Music Searches for the Right Tune

Heard enough of "God Bless America" yet?

Well, the song and its patriotic cousins are already slowly fading from radio stations.

"Programmers are beginning to back off the patriotic music as we get past the one-month mark," said Rich Meyer, president of Mediabase, which monitors radio play in 1,100 stations across the country.

Right after Sept. 11, both Celine Dion's and Ray Charles' rendition of the song flooded airwaves along with other anthems, including Whitney Houston's "Star-Spangled Banner" and Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the USA."

Now, with the U.S. facing a future of protracted airstrikes in Afghanistan, anthrax scares and an endless stream of celebrity benefit concerts, Americans are fumbling for the right tune to accompany the new national outlook.

"[Consumers] are going to buy patriotic music because retailers put it on the counter, but I don't know if they're going to listen to it," said Tom Silverman, founder of Tommy Boy Records. "It's just a reaction right now."

Overnight, dance music, teen pop and rap all suddenly seemed shockingly out of step with the new America. And, although Houston's "Banner" was the top-selling single on the charts last week, as people return to "normal," one-note, flag-waving songs don't provide enough nuance for a nation grappling with fear, sadness and defiance.

"I believe [radio programmers] would like to reflect the country's mood that grieving is healthy, but at some point, we need to move on," Meyer said in an e-mail interview.

Songs such as the all-star recording of "What's Goin' On?," John Lennon's "Imagine" and DJ-created mixes with quotes from President Bush have been in heavy rotation at radio stations. And Tommy Boy Records will release an all-star version of "We Are Family" this week in what can be seen as modern-style patriotism.

"There aren't that many new patriotic songs being written," said Rob Levine, senior editor at New York magazine. "It's important, but I think it will be staid over time."

Now musicians and executives facing an uncertain future are stepping carefully through a minefield of melody. Because music packs such an emotional wallop, industry folks want to remain sensitive to their audience.

"Radio playlists are 'kinder and gentler' at this time," Meyer said. "'Party' songs took a dramatic drop after Sept. 11 … The country was not, and still is not, ready to celebrate."

Some speculate that rap may be the hardest hit genre of music. Its materialistic, often violent lyrics are a blatant reminder of pre-war decadence. "This could be the death knell for rap," said Silverman. "People are looking for healing music."

Silverman added that many people, particularly New Yorkers, want compassionate music. "This has pried people's hearts open and that's hard to do in New York. They were compassionate [after Sept. 11]. The only time you see people remotely like this is when there is a foot and half of snow. Now, they want music like that, like Enya."

Levine agrees that hip-hop in its current form seems irrelevant, but said musicians will create new sounds within the old genres.

"We're still going to have gangster rap, but it's going to be different. We'll still have pop music but it's going to be less stupid. And we'll still have alternative rock and it'll be less confrontational."

And he added that although people are rightly rethinking the frivolity and consumerism that had been rampant in America, there is still value in carefree pop music.

"On Sept. 10 the new [Bob] Dylan album was a significant event. Now I'm worried about anthrax," said Levin. "I'm nostalgic for the days when I considered the Dylan album a significant event."