Arts help us to remember Sept. 11 -- and to forget

Posted: Thursday, December 13, 2001

NEW YORK -- The poems are taped to church gates just outside ground zero. They are calling out to remind us, like a pleading chorus. ''We must remember/so we can change'' reads one couplet, typed out on plain white paper.

But at a nearby music store on a recent morning, Ian Joseph checks out a Julio Iglesias CD and tries to forget.

''Before Sept. 11, I liked hard-core music: reggae, R&B,'' says Joseph, 34, a technician who works at the rubble of what was once the World Trade Center. ''But lately, I've been listening to slower music, classical musical. I want to relax.''

In 2001, the arts proved a home for people both to confront the news and to escape. Tribute poems and patriotic songs proliferated and topical books such as ''Germs'' and ''Taliban'' became best sellers. At the same time, television audiences went for Carol Burnett reruns and moviegoers indulged in ''Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.''

The effects of Sept. 11 were as public as sales for Whitney Houston's ''The Star-Spangled Banner'' and as private as the thoughts of people like Sandra Roman, a municipal employee in New York City who pays close attention to the evening news and then turns away.

''I find myself looking to fantasy, like 'Harry Potter' and 'Lord of the Rings,''' Roman says as she checks out a table of books set up by a street vendor near ground zero. She buys ''101 Dalmatians'' and a few other children's books, for her 4-year-old grandson.

''He goes to school and he's been told about what happened. But at home, we don't want him to hear about it,'' she explains.

Television especially reflected the split between learning and avoiding. Ratings were up for ''Nightline'' and other news shows since Sept. 11, but viewers also favored the fare they've spent years watching. ''Friends'' and ''ER'' have been the most popular programs of the season, with their success attributed to viewers' desire for the TV version of ''comfort food.''

''I do think there's been a run to the familiar post-Sept. 11,'' said NBC entertainment president Jeff Zucker, ''because we've all been busy and we've all been drawn to the news.''

With the occasional exception, viewers have rejected so-called reality TV, preferring the reality of news. But executives suggest this has more to do with a reality show glut than a change in popular taste.

Nostalgia was in. A Michael Jackson concert special and programs that aired classic comedy clips from Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett did spectacularly well in November.

''There's evidence that people are watching TV together as a family, instead of going to their separate rooms,'' said David Poltrack, chief researcher for CBS.

Theater attendance slowed, dipping slightly from last year, but some shows continued to do well. Prime seats to ''The Producers,'' Broadway's hottest show, sold for as high as $480 as the musical's backers attempted to chase off scalpers. ''The Lion King,'' ''Mamma Mia!'' and a revival of the British farce ''Noises Off'' also drew audiences.

But there was room, too, for current events. The most anticipated play by year's end was Tony Kushner's ''Homebody/Kabul,'' an off-Broadway production about Afghanistan written well before Sept. 11.

''Meaning can be extracted from even the worst calamities,'' said Kushner, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for ''Angels in America.''

Publishing was the most serious-minded medium and the one most turned upside down, as readers sought to learn about once-obscure subjects such as the Taliban and anthrax.

Many titles were published by small companies such as Rutgers University Press, which found itself with a sudden best seller, ''Twin Towers,'' and then struggled to keep up with demand.

Mainstream publishers suffered the slowest fall in recent memory. Helped by the movie versions, copies of the ''Harry Potter'' series and ''The Lord of the Rings'' sold and sold.

But adults seemed uninterested in big commercial novels, with new fiction from such authors as Anne Rice and Stephen King selling well below expectations.

''No one could promote anything after Sept. 11, unless it was about the Taliban or anthrax; that was a huge blow to a lot of books,'' said Karen Jenkins Holt, managing editor of the industry newsletter Book Publishing Report.

In music, the latest Creed and Britney Spears records coexisted on the charts with ''God Bless America,'' an album featuring Celine Dion's popular rendition of the song.

Other hits included the re-release of Houston's version of ''The Star-Spangled Banner,'' first recorded during the Gulf War, and Lee Greenwood's ''American Patriot'' album, featuring his 17-year-old hit, ''God Bless the U.S.A.''

Americans also turned to soothing music such as ''A Day Without Rain,'' a year-old album by New Age singer Enya. The album quickly climbed the charts based on renewed interest in her single ''Only Time.''

''The CDs tied into Sept. 11th -- those are the things that are selling,'' said Mark Hogan, vice president of marketing at music retail chains FYE! and TransWorld Entertainment.

The movie industry sought a balance between the real and the unreal. The fantasies ''Harry Potter'' and ''The Lord of the Rings'' were major holiday releases, but at the same time, 20th Century Fox accelerated the opening of ''Behind Enemy Lines,'' about a jet pilot stranded in hostile territory. Sony Pictures moved up the release of ''Black Hawk Down,'' about a 1993 battle between U.S. soldiers and Somali warlords that left 18 Americans dead.

Hollywood initially avoided any close reminders of Sept. 11, postponing Arnold Schwarzeneg-ger's ''Collateral Damage,'' a terrorist thriller that had been scheduled to come out in the fall. But enough time has apparently passed, so Warner Bros. now plans to release the film Feb. 8.

''We made the decision to hold 'Collateral Damage' because it was the right thing to do, and we needed to let America grieve and heal following the attack on our nation,'' said Dan Fellman, the studio's head of distribution.

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