At the time of the first gulf war under the first Bush, I was a student at a tiny midwestern college where lefty politics was the wind beneath our collective wings. I remember somebody had a tiny black-and-white portable TV and some 40 of us had crammed into a dorm room to watch the bombs fall. We were perversely excited: now was the time for action! But even we were savvy enough to realize that a protest on our insular campus would be an exercise in group masturbation, so we hied ourselves to the nearest air force base.
Our protest was bedraggled, thin in numbers, pathetic. We were besieged by people waving yellow ribbons, some of whom seemed to want to kill us, as if our antiwar sentiment meant we didn’t want their friends and relatives to come home safely. And what was it with the yellow ribbons? Yeah, we all knew the schmaltzy Tony Orlando song, and some of us remembered those talismans proliferating when the hostages were held in Iran. The yellow ribbon was a traditional symbol to welcome home prisoners, and its significance has mutated over the years; now it represents a prayer of deliverance for soldiers and missing children alike. And in September 2001, its meaning changed again. At a vendor’s stand in Queens, I saw buttons emblazoned with a yellow ribbon and a flag, unsold ten years ago but held onto with adorably cynical hope.
The kitsch sprouted like mushrooms–weeping bald eagles and vengeful Uncle Sams filled my in-box by the wee hours of September 12. One of those collectors’ mints advertised an amazing specimen in the Sunday newspaper magazines a few months back: a crude, stiff rendering of the “Tribute in Light” memorial in “genuine crystal” that looked like plastic, its base wrapped in a molded flag and eagle. To me it was an aesthetic emetic, but I felt guilty knowing that sweet old ladies out there would be setting this icon in a place of honor on the mantelpiece. It made them cry. They bought it because it made them cry. And who am I to call someone else’s artificial grief response generator tacky? Truth is, Titanic makes me cry, even though I know in my heart it’s a dreadful movie; effective emotional manipulation is not the same thing as good art, after all. Knowing this, it’s hard to take my own impulsive responses too seriously.
Yet that gut response is the stock-in-trade of authenticity advocates: if you feel something deeply enough, that feeling must be real. And powerful art–powerfully good or powerfully bad–creates an emotional rush that overrides all verbal or narrative logic. So a vicious little tune like the Police’s “Every Breath You Take” or R.E.M.’s “The One I Love” can become a wedding dance or a prom theme–or the verses about the cast-down Vietnam vet can shrivel away from Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.,” leaving only the fist-pumping chorus for some Republican lackey to work into the Gipper’s speeches. Springsteen is a special case–his every utterance becomes a slogan, independent of authorial intent: the poor guy’s music is so well suited to kitschification he’s transcended mere stardom to become a sort of Franklin Mint of rock ‘n’ roll. Listening to his early records, I get nostalgic for a romantic 70s Jersey shore adolescence I never actually had. The fact that Bruce is oh-so American only complicates his attempts to communicate: making bold statements is what Americans do. Famine in Africa? We’re against it!
Pop culture is America’s native tongue, in which we hold a one-sided conversation with the world. So many Europeans and Asians on the Internet were sweet and supportive for a few weeks in 2001, but they quickly tired of our hair tearing and clothes rending. September 11 became our particular martyrdom, our unprecedented collective sorrow–a holocaust of our own. We ignored all suggestions that terrorism has happened in many places in the world and will surely happen again. That makes it no less terrible, but it does make American agony something other than unique, and after a while folks are bound to look cynically upon the “lost innocence” of the only country to ever use nuclear weapons on real people.
But if you want to talk to America, you’ve got to learn its language. The Pakistani band Junoon, a hugely popular Karachi-based trio that sells out stadiums in south Asia and was once visited onstage by their country’s president, General Pervez Musharraf, has just released its first English-language single, with the intention of reaching beyond its Urdu- and Farsi-speaking fan base. With lyrics by Polar Levine, a poet friend who lives in lower Manhattan, it’s called “No More,” and it’s about…well, you can guess what it’s about. “In my lungs through my windows on my head on the floor / Ashes of falling hope choking me inside these doors / Stormy winds seduce the night over New York and Karachi skies / Sinking in a sea of time mourning since 11/9.”
“No More” begins with smoke and dust blurring the threshold between life and death, much like Springsteen’s jarringly joyous “The Rising.” Springsteen, however, zooms in, placing his narrative voice in a fireman making his way up the stairs: “Can’t see nothin’ in front of me / Can’t see nothin’ coming up behind / I make my way through this darkness / I can’t feel nothing but this chain that binds me.” (There’s no avoiding that dust: everyone was fascinated by the fact that in lower Manhattan in those days the dust you inhaled included molecules that had once been people.) But Junoon’s lyrics never probe this deeply.
Junoon’s soaring pop-rock sounds a bit like U2 might had Bono and the boys been brought up on qawwali melismata and Bollywood flourishes, so to American listeners it registers as both familiar and exotic, one hand reaching down to the masses and the other up toward heaven. For Pakistanis it probably sounds as meat ‘n’ potatoes as Springsteen’s single does to us. It’s a pity that the sort of vocal peaks that singer Ali Azmat hits have previously been wasted by countless pop stars on disposable love songs: all through this song I can hear him strain to make sounds that, independently, in themselves, really do mean as much as they ought.
Which is what Springsteen strives to do, reclaiming the hoarse sincerity that’s been buffed into meaninglessness by the macho power ballad. So will “No More” catch on over here? It’s certainly corny enough, and yet also sincerely moving. The percussion and unusual (to Western ears) melodic flair of the verses convey at least a ghost of what they’re supposed to, and if it sounds heavy-handed and obvious after the weird E Street party Springsteen threw for New York City’s martyrs (complete with hooky “li li li li li li” chorus)…well, that didn’t hurt Neil Young any.
We love Springsteen because his music is unquestionably about us, about places and people we recognize. If “No More” makes the leap, it’ll be because it is also about us, or at least to us, from an “other” who has made the effort to learn our musical and symbolic language. The communal spirit of both the Springsteen and the Junoon singles is very much at odds with our tendency to write off terrorist attacks in Kenya and Bali as terrible but unavoidable things that happened to other people. If anything good can come out of September 11, it should be an awareness that concrete smoke and burning flesh smell the same everywhere in the world, and that the snuffing out of a life lived in Israel or Indonesia or Afghanistan or Iraq is as tragic as that of one at the Pentagon or the World Trade Center.
What distinguishes these singles from the rest of the terrorism tchotchkes that we’re drowning in? In some ways, there’s no difference: the idea is still to buy them. But music is different: these songs don’t just make us cry; they encourage us to come together, right now. And if Springsteen is calling us out to a block party, Junoon reminds us that the block is the whole wide world. You might not always think the music at the street fest is the height of art, but that’s hardly the point: to sneer at kitsch for its very mass-ness is to ignore the need for, every once in a while, some particularly collective sensation. We can keep it in the national family, and lick our wounds with exclusionary zeal, or we can see that our wounds give us more in common with the rest of the world, not less.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Shehryar Ahmad.