- which is more than you can say for the rest of pop culture's movers and shakers.