We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

Since last Sept. 11, Americans have been searching for the perfect pop song to say how we feel.

In the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, the cultural left had an irrelevancy panic. How, arts-page and back-of-the-book writers fretted—while their news-section counterparts somewhat sheepishly cleared shelf space for their inevitable Pulitzers—will the arts respond to the attacks? It was an odd question, partly because it revealed that many of those who cherish or depend on aesthetic expression mistrusted artists’ ability not to be callow about all this, but also because those who asked it slapped their cards on the table without taking the time to look at their hand.

Historically, great political art has risen from the new aesthetic landscape carved by great upheavals, provoked not by events themselves but by the changes those events have made. Holocaust art is still being created and debated today; it’s a product of the world the Holocaust left behind. In North America, AIDS art arose not with the continent’s first HIV-related deaths in the ’70s, but later, when everyone from David Wojnarowicz to General Idea to Keith Haring to Todd Haynes to Robert Mapplethorpe responded to the plague years with an entirely new way of seeing. Their art has been about the world they lived in, one poisoned by disease, and it did more to inform and, in turn, re-create the arts scene than any number of star-studded benefits.

But it would have done no good to say this a year ago; asking if artists shouldn’t hunker down and process All This before putting pen or paint to work verged on thoughtcrime. That’s why pop music stepped into the breach so nimbly—quick to produce and distribute, it provided an artistic catharsis for a citizenry otherwise reduced to CNN and phone calls home.

Only pop music could have filled this need, for the simple fact that it has the best chance to reach the largest number of people. That artists of all kinds responded musically is only natural, but no one who skewed even a degree off the mainstream was going to be included in the post-9/11 sweepstakes. Count out New York City art rockers Sonic Youth’s new album, Murray Street, along with all of hiphop, which is still not perceived as general-admission enough to “speak for all of us.” Fist-first Americanism is the bailiwick of the white guy—radio-ready, photogenic, and musically digestible. What we needed was our own Elton John. Preferably a straight one.

Other demographics sitting out the White Spokesman for Our National Tragedy playoffs: Jews (Dan Bern, I’m calling you out), Latin or any other “ethnic” popsters, young people, and, it seems, anyone who isn’t a little bit country. The exception is the scant handful of women who have weighed in, with varying success. Suzanne Vega wrung her hands about how the attacks affected even the well-meaning bohemian paradise in her head with “It Hit Home.” And Tori Amos wrote the searing “I Can’t See New York,” included on her upcoming Scarlet’s Walk, in which an airplane passenger’s future—and perhaps her life—is obfuscated by clouds, dust, and death.

But the songs that have become the people’s hits in the wake of the terrorist attacks tend to issue from the heartland, or at least Nashville’s version of it: gut-thunking country singles that go right for the charts. And though the songs that are arousing the most critical interest don’t sound much different, they bring with them an aesthetic imprimatur that vaults them into the headlines.

Country music has always been the genre most comfortable with patriotic expression. In its crudest form, country identifies itself with a demographic it exploits both musically and politically: rural, blue-collar, anti-intellectual, and anti-urban, a bastion of what it calls “values” imbued with a clarity of emotional response that allows for a level of bellicosity even rock can’t reach. No one would have taken, say, Creed seriously if it had chosen to record anything as crass as “Courtesy of the Red, White, & Blue (The Angry American),” the boot-in-your-ass bellow that immediately began sunning itself at No. 1 upon its release in late June and Peter Jennings allegedly kiboshed for ABC’s Fourth of July special. (Jennings denies it, for the record.)

For country singer Toby Keith, who gracelessly implied that the Canadian Jennings might have a secret network of reasons for rejecting this piece of jingoistic tripe, “Courtesy” was no mad moment—although it is one of only two songs on Keith’s Unleashed without a co-writer. Clearly, the man was on fire. Indeed, the whole album is a snapshot of dumbass, bigass, badass country unequal to its times. Keith titles songs with cheap catchphrases (“It’s All Good,” “Who’s Your Daddy?” “It Works for Me”) and spreads the pugnacious posing as thick as autumn mulch, even waxing nostalgic for ye olde community lynching in “Beer for My Horses.” Here, the momentary disturbance that “You can’t even open your mailbox, you can’t take a plane” is mitigated by the mythical rural utopia of those who “live out here in the country/Where the workin’ class do.”

Other spokesmen of the working class, meanwhile, wanted you to know that they were politically unengaged. Not that Keith gives a shit, but gentlemanly hat singer Alan Jackson buried a nugget of willful ignorance in his “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)” to placate his fans. After it was rush-released in January, the song ended up as Jackson’s crossover vehicle (it’s still in the Top 100), even if “…Not sure if I could tell you the difference between Iraq and Iran” strikes a hicky false note in an otherwise exemplary tear-jerker.

But Jackson at least more or less succeeded where foreign pop mandarins failed. For about 30 seconds, America contemplated liking Paul McCartney’s forgettable “Freedom,” but finally decided that it would stick with George Michael’s, on the off chance that good times might be ahead. For one thing, McCartney, a knight of the realm, is a product of a monarchy; for another, the song blows. Not long after, Reagan Democrat and notable Canadian Neil Young released the ludicrous “Let’s Roll,” working in tandem with our president to catapult the phrase into a byword and co-opting the actions of the Flight 93 passengers before the bodies were even identified. It’s a strangely detached song, a resigned doing-what-we-gotta-do note belonging more to the singer than the characters. We kept the phrase but scrapped the song.

What Americans were looking for was someone to lead us in a group activity—nothing too New Yorky or volatile—something we could all excel at. We’re good at honoring heroes and almost whorish in bestowing herohood, but we’re absolutely fantastic at healing. There’s nothing America likes better than a good memorial, one sopping with the communal mysticism precluded by the theological concreteness of a funeral. And with the recently released The Rising, expert memorializer Bruce Springsteen has tried to give us just that.

New Jersey-born, -bred, and -identified, a roadhouse rocker with a taste for twang and a knack for inhabiting the psyches of underclass characters, beloved of critics for his dark road trips of the soul, Springsteen was practically a national hero 18 years ago, when adepts of his celebrity mistook danceable irony for patriotic celebration. And it’s no coincidence that The Rising is Springsteen’s first album with his E Street Band since 1984’s Born in the U.S.A., because it’s the record those adepts thought that earlier one was.

Springsteen toiled over his towering concept album, and even spoke to some attack victims’ families beforehand, but the record still seems a little too hastily assembled. Though slickness is undeniable, many of its lyrics are too simplistic for the Bard of Asbury Park. He does a lot of looking upward, returning again and again to images of the messy sky and that friend of the miserable, rain. Only when Springsteen lands on a flexible metaphor does The Rising really glow, as in the poignant aftermath tale “Nothing Man” and the angry, sexually charged aftermath tale “The Fuse.”

Springsteen’s vast musical musculature tends to hide how sentimental a writer he is. The pieces on his latest are almost invariably

cast in you-me terms. They’re love songs, except either the singer or the singer’s object is dead. Much of this is effective, even if its narrow focus renders The Rising so resolutely apolitical that the album ends up feeling emotionally limited. When Springsteen isn’t mourning the empty half of the bed, he’s putting over the kind of soaring, elegiac chorus Americans love to light candles to. “Into the Fire” was made to be sung by crowds of flicker-accompanied vigil-keepers: “May your strength give us strength/May your faith give us faith,” and so on with “hope” and “love.”

Bruce’s powerful myth has earned him patriotic chits to burn. A real working-class hero with a direct line to the heartland, he’s got the right credentials for becoming the voice of America’s closure. The same, you would think, goes for the Texas-raised Steve Earle. But while The Rising is being lauded, Earle’s latest single, “John Walker’s Blues,” is catching aggrieved hell from everyone from the New York Post (“Twisted Ballad Honors Tali-Rat” blared one headline) to NPR’s news quiz show Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me! (which claimed that Earle “praises” John Walker Lindh) to—no surprise—conservative talk-show hosts (such as Steve Gill, the Nashville-based one who likened Earle to “Jane Fonda and all those people who hate America”).

If Springsteen is building the country’s memorial, Earle is reading its will. Earle didn’t talk to the victims’ families; he read the papers. Earle doesn’t praise Lindh; he doesn’t even praise revolution, much less Allah. “John Walker’s Blues” is exactly what its subject deserves: a portrait of an idiot kid in the throes of cultthink—clueless, unready, fighting a fight he understands only a fraction of. It’s written in first person, in Lindh’s supposed voice, so when the song’s narrator imagines his sacrifice elevating him to heaven, “just like Jesus”—let’s jot this one down, people—Earle is not comparing Lindh to Jesus. He’s positing that Lindh might identify with the man—a position consistent with Islamic doctrine, which recognizes Jesus’ status as prophet.

For crying out loud.

The reaction to “John Walker’s Blues” is just what the song, and a few others on Earle’s soon-to-be-released Jerusalem, is talking about: post-9/11 America casting other points of view as treasonous. The album is political, big-picture, and so manfully empathetic as to be inconceivable to its critics. Earle’s detractors will no doubt glom on to the part where he compares jihad with the Crusades—not to mention the part where he gives the current administration what for. That’s too bad, because the song that gives the album its name, the one that this is all about, in which Earle tells you what he’s really thinking in words even John Ashcroft can understand, says this: “I believe that one fine day all the children of Abraham/Will lay down their swords forever in Jerusalem.” It’s crazier than anything else on the record, and far less realistic than a sketch of the kind of fanatic this country turns out like hamburger.

The real difference between a troped-up ballad like “John Walker’s Blues” and a calculated anthem like “Into the Fire” is the difference between art and, let’s face it, craft. In the latter, matters of content take a back seat to usefulness and intention. Of course, even art-world sophisticates can’t always see the difference between representing something and endorsing it—witness the recent outcry over Gerhard Richter’s Baader-Meinhof paintings at MoMA. These days, on the subject of terrorists, artists and art consumers alike seem more comfortable with craft.

One year after the candle-lighting, blood-donating, and memorial-attending, Americans are left with nothing more to do—only an awful black hole in their memories. Rallying around a pop song, whether it’s a cry for vengeance, a hand to hold, or a tapestry of loneliness, gives us a function. It’s not so much that we need art in times like this, but that we need to know we’re needed. If we can’t quite understand Earle now, we will soon enough. CP