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9/11 Aftermath: How Music Helped and Healed Us

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On the 11th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on 9/11/01, three members of the AOL Music team reflect on their own memories of that time, and how music helped them through the devastating moment in our nation’s history.

Sarah Chazan, Editor in Chief, AOL Music
The day after the terrorist attacks on 9/11/01, I woke up to the news that my beloved grandfather had passed away. These two devastating events will forever be intertwined in my mind as a time of exhaustion, emptiness and grief. Because of the ban on air travel, I drove all the way from New York to the Eastern Shore of Virginia, and couldn’t tell you one song I heard along the way — I may never have even turned on the radio during that 10-hour road trip. The only sound from the ride I remember were fighter planes buzzing low overhead as I made my way around Washington, D.C.

Considering my job, clearly music is an important part of my life, and through every difficult moment I’ve been dealt, there’s usually been a song I’ve latched onto as I healed. But 9/11, for me, was almost like the day the music died. I swaddled myself in sadness, not wanting to feel better … not wanting to let anything upset the balance of emotions that was keeping me in a suspended state of bizarre reality. It wasn’t until a few weeks later, as I watched “America: A Tribute to Heroes,” that music finally wormed its way back in.

I probably flipped on the show out of habit. Like many Americans, I began gobbling up anything in the media having to do with the attacks, and on that night, this program was the main event. As I sat there half-paying attention, Sheryl Crow came on the screen to perform her song “Safe and Sound.” For some reason I was suddenly watching … and hearing.

Then, it all flooded over me: The last time I saw my grandfather alive and how so many other Americans were feeling a similar loss at that very minute. The bravery it took for those firemen to run into those burning buildings when everyone was running out. How the city I love, my New York, would never be the same. And how my grandfather would never see me achieve my dreams in that glorious and broken city during the years to come. Crow’s lyrics struck me at the core – they represented the duality of the loss and forced me to really start dealing with what had come to pass, and how to move forward.

Before writing these few short paragraphs, I listened to “Safe and Sound” again, as I usually often do around this time of year. I’m not embarrassed to admit that by the end, I had tears streaming down my face. Eleven years after that devastating moment in time, the song still brings me back to those raw emotions of post-9/11 … I hope it always does.

Beville Darden, Editor of The Boot
Music is an excellent healing tool, no doubt. But after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Nashville’s WSM-FM radio actually stopped playing music for several hours. I was working as a sidekick on the station’s morning show and had just finished my final news and sports update of the morning when the first plane hit the World Trade Center. Our show host and my dear friend, Bill Whyte, was sitting to my left, and one of my favorite singer-songwriters, Bruce Robison, was to my right, waiting to be interviewed on our show. We quickly turned on the television upon getting word from our office of the first plane crash and — just like the rest of the world — were in immeasurable shock. But being the “news girl,” it was my job to report what was going on. All of a sudden, all of the air time was mine. No music, no commercials, just me reporting to our thousands of listeners the worst terrorist attack in American history. It was likely the most inarticulate newscast of my entire career.

I’ll never forget Bruce’s reaction, as he immediately took off his headphones to call wife Kelly Willis and promise he’d be home in Austin that night, even if he had to walk there. His second call was to a rental car company, as all flights were, of course, grounded. I desperately wanted to do what he had just done: call everyone I know, especially my close friends living in New York, and make sure they were OK. But we were on the air in the middle of rush hour. So Bill urged me to go ahead and make those calls … and share them with our listeners. Several hours after the first crash, I got in touch with my best friend from college, Wendy Adcock, who lived in midtown Manhattan at the time. I immediately started crying upon hearing her voice booming through our studio speakers. People still talk to me to this very day about that morning’s show, and the one thing they remember is not my rambling reporting but my on-air conversation with Wendy, telling her through my tears that I loved her and was so thankful that she was OK.

Bill and I stayed on the radio all day, all night, and into the next day, giving news updates and taking calls from listeners. When we finally did begin to play music, we certainly didn’t deliver our station’s promise of “back to back hits,” but instead carefully chose songs with patriotic and inspiring messages, playing them in between the non-stop updates coming in from Washington, Pennsylvania and New York. Brooks & Dunn‘s “Only in America” had just been released that summer and was our first musical attempt at letting listeners know they still live in the greatest country in the world, while we played Vince Gill‘s “Go Rest High on That Mountain” to honor the thousands killed that day. Our music choices were quite careful once we did get our programming somewhat back to normal, balancing the tear-jerking ballads with songs of American pride, which run deep in the country music genre.

Not two months later, Alan Jackson wrote one of the most poignant and awarded songs of his career, “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)?,” about the events of 9/11. “Where were you when the world stopped turning on that September day?” the country superstar sings in the opening verse. “Were you in the yard with your wife and children / Or working on some stage in L.A.? / Did you stand there in shock at the sight of that black smoke / Risin’ against that blue sky? / Did you shout out in anger, in fear for your neighbor / Or did you just sit down and cry?

I was at WSM-FM’s tiny studio in the Opryland Hotel when the world stopped turning, and I did cry … live on the air, several times. Alan’s song remains a favorite of mine 11 years later not only for its reminder of that historic day but also for its powerful message: the greatest gift we’re given is love, and it’s pretty important to say “I love you” to your friends and family every chance you get … in front of thousands of people if you have to.

Maggie Malach, AOL Music Intern
When I recall September 11, 2001, I can’t remember a single song or band that was popular at the time. In fact, the sound I most recall is not musical, but rather a chilling silence. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, however, I sought comfort in music of all types, from Lee Greenwood‘s “God Bless the USA” to the Michael Jackson-penned “What More Can I Give.” The songs did more than serve as a soundtrack to the heart-wrenching slideshows and news clips from that day. They gave me a direction in which to look — forward.

More than a decade later, hearing those songs instantly take me back that day. The healing process is ongoing — I was a confused teenager then, and I can’t say I understand it much more as an adult. But the music following the attacks served to inspire us as a country, to allow us to remember those we lost, to honor those who protect our freedom at all costs, and to give us hope. That sentiment hasn’t changed with time. Beyoncé‘s “I Was Here” reminds me of that day, but also inspires me to do what I can to make a positive impact on the world.

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