Sept. 11 reveals shift in American pop culture

The events of Sept. 11 will certainly be remembered for the rest of our lives. Even many members of the freshman class, who were approximately seven years old at the time, can recall the events of the day, or where they were when they understood what was happening to our nation. Indeed, the effects of this tragedy are still visible today when we remove our shoes at the checkpoint before stepping onto an airplane, when we pass through a metal detector before entering a public building, when we fly in or out of a New York City airport and when we see the two great square pits that form the current Sept. 11 memorial at Ground Zero. But when the world witnessed this crime, it didn’t just affect the public’s sense of security; it extended into popular culture, and started a trend that was felt years afterwards.

My personal analysis of popular culture through music videos has taught me that there are two forces that interact with each other to form the cultural identity of an era. These two forces (I shall call them light and dark) are both constantly in existence, but change positions, with one dominating over the other. The motion between light and dark periods is often dictated by economic prosperity and the beginning or end of a war. These light and dark periods of popular culture can be understood by simply observing media from a particular time period.

If I asked you to visualize the 1950s, you would probably think about flashy cars, neon signs, diners, chrome and early rock n’ roll. This would be classified as a light period. On the other hand, reflecting on the 70s brings up images of beige, brown, wood paneled cars and televisions, and tacky plaid suits, an obvious dark period. Other bright periods include the 1920s, 60s, the early to mid-80s and (since about 2010) the present. Darker periods would be the Depression, the late ’80s to early ’90s and 2003-2009.

In the years prior to Sept. 11, starting around 1996, the United States began experiencing one of the greatest light periods of the century, perhaps second only to the Roaring ’20s. The booming economic growth and lack of major military action at the time fostered an optimism that hadn’t been seen in decades. To understand this sort of optimistic attitude, simply watch some music videos from the time like “Who Let the Dogs Out?” by the Baha Men (I know, I know). The colors of the sky, the ocean, and the green trees are so saturated, almost to a fluorescent extent, that they just pop right out at you, not to mention that nearly half of the shots were done using a wide-angle lens, another hallmark of this light period. The Baha Men directly and visually address the camera, making funny faces with great joy, as if to say, “We are going to be silly, but we are having fun, and that’s what matters the most.”

Within weeks of the Sept. 11 attacks, America’s cultural institutions had already processed the change in mood. One of my favorite pieces of evidence for this is the video for “New York, New York” by Ryan Adams. Amazingly, this video was shot in full view of the towers only four days before the attacks! The single was released that November, and even then, the shots of Adams in front of the towers have been given a yellow or dark blue tint. The cover for this album, “Gold,” released on Sept. 25, shows Adams standing before an inverted American flag.

The qualities of the pre-9/11 bright period were still obvious as the country descended towards war. In “Sk8ter Boi,” Avril Lavigne is obviously acting pre-Sept. 11, visually addressing the camera, and the video consists of active and quick cuts between shots, but once again the colors in the video are extremely muted and dull.

By the time the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, the dark period had established itself. What punk band had achieved nationwide fame with its 2004 studio album? That would be Green Day with “American Idiot.” Green Day’s music videos are an especially interesting example of how the transition between light and dark periods occurred. Earlier videos like “Basket Case,” “When I Come Around,” “Waiting” and “Redundant” do indeed show a punk band, but at the same time, utilize a very bright background and vivid colors. Overall, they give off a very positive vibe. But around 2002, something happens and we get the decline of the punk rock genre into a previously unseen level of darkness in the music culture. The video for “American Idiot” is, with the exception of green, a very monochrome experience. The characters in “Jesus of Suburbia” are all wearing spiked clothing, dyed hair and eyeliner. Keep in mind that this change is only a few years after some of their brighter videos.

Of course, Sept. 11 was not the sole reason for this change in cultural attitude. Blink-182 was getting darker before the attacks, but it can definitely be said that the attacks had a substantial impact on American lives, which in turn dictates culture. There is more to music videos than just the color scheme used; there’s the clothes, the plot and the overall mood of the video. The shift from pre- to post-Sept. 11 can be observed in movies and photographs from the time period, too. Just by watching music videos from this time, the obvious change in overall attitude can be observed. This has to do with the fact that culture is made up of people, and just as people have emotions, so too can a culture reflect that ongoing emotion.

 

—Zach Sherman ’16 is a biology major.

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