The Pop Cultural Impact of 9/11

It was the most beautiful mid-September day you could hope for – no matter where you lived. A high pressure system covered a large swath of the Northeast, meaning warm, sunny weather prevailed. The sky was blue and bright, with just a few puffy clouds. I was in an especially good mood, because my best friend and I were to head out the following morning for a five day weekend with friends in D.C.-area Maryland. When I think of September 11, 2001, I think of the weather that day; it was such a jarring contrast to the horror unfolding on our television screens.

I was at work that morning, intent on getting as much done as I could before I left for my mini-vacation. Someone came around to my office and asked me if I’d heard about the plane accidentally crashing into the World Trade Center. I knew immediately that something was terribly wrong; this was no accident. When word came that a second plane had hit the other tower, my worst fears were confirmed: the United States was under attack. The work day came to a screeching halt; groups of people gathered around televisions, radios and computers, and the shocking, sickening news kept pouring in.

By early afternoon, I was on my way back to my apartment on nearly deserted streets; I’d never seen such desolation in the densely populated area (metropolitan Detroit) where I lived and worked. Calls were made to loved ones; my family’s safety was confirmed. I distinctly remember talking to my oldest sister while my television aired footage of the towers collapsing, and I just fell apart.

When that awful day was over, thousands of Americans (and almost 400 non-U.S. citizens) were confirmed or feared dead. In the years since, many more have died due to exposure to the toxic dust at Ground Zero. All told, at least 4,000 people have lost their lives because of the terrorist attacks; hundreds of thousands more died in the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Yesterday marked the 20th anniversary of 9/11. That beautiful Tuesday morning feels like yesterday, but also like several lifetimes ago. Our nation, in the grip of a pandemic that has killed about 640,000 Americans, is still grappling with the psychic trauma of that day. I’m certainly not healed, and probably never will be; just researching and writing this piece has left me feeling anxious and overwhelmed (I’d intended to publish this yesterday, but needed to step away from it for some self-care).

The ways in which 9/11 impacted pop culture were numerous: awards shows and television premieres were postponed; shots of the World Trade Center were excised from films and television episodes; music lyrics and song titles were altered; entire films were scrapped. Depictions of the events of that day in media range from movies and television to classical music, literature and theater. Here are just a few of the ways pop culture was affected by 9/11, and a couple of cultural references to the attacks.

  • Among those on board American Airlines Flight 11, which departed Boston for Los Angeles and crashed into the WTC North Tower, were television producer David Angell (co-creator of Wings and Frasier) and actress & photographer (and widow of actor Anthony Perkins) Berry Berenson. Frasier was in the midst of its eleven season run in 2001, and Angell’s death was deeply felt by the cast and crew; Angell’s wife Lynn also perished in the crash. When Frasier wrapped up in 2004, Niles and Daphne’s son was named David in Angell’s honor. Berenson, briefly a model in the 1960s, later turned to the other side of the camera; her photographs were published in magazines such as Life, Glamour, Vogue and Newsweek. Berenson also studied acting, and appeared in a handful of motion pictures. She married Anthony Perkins in 1973; they raised two children together and remained married until his death in 1992. Berenson was returning home to Los Angeles that morning from a Cape Cod holiday.
  • Band of Brothers

Band of Brothers, HBO’s exquisite World War II miniseries, premiered on Sunday, September 9, drawing ten million viewers. After the events of 9/11, HBO ceased its marketing campaign, and the ratings for subsequent episodes plummeted. But the series garnered significant critical praise and was nominated for twenty Emmys, winning seven awards (it also won a Golden Globe, a Peabody, an AFI award and the Producers Guild of America award). In addition, the release of Band of Brothers on home media (VHS and DVD in 2002, Blu-ray in 2008) has been one of the most successful ever, earning more than $250 million total. Despite the unfortunate timing of its release, Band of Brothers is one of the most-loved miniseries of all time.

  • United 93

A harrowing recreation of United Airlines Flight 93, which departed Newark bound for San Francisco and ended up crashing into a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania; United 93 was the only hijacked flight not to reach its intended target (most likely either the White House or the Capitol). The reason? The men and women on board, realizing their fate, attempted to wrest control of the plane from the hijackers. While it’s not clear how close the passengers got to overtaking the cockpit, the hijackers knew their plan was foiled and deliberately crashed the plane at 10:06 am, about eighteen minutes before it would have reached Washington, D.C. The film, expertly directed by Paul Greengrass, unfolds in real time; the tension is almost unbearable. United 93 is tough to watch; I personally couldn’t bring myself to watch it until several years after its 2006 release. But it honors the victims of the crash beautifully (it was made with the cooperation of their families).

You can stream United 93 on Showtime and Peacock.

  • The Submission by Amy Waldman

This expertly written novel, the debut from New York Times journalist Amy Waldman, tackles the politics of the post-9/11 era head-on: the plot revolves around plans for a Ground Zero memorial, and what transpires after a Muslim architect wins a blind contest to design it. The Submission was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award (it lost to Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Emperor of All Maladies), and deservedly so; it’s a hell of a read.

  • 25th Hour

While Spike Lee’s 25th Hour (adapted by Game of Thrones co-creator David Benioff from his 2001 novel) isn’t overtly about the events of 9/11, it was filmed in a post-9/11 New York City and the specter of the attacks looms over every frame. Ground Zero provides the backdrop to a pivotal scene, but moreover, Lee captures the essence of 2002 NYC: wounded, raw, grieving, but surviving. Rolling Stone just called 25th Hour “the only 9/11 movie that still matters”.

  • Breakfast in America predicts 9/11

A conspiracy theory that gained some traction several years ago involved the 1979 Supertramp album Breakfast in America and the events of 9/11. The theory? That the cover of the album predicted the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. According to the theory, Supertramp financier Stanley August Miesegaes was a Freemason who used the Breakfast in America cover art to provide details about a future terrorist attack on Manhattan. The evidence is flimsy and utterly circumstantial, as is typical for conspiracy theories: the glass of orange juice on the waitress’s tray represents the fire that enveloped the WTC; the U and the P in Supertramp, when viewed in a mirror, form a 9 and an 11; the name “Supertramp” is synonymous with “Great Whore”, as in the apocalyptic Babylon in the Book of Revelation; the inner sleeve depicts an airplane flying above the Twin Towers. It’s never clear what Miesegaes would have gained with his subliminal messaging, of course, but if proof could be provided, it wouldn’t be a theory anymore.

  • Album releases on 9/11/01

In the world of music, Tuesday is new release day, and that particular Tuesday was a doozy: among the releases on 9/11/01 were Jay-Z’s The Blueprint, Bob Dylan’s Love and Theft and a particular favorite of mine, Ben Folds’ Rockin’ the Suburbs. After seeing some commercial success with his band Ben Folds Five, Folds was embarking on a solo career, and what a debut it was. Forty-eight minutes of pure power pop perfection, Rockin’ the Suburbs could – and should – have been huge. Supposedly, Folds was in the midst of a radio interview when the attacks began; all album promotion ceased at that point and Rockinthe Suburbs never got the traction it deserved, peaking at #42 on the Billboard 200 chart. If you’re not familiar with Folds, do yourself a favor and give the album a listen.

  • Friends

The season eight premiere of Friends, like a lot of series, was delayed. But the biggest impact on Friends came in the third episode of the season, “The One Where Rachel Tells…”; a subplot of the episode, in which Monica and Chandler depart for their honeymoon, initially had Chandler joking about having a bomb in his luggage and the couple being detained by airport security. The creators wisely rewrote and reshot the scenes.

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