20 Years Later: How 9/11 Changed the Music Industry

Twenty years after the September 11th terrorist attacks irrevocably altered the United States, the fallout from that single day still reverberates in the music industry.

The terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001 were designed to cripple America’s military, political, and economic power. While in the short-term the attacks may have succeeded in these goals, perhaps the most long-standing impact was the effects on American culture. For the entertainment industry, the challenge that emerged was to radically reinvent ways to appeal to a country that had fundamentally changed in a matter of hours and chart new territory in a culture of both patriotism and fear.

The First Months

Just hours before the attacks unfolded, September 11th was unfolding as a blockbuster day for the music industry, with stores in the underground mall beneath the World Trade Center complex and those nearby in lower Manhattan stocking up on fresh CD and vinyl albums. New releases included Jay-Z‘s iconic studio album The Blueprint, Mariah Carey‘s infamous commercial flop soundtrack for the movie Glitter, as well as the breakthrough rock albums from Nickelback (Silver Side Up) and P.O.D. (Satellites).[1]9/11 Changed Everything for the Music Industry,” LA Weekly. After the attacks shocked the world, the short-term effects were both instant and dramatic.

As reported on the 10th anniversary, “The week after the terrorist attacks, music sales dropped 5%, while the New York metropolitan area suffered a 16.2% decline, according to Nielsen SoundScan.”[2]9/11 Remembrance: How the Music Industry Was Impacted,” the Hollywood Reporter Numerous tours from A-list acts like Britney Spears, Janet Jackson, Aerosmith, Madonna, and U2 were canceled or postponed due to safety concerns. Even after the 2017 attack on the Manchester Arena following Ariana Grande’s Dangerous Woman Tour, the touring industry did not knee-jerk as hard, a reflection of the attack’s unprecedented impact. Major shifts in the music industry were still happening months later in 2002, as the NFL scrapped a Janet Jackson halftime show in favor of a 9/11 tribute act from the Irish band U2 (where Paul McCartney also performed his post-9/11 song “Freedom”).[3]Janet Was First Choice to Play Super Bowl

As American flags flew off shelves at stores across the country, the President’s approval rating shot upwards of an unprecedented 90%, an overwhelming majority of Americans rallied around any and all American culture. Radio stations and record labels quickly responded to the shift in the country’s mood, perhaps none more notably than Clive Davis’ Arista Records, which rereleased Whitney Houston‘s iconic 1991 rendition of the national anthem and propelled it to No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100 (and quizzically even higher at No. 5 on the Canada Hot 100). The release also went on to top the Single Sales chart for six weeks and didn’t make its final exit from the chart until May of 2003. Other tracks that experienced commercial resurgences included Lee Greenwood’s hit “God Bless the USA,” which re-entered at No. 16 after the attacks, as well as Enya’s “Only Time,” which featured prominently in media coverage afterward. New releases inspired by the attacks included Alan Jackson‘s “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning),” which topped the Hot Country Songs chart for five weeks. Columbia Records put together a compilation album with its artists, God Bless America, which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 in November.[4]The Music Business Remembers 9/11,” Billboard Magazine.

The 2000s

But not all genres of music experienced 9/11 the same way, and perhaps none changed as much as Country music. While Pop music struck a more peaceful tone with anti-war hits from Green Day, “American Idiot,” and The Black Eyed Peas, “Where Is The Love,” Country music became drastically more nationalistic, militaristic, and antagonistic, metamorphosing alongside President George Bush’s Republican Party. There was an adoption of a binary “us versus them” rhetoric which inevitably shifted from uniting Americans to attacking them. The shades of responses included the embracing of the rather tame Brooks and Dunn enshrinement of the American Dream on “Only in America,” but also the more hostile such as The Charlie Daniels Band’s “This Ain’t No Rag, It’s a Flag,” and the 2002 pro-war hit from Toby Keith, “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American).” That song went on to become his biggest hit to date and also sparked a feud with the largest cultural causality of 9/11: The (Dixie) Chicks.

While public and international support for the United States and the Bush administration remained high during the initial invasion of Afghanistan just a month after 9/11 in October of 2001 with 88% of the public in support,[5]America and the War on Terror,” American Enterprise Institute by 2003, perceptions had soured as the American military shifted to an invasion of Iraq.[6]While it was widely accepted that the Taliban as the de facto government aided and abetted the perpetrators of 9/11, Al Qaeda, the invasion of Iraq was viewed as a power play by the Bush … Continue reading At a concert in London in March 2003, native Texan Natalie Maines of The Chicks said, “We do not condone this war. This violence. And we’re ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas.” The reaction from the country music industry was swift condemnation, blacklisting the group from radio stations at a time when it was the most crucial part of an act’s commercial success. The controversy sent a clear message to other acts about what was and was not acceptable to say in public about the President and the war, and helped to hegemonize country music as a (conservative) white man’s club. Notably, however, not all was lost for the band, as the group would go on to sweep the 2007 Grammy Awards, picking up Record and Song of the Year for their response to the controversy, “Not Ready To Make Nice,” as well as Album of the Year. That storyline certainly would have never unfolded without the historical redirection of September 11th.

As numerous new documentaries this year have rightly noted,[7]America After 9/11,” PBS the assault on the east coast and the hyper-surveillant government policies that were implemented as a result fostered a heightened sense of paranoia. Maybe the entire attack was an orchestrated plan to expand government presence? With the Patriot Act greatly expanding the government’s intelligence-gathering capabilities, the watchful eye of big brother grew even more pronounced, and spawned new conspiracy theories, including one about a new world order led by the world’s most powerful. While it initially focused more on powerful political and economic figures such as President Bush and UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, it eventually grew to encompass pop culture icons as well, such as Jay-Z and Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Kesha, and more. As the conspiracy gained momentum in the early 2010s,[8]This was primarily a result of the 2008 financial crisis or Great Recession, which has antecedents in 9/11. To prevent an economic crash after the attacks, the American Federal Reserve softened its … Continue reading some artists purposefully incorporated Illuminati imagery into their content to generate clicks.

Consequences Today

Today, Pop music is dominated by stars who were either children or unborn on September 11th, 2001, and as such you don’t see as many explicit references to 9/11 as implicit ones, but that’s not to say that they’ve disappeared. Years after the attacks, they inspired Dionne Warwick to write Beyoncés 4 power-ballad “I Was Here,” and Jay-Z to include a mention in his New York classic “Empire State of Mind” with Alicia Keys. Footage of the World Trade Center on 9/11 is included in Rihanna‘s music video for “American Oxygen” from 2015. Still, for artists like Billie Eilish and Olivia Rodrigo, September 11th is a historical event, not a lived one, and as the years go by, it will continue to be just that for pop acts. But it continues to shape how their professional careers and interactions with fans.

Security checks at concerts and festivals have become an expected, routine part of the music industry. The congregation of large crowds continues to pose security risks that have to be dealt with every day, especially in the age of COVID-19. 20 years on from that tragic day, while the world will certainly never forget, the pain it caused may be transitioning from memory to history.


1 9/11 Changed Everything for the Music Industry,” LA Weekly.
2 9/11 Remembrance: How the Music Industry Was Impacted,” the Hollywood Reporter
3 Janet Was First Choice to Play Super Bowl
4 The Music Business Remembers 9/11,” Billboard Magazine.
5 America and the War on Terror,” American Enterprise Institute
6 While it was widely accepted that the Taliban as the de facto government aided and abetted the perpetrators of 9/11, Al Qaeda, the invasion of Iraq was viewed as a power play by the Bush administration for oil and to finish his father’s vanquishing of Saddam Hussein from the gulf war.
7 America After 9/11,” PBS
8 This was primarily a result of the 2008 financial crisis or Great Recession, which has antecedents in 9/11. To prevent an economic crash after the attacks, the American Federal Reserve softened its interest rates to encourage borrowing. This created a bubble that burst in the fall of 2008.

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