Ted Cruz, Between Rock and a Curious Place

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Under the theory that a non-partisan columnist shouldn’t bash the same politician twice in one week—let alone for a related offense—I initially refrained from challenging Ted Cruz’s crackpot comment  that he embraced country music after 9/11 because he found rock-and-roll’s response to the attacks insufficiently patriotic.

I can restrain myself no longer.

Ted Cruz’s musical muddle shouldn’t come as a surprise after his presidential announcement in Lynchburg, Va. In that speech, the Texas senator employed the word “Imagine” so often—38 times—with a cadence that invited comparisons to John Lennon’s un-Cruz-like song of the same name. Okay, but John Lennon didn't invent the word, and if Cruz has a different world vision in mind, well, that’s what makes horse races—and presidential campaigns. But in a subsequent interview with “CBS This Morning,” Cruz stepped in it again, this time with both feet.

“My music taste changed on 9/11,” he said. “I actually intellectually find this very curious, but on 9/11, I didn’t like how rock music responded. And country music, collectively, the way they responded, it resonated with me.”

Parsing the sentence literally, Cruz was pronouncing his own thought processes “intellectually curious.” Such self-indulgence is hardly rare among politicians, but even giving Cruz the benefit of the doubt does him no favors: because what he said about rock-and-roll was nonsense.

If Ted Cruz really started appreciating the Nashville and Texas sound in 2001, I’ve got about 25 years on him as a country music fan. And after 9/11, I was gratified to hear the best artists in the genre rise to the occasion.

Toby Keith expressed America’s fury and resolve—and support for the military—in “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue” and “American Soldier.” Alan Jackson went for empathy, and found it, in “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)”—a crossover hit that became America’s unofficial 9/11 national anthem.  Tim McGraw’s heart-rending “If You’re Reading This” has been played at a thousand military wakes and funerals. So yes, country music rose to the occasion.

To be sure, many American political writers, not all of them young, are unfamiliar with this music, underscoring the cultural divide between journalists and our audience. When I was covering the White House, Toby Keith played at a military base where George W. Bush was speaking. When Toby began playing the first chords of “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue,” the troops erupted in thunderous applause of grateful recognition. Inside the media tent, the tune brought few signs of recognition.

But that’s not what Ted Cruz said. He said that rock music dropped the ball after 9/11. He’s wrong. Ten days after the attacks, 21 popular musicians gathered on darkened studio stages lit by candlelight in New York, Los Angeles, and London to sing songs in a benefit format. Some of the artists manned the phones to take pledges, the money going to charity. The event was called “America: A Tribute to Heroes.”

The performing artists included rockers and country stars and reggae singers and pop music icons. They intermingled songs of hope and defiance and empathy and determination and tolerance—all the conflicting emotions Americans were feeling in those raw September days.

Bruce Springsteen recast “My City of Ruins” into a song about still-smoldering lower Manhattan. Wearing an American flag shirt, rapper Wyclef Jean imbued Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song,” a tune he’d never sung before, with spiritual immediacy.  Many such old songs were given new meaning, just by the context, such as Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down,” Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” and Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind.” Sheryl Crow introduced a new song for the occasion, “Safe and Sound,” as did Enrique Iglesias.

This concert was not a secret: It aired on all four major broadcast networks, ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC, on September 21, 2001. An album was produced; it sold millions of copies. I have one of them and still play it sometimes. The record I listen to more often, however, is “The Rising” by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, an album explicitly about 9/11.

In Springsteen’s telling, he and his wife, Patti, were driving toward Asbury Park when another motorist, a fan he did not know, pulled down his window at a traffic light and said, “We need you now.” Springsteen, who hadn’t produced an album of new music in several years, felt compelled to try and oblige.

This was a daring undertaking, as Rolling Stone magazine explained. “The heart sags at the prospect of pop stars weighing in on the subject of September 11,” wrote music critic Kurt Loder. “Which of them could possibly transmute the fiery horror of that day with the force of their art, or offer up anything beyond a dismal trivialization?”

The answer, as Loder acknowledged in his review of “The Rising,” was Bruce Springsteen and his longtime band mates. Songs such as “Empty Sky,” “Nothing Man,” and “You’re Missing” directly deal with the loss of loved ones on 9/11 and of the gouged-out feelings all New Yorkers felt. “Paradise” and “Worlds Apart” bravely probe the politics and fanaticism behind the attacks.

The tunes are haunting, the lyrics even more so. The album is a tour de force, rich in religious imagery, most especially the title track. Asked by Ted Koppel on “Nightline” if he was alluding to the Resurrection, Springsteen replied, “Well, I was a good Catholic boy when I was little, so those images for me are always very close, and they explain a lot about life.”

Referring to the firefighters ascending into the towers on that day, Springsteen added, “The idea of those guys going up the stairs—up the stairs—ascending, ascending. I mean you could be ascending a smoky staircase, you could be in the afterlife, moving on.”

Four weeks after the three-city concert, another event was held at Madison Square Garden. It was called the Concert for New York City, but it also included actors, short feature films, and politicians. Some of the same recording artists—Springsteen, Bon Jovi, Bill Joel—were there, along with numerous other stars: Eric Clapton, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, The Who, John Mellencamp, Elton John, James Taylor, the Backstreet Boys, and Paul McCartney. The money raised went to the Robin Hood Relief Fund, benefiting the families of 9/11 victims.

This concert opened with David Bowie doing Paul Simon’s “America” followed by his own song, “Heroes.” Mick Jagger and Keith Richards sang “Salt of the Earth”—with an important change: “Raise your glass to the good and the evil” became: “Raise your glass to the good, not the evil.”

Neil Young played “Imagine”—there’s that song again—but as a grim rebuke to the fanatics who attacked America. In the early 1970s, Young’s angry Kent State-inspired “Ohio” became an iconic antiwar song of the Vietnam era. After 9/11, he produced “Let’s Roll,” a defiant ode to Todd Beamer and the other doomed but courageous passengers on United Airlines Flight 93.

Freedom itself was under attack on 9/11, as a conservative U.S. president noted. Rock musicians, whatever their disagreements with George W. Bush, felt this acutely. Paul McCartney wrote a song by that name, which he performed, along with an encore, at the New York City concert.

In “Freedom,” McCartney channels John Locke and Thomas Jefferson—with a dash of Patrick Henry. The lyrics actually parallel what Ted Cruz said at Liberty University. Here’s its opening stanza:

This is my right, a right given by God
To live a free life, to live in freedom
We’re talking about freedom…
I will fight for the right
To live in freedom.

McCartney reprised this song three months later at the Super Bowl pregame show. “America, we love you!” he said to get the audience warmed up. “Everybody clap your hands for freedom!” And they did. Again, this was not an obscure event. The National Football League estimated its television audience at 144 million people. Perhaps Ted Cruz didn’t see it. Maybe he doesn’t like football, either.

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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