Editor’s Note: Maro Chermayeff is an executive producer of CNN’s “Soundtracks: Songs that Defined History.” The opinions expressed here are her own.
Whenever I think about a pivotal event in my personal life, there always seems to be a song associated with it:
First slow dance?
Driving cross-country alone at dawn?
Holding my baby for the first time?
But then there are the songs that have not only defined my personal history, but yours as well.
The songs that became so associated with moments in time and so helped define history that they turned into anthems, because they speak universal truths to all of us.
This is what I witnessed happening in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks.
I was born and raised in New York, and the impact and scars left by this tragic event both traumatized and galvanized the city and our world. Some, like myself, wanted to go out in the world and try to make things different. I had for several years considered adopting a baby, and it was after 9/11 that I felt an instinctual response to take action and do the things I had always wanted to do without letting fear and hesitation rule my destiny.
For others, the shock and horror of the attacks left them wanting to crawl in a hole and pull the hole in after them. For those who survived or lost their loved ones, the pain has never gone away.
Through it all, music was the leveling force, playing a role in the necessary healing that began to take place almost instantaneously after that shocking day. While certain songs came to mean different things to different people, the ability for music to bring comfort and calm, and to pull people together, was an inevitability.
The power of music is what inspired the CNN original series “Soundtracks,” which I produced along with Jeff Dupre, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Dany Garcia. We all felt that the events of September 11 and the music surrounding it should be included in the series, but we also all felt that the 9/11 episode was one of the hardest to put together.
We knew where we would begin – on that fateful morning – but where would we end? The impact of that day is still deeply felt in communities across the US and across the world.
In the end, we realized we were all struck by two classic songs from two amazing and iconic artists: Sting’s “Fragile” and Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising.”
“Fragile” was a song that Sting had already written and performed. But when he sang it on the night the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center fell, the song took on new meaning and emotional impact.
The lyrics included a line that seemed almost tailor-made for that moment, offering an amazing example of how a preexisting song can meet a current moment and be given new depth. “If blood will flow, when flesh and steel are one, drying the color of the evening sun,” Sting sang, “tomorrow’s rain will wash the stains away, but something in our minds will always stay.”
Springsteen’s “The Rising,” on the other hand, is an album and a song written in direct response to and specifically about 9/11. The song is beautiful, and the fact that an artist of Springsteen’s stature dedicated an entire album to this tragedy spoke volumes, and was deeply appreciated by everyone who felt they needed to find connection through music to get through the pain.
When talking about the 9/11 episode, my production team and I also knew we wanted to interview Billy Joel and Paul Simon to discuss “New York State of Mind, and “The Sound of Silence.” Both of these songs were written many years before the September 11 attacks, but they both spoke to a mood and a tone that the city desperately needed.
“Sound of Silence” became a particularly moving song because so many survivors and first responders referenced that when the towers fell, New York was in some ways quieter then it had ever been.
The sirens, the cars, the people were all quiet – and just trying to find their way through. I believe this song helped people to focus in their pain at the time as well as many years later, when Paul Simon played it to mark the 10th anniversary. Like “New York State of Mind,” it was a universal song, and a very well known song that helped people join together to find a way forward.
Of course, you can’t discuss the September 11 attacks without discussing the repercussions the event triggered both socially and politically. In the wake of that tragedy, the doors then opened to very different kinds of music – including songs of patriotism, anger and unrest, from Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red White and Blue (The Angry American)” to the Dixie Chicks’ amazing and personal song “Not Ready to Make Nice.”
These are songs that speak to our emotions, bringing history alive not with facts and figures but with feelings. The ability to speak to events, issues and ideas through a collective experience is something that music is able to do like no other art form.
Maro Chermayeff is an executive producer of CNN’s “Soundtracks: Songs that Defined History.” The opinions expressed here are her own.