Saturday, July 08, 2006

The Falling and The Rising, Part 1

My earlier post on "Cadillac Ranch" got me thinking about the power of fictional stories, particularly within popular music. The fictional narratives composed by great musical artists function in many ways, but the one that intrigues me at the moment is the use of fiction to comment on and cope with a non-fiction event.

After 9/11 many artists wrote songs as a means of national therapy, but no one harnessed the power of fiction as a means of analysis and comfort quite like Bruce Springsteen with his album The Rising -- a compendium of songs addressing 9/11 and its aftermath. In contrast to some songs that were quickly written and aired as a way of tapping immediately into the cultural mood, The Rising came out in 2002. That gap afforded Springsteen a bit of the perspective and reflection that comes from distance.

The songs on this album are mostly fictional tales of people impacted in one way or another by the events of 9/11. As such, they do not represent a unified point of view, but allow us to glimpse the event through the eyes and thoughts of people with very different viewpoints. One song, "Nothing Man," explores the problem of survivor guilt. "World's Apart" holds out hope for healing of the tensions that separate cultures and peoples. Even the perspective of a suicide bomber seems to find representation in "Paradise." Fiction here becomes a means of understanding the emotional responses of others as well as of ourselves.

A good example is the album's treatment of loss and grief. In the plaintive "You're Missing," Springsteen tells the story of a woman whose husband died in the attack. In listening to it, one feels the overwhelming grief of such loss.

Coffee cups on the counter,
jackets on the chair
Papers on the doorstep,
but you're not there. . .
Pictures on the nightstand,
TV's on in the den
Your house is waiting
for you to walk in
But you're missing,
you're missing.

More than just an ode to grief, this song also touches on the problem of evil that often finds expression in such moments. In the last stanza, the widowed woman states, God's drifting in heaven, devil's in the mailbox. I got dust on my shoes, nothing but teardrops. In a world where the devil is in the mailbox (anthrax attacks) and a young mother is left with nothing but dust and tears (grief and loss), it is a natural human response to wonder if God is paying attention or whether he is just drifting in heaven.

Providing another perspective on the topic is "Empty Sky." The situation here is the same. A husband or wife has been widowed by the attack on the twin towers. The sky that was formerly filled with those towers now stands empty as a constant reminder of what was lost. This symbol of a city's loss becomes for the person in this song a symbol of their more personal loss. Yet although the situation may be the same as in "You're Missing," the response represented in the song could hardly be more different. In "You're Missing" the bereaved responds with grief and confusion. In "Empty Sky" the response is the desire for revenge.

I woke up this morning, I could barely breathe
Just an empty impression
In the bed where you used to be
I want a kiss from your lips
I want an eye for an eye
I woke up this morning to an empty sky

The wronged person of the song cries out for vengeance and sees the murder of their beloved in the same light as the unjust murder of Cain (Genesis 4:10) when he/she cries out Blood on the streets, Blood flowin' down, I hear the blood of my blood, Cryin' from the ground.

One person wallows in grief and questions the presence of God ("You're Missing"); another ("Empty Sky") calls upon the biblical text (Genesis, "eye for an eye") as a justification for seeking revenge. A third song joins these perspectives together in a way that provides hope.

The song "Lonesome Day" opens the album and sets the tone. As with the other two, it is sung from the perspective of one who has lost a beloved in the attacks. He/she feels the grief and loss and desires only to make it through each "lonesome day." As with "Empty Sky", the protagonist of the song desires revenge. But this time Springsteen counsels that revenge may not provide the balm that people seek.

Better ask questions before you shoot
Deceit and betrayal's bitter fruit
It's hard to swallow, come time to pay
That taste on your tongue don't easily slip away

In fact, here Springsteen balances the need for revenge with another approach: faith. While addressing the desire to have this storm of horror and sorrow blow over, the protagonist of the song sings A little revenge and this too shall pass. Immediately after though, he/she states, This too shall pass, I'm gonnna pray. The victim in this song feels the despairing grief that prompts the desire for revenge, yet he/she ultimately seems to turn his/her hurting heart over to God, recognizing that the "bitter fruit" of vengeance will not heal the heart and make the storm pass. But prayer can show the way. Thus the song closes by balancing the chorus of "It's alright" with the declaration:

Let kingdom come
I'm gonna find my way
Through this lonesome day


At 5:29 PM, Blogger Josh.Graves said...


Provocative post, as usual.

It seems the best theologians are our poets, story tellers, and musicians: especially the artists who have the ability to do all three.

I'm going to talk about Sept. 11th (my strange experiences) on Wednesday Night in the CNX gathering--I'm going to incorporate this material (of course giving you "props").

Does Springstein talk much about the rift between Islam and Christianity that emerged so starkly post 9/11?

At 9:06 PM, Blogger Greg said...

He does not specifically address Christianity and Islam but does appear to address the rift between the western world and the Islamic world in the song "World's Apart."

At 12:32 AM, Blogger Ron Cox said...

The songs about the firemen still hit me the hardest, though the whole album is balm.



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