“It’s the music that carries our history…”
An AllMusicBooks conversation on CNN’s SOUNDTRACKS
Editor SteveJ and contributor Meg D talk about what's good and what's bad about the new Dwayne Johnson-produced series on CNN, which airs Thursday nights at 10pm EST. Our conversation will be updated each Monday, following the latest episode.
EPISODE 2: "September 11th"
Meg D:I expected the second Soundtracks to be about the Vietnam War – I was surprised that it was about September 11th. So this series isn’t going in chronological order, but this episode did, sort of.
It starts with Sting, who had to perform that very night. While he sings "Fragile," images of the Twin Towers flash on the screen. Nicely done. My compliments to the video editors for not including the really graphic stuff. I think we’ve all seen enough of that to last a lifetime.
SteveJ: I’m not sure how they determined the order of these episodes, but I agree it seemed random to follow up the the death of MLK and the birth of the Civil Rights movement with 9/11. The opening montages, particularly the radio voiceovers, were very, very effective. Those images are still just haunting. But Sting, a Brit, performing in Italy that night, seemed a very curious choice as the opening musical salvo for this American tragedy. He did a nice job summing how the world had changed that moment, but…
Meg D: Next up is Springsteen’s "The Rising." No new interview with Bruce, just old footage of an interview about that album and some talking moments from Dan Rather and an appreciative firefighter, along with a live performance. At this point, I expected to feel a lot more emotion. And I’m getting sick of seeing the same people in every CNN series! There are a lot more talking heads in the world . . .
SteveJ: Got to disagree with you here, Meg. I thought Bruce, the performance and interviews (albeit recycled) were one of the best things about this episode, the other being Billy Joel. But Springsteen’s interview about what he tried to capture in the song “The Rising" was so moving; firefighters going up and into the building while everyone else is trying to get out is really emotional and you could see in in his face. I could argue with the placement of his piece, as it celebrates that everyday bravery and we’re only seven minutes in. His performance of “My City of Ruins” at the 9/11 concerts was just so powerful. But I thought Bruce was great. That was what I want to hear more of. And it was interesting to hear fire chief, not a journalist, talk about what it meant to him.
Meg D: Good thing someone was able to talk Billy Joel into being interviewed about the Concert for New York City because the retread video was not working for me. His description of how hard it was to play "New York State of Mind" brought me right back to that moment – is there anyone alive at that time in America who didn’t watch that concert? I doubt it.
SteveJ: I’m not a huge Billy Joel fan, but he was great and that performance of “New York State of Mind’ was brilliant. Angry, proud, defiant…it was just what the country needed to hear. And I hope we get more interviews like that, the artist looking back and providing that perspective.
Meg D: And then out of nowhere, someone involved with this show decided to throw in the rising anti-Muslim sentiment with a bit on Nile Rodgers re-recording of "We Are Family." I agree that issue existed – and still does – but I’m not sure this is the right spot in the documentary to mention this. More on that later.
SteveJ: Totally agree. Way out of place here, both in timing and tone. His interview was good, but…
Meg D: Back to America . . . patriotism . . . what else would be next but country music? Brooks and Dunn talk about the power of “Only in America,” a song written prior to 9/11 but played days later in a concert just miles from the Pennsylvania crash site. I wish that had been mentioned much sooner, but you can’t have everything!
SteveJ: Brooks and Dunn? “Boot Scoot Boogie? Seriously? Massive fail…At least Dunn had the good sense to notice that.
Meg D: Alan Jackson, again not interviewed, and his song "Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning", plays. Then it’s on to the song that I had to hear every day at my sons’ elementary school in 2001: "God Bless The US"A by Lee Greenwood. Again, a song that was not written in response to 9/11, but it surely became one of THE songs that people identify with it. Nice interview with Lee, who chokes up.
SteveJ: I find both of those songs pretty maudlin. And The Rock should have credited one of the fathers of country music, Harlan Howard, for the “three chords and the truth” line.
Meg D: On to "Courtesy of The Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American)" and Toby Keith wanting to put a boot up a terrorist’s ass. Some people loved that song, and some saw at is chauvinistic and jingoistic, according to Rather. Since Toby wasn’t interviewed, I have no idea what he felt about this, but I’m guessing he’d call bullshit. I’m starting to have some serious problems with the lack of new footage.
And it only gets worse with the Dixie Chicks, who received death threats after saying they were ashamed President George W. Bush was from Texas, and then went on to record "Not Ready to Make Nice" in response to that. No interview. Why not? I remember that being talked about for months . . . maybe the Chicks are tired of that topic, but I’d like to hear what they have to say in 2017.
This is where I would have mentioned the anti-Muslim movement. Seems to fit better as part of the “other side” of patriotism, as I am choosing to call it.
SteveJ: I hate the song "Courtesy of The Red, White, and Blue" and everything it stands for. And the cynic in me finds it a crass way to make a buck. Hopefully, he donated every penny it made to the 9/11 fund. It’s part of the problem, not the solution and I agree that this kind of stuff fanned some flames that the Dixie Chicks, unfortunately, had to suffer. Was I the only one who noted the irony of Kix defending that song stating “whether or not you agree with the policies of it, as American’s we all get to express ourselves.” Apparently, not the Dixie Chicks, whom Bill O’Reilly called “callow foolish women who deserve to get slapped around.” And press secretary warned that “Americans need to watch what they say, watch what they do.” But their response song "I'm Not Ready to Back Down” was perfect. And that performance…wow. Bravo.
Meg D: Flash forward to the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and Paul Simon’s performance of "The Sound of Silence." This image flashes on the screen: A middle-aged man, on his knees, hugging a name etched into the memorial. In an interview for this documentary (finally) Simon says, “You try to do anything you can in these times when you can’t do anything really except you give people an opportunity to find solace.” Those words with that image. Perfect. I’m in tears. Finally. Finally this documentary does its job. And it should have ended there, not with "Empire State of Mind." Great song, but it ruined this one valuable moment.
SteveJ:I thought that was a nice jump, with the female fire captain bringing it all back to what was really important. Great performance and interview with Paul Simon. It’s interesting; that completely re-contextualized “The Sound Of Silence” for me. And that should have been the end. “Empire State of Mind” says nothing about 9/11, as great as it is. If you’re going to present that, I think need to hear from Jay Z or Alicia Keys as to their intent. Otherwise, it just feels slapped on there because it has the word “New York,” or in this case, “Empire” in it. So we will end it there...
EPISODE 1: "The Assassination of MLK"
SteveJ: I really enjoyed CNN's series "The Sixties," "The Seventies," and "The Eighties" so I've been looking forward to "Soundtracks." After the opening episode, I don't know...I'm a little nervous that it's not going to be what I'd hoped it would be.
Meg D: I watched those “decades” shows too, as well as the "History of Comedy" (which I haven’t finished), and I’ve noticed that CNN has a formula for their docuseries: Examine a moment in time via film clips, interview those who witnessed the historical monuments, along with people who study those moments, then throw in some millennial commentary to keep the younger folks watching. "Soundtracks” seems to be following that blueprint. It begins with the Civil Rights Movement, which is a logical given the current state of race relations, and, in fact, includes an interview with a Black Lives Matter activist. We’ve come so far, and yet we haven’t . . .Starting with MLK and his death, we hear Nina Simone sing "Mississippi Goddam." Wow.
SteveJ: The beginning was very powerful, and you're right; these images, sadly, are just as relevant today. Nina Simone's "Mississippi Goddam" is perfect, with it's haunting "I don't belong here, I don't belong there" refrain juxtaposed with images of those demonstrations. However, I think the producers made a major misstep as it shifted to the MLK assassination. The video of Nina Simone singing "Why? (The King of Love Is Dead)" is amazing. I realize it's seven minutes long, but more of that song over those images would have been much stronger. I mean....it IS supposed to be about the music, right?
Meg D: Absolutely. Too much news and not enough music. And who picked the experts? Why is David Crosby in the mix with Al Sharpton and Dan Rather? I understand the latter, and no disrespect to Crosby, who I adore, but it felt like they just plucked out a hippie who everyone knows for some sound bites. It made even less sense to me when Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary talked about marching and singing . . . why not just stick with him? I suspect the C in CSNY was thrown in because he will be in another episode talking about “Ohio.” I’ve watched enough of these documentaries to know how they work . . .
SteveJ: Agreed. Going from Nina Simone to Peter Paul and Mary, the SNCC Singers, and "We Shall Overcome" was a letdown. And then we go to Joan Baez — the footage of her with MLK and Jesse Jackson is pretty amazing — but I was struck by the line someone said that “Joan Baez was important because she showed up…” Huh? What? That was her contribution? Better was the always amazing Aretha Franklin doing "People Get Ready." Such a perfect song to close out that segment. Author Nelson George summed up Aretha beautifully: "Her voice is one of the greatest in American history..bringing sexuality and rage.” Amen...but, again, I could have used more than one verse!
And then we move quickly — too quickly — to the "By Any Means Necessary" mantra and James Brown's "Say It Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud)," Berry Gordy's Motown, and "the valley after the civil rights movement." Stevie Wonder's "Living For The City" was part of the music that reflected "it’s about survival," placed this as early 70's, but then there's a cut of him performing "Happy Birthday," which was written for the Dr. King holiday and released in 1980. Wait…now we’re in the 80s?
Meg D: Exactly. Lots of time spent on the ’60s, but lots of songs I would have chosen to talk about were left out, like "The Times They Are A-Changin’" by Bob Dylan. Then bam, it’s the 1980s and Public Enemy is fighting the power. What happened to the ‘70s? And just as I’m chuckling over Flavor Flav’s big ass clock, I’m suddenly thrown into the 2000s with Obama’s inauguration. What about all the great statement songs from the late ‘80s and ‘90s like "F—k Tha Police" by NWA?
SteveJ: I thought they connected Public Enemy and "FIght The Power" nicely with the idea that PE "speak through sampling to the ancestors such as the Isley’s and James Brown," but then it's "Hey, it’s Obama!" Cue Sam Cooke…"A Change Is Gonna Come…" Black Lives Matter! I hope this was just a setup of the first episode, and I hope they take more time to flesh things out. More depth, less talking heads. But...it was dizzying.
Meg D: I want more songs AND more depth! I was glad to see the episode conclude with "Alright" by Kendrick Lamarr, a modern-day take on what’s become of the movement. It’s a pretty powerful song and video and definitely gave me pause. But, the whole thing felt very superficial. An hour (and that’s with commericals) just isn’t enough, especially when you’re talking about a subject as important as civil rights.
SteveJ: "Alright" has multiple messages and, as the narrator noted, Lamarr offers up "hip hop coolness and swagger as a weapon to fight injustices." The writing can be really good, but it does seem they're in a race to make sure they check off each generations' touchstones in an effort to gain a bigger audience. That does seems a bit callous, or superficial as you put it. We'll see what happens. You can do a lot with great songs and great images. But I hope the music gets a chance to speak for itself.
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