alan jackson_drive

World’s Worst Songs: Alan Jackson’s “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)”

Country singer Alan Jackson, from the cover of the 2001 album “Drive” (Arista Nashville)

While the scope and audacity of the September 11 attacks was shocking, that the United States had finally been hit was not. Informed citizens understood that there were people in the world who did not see us as a force for universal good, who in fact wished us great harm, and who had the means to hurt us badly. To many Americans, however, the attacks came like a bolt of lightning on a clear day. Why would anyone do such a thing to a country as benevolent as ours? How could they hate us so much? What was wrong with the people who hijacked those planes? Surely they had an inconceivable sickness, deep in their souls.

There were answers to these questions, but the answers weren’t easy or comforting. They were rooted in history and geopolitics over nearly a century, and they would upset cherished notions about America’s image, her intentions, and her actions. They may have caused some people to adopt a more nuanced view of what led to the attacks, but many others ignored them, preferring to believe the attacks were an unprovoked irruption of pure evil, or they accepted George W. Bush’s simplistic assessment that the terrorists hated us because they hated our freedom.

In November 2001, Alan Jackson debuted a new song about the attacks at the Country Music Association Awards. It was called “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning).” It had brought record executives to tears when they heard it days before, it received a standing ovation from the crowd in the theater that night, and it was on the radio the next morning. Within three weeks, it would be on the Billboard Hot 100, and it would top the country charts by the end of the year.

As several critics noted at the time, “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)” effectively captures the emotions that roiled the country after the attacks—shock, pain, fear, love of country, a new appreciation for the little things in life like sunsets (and, oddly, I Love Lucy reruns), and the way we spoke to strangers on the street. But it also offers comfort to listeners who choose not to think too hard about why the attacks happened, and it lets them evade the terrible responsibility of understanding:

I’m just a singer of simple songs
I’m not a real political man
I watch CNN but I’m not sure I can tell you
The difference in Iraq and Iran
But I know Jesus and I talk to God
And I remember this from when I was young
Faith, hope and love are some good things He gave us
And the greatest is love

I sound like that Marxist history professor I had in college when I say that everyone in a modern industrial society is “a political man” whether he wants to be or not. Nevertheless, it’s true. When the stakes are war and peace, life and death, we cannot allow ourselves the luxury of being unable to “tell you the difference in Iraq and Iran.” And if we really believe that faith, hope, and love are gifts from God “and the greatest is love,” we have a responsibility to act on that belief, and it probably shouldn’t involve blowing shit up in countries that had nothing to do with the attacks—such as Iraq and Iran.

In wartime, “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)” is an obscenity: a celebration of its own unwillingness to put its principles into action and take a stand, preferring instead to hide behind the fuzzy comfort of Sunday-school platitudes. Say what you want about the brain-dead jingoism of Toby Keith’s repugnant “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue”—at least we know where the singer stands. “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)” says only, “We’re sad, and we trust that someday, we won’t feel sad anymore, because God says we won’t.” But surely if God exists, he expects more of us than just to sit and wait it out.

  • Dan Wiencek

    Necessary words. Well done.

  • Tony

    If your definition of a good song is one that resolves the emotions it evokes, and even the geo-political problems it grieves, you are not talking about music, but rather politics and power. Is it possible that your criticism of the song betrays a distaste for confronting America as it is (naive, ignorant, and safe), instead of fantasizing about what it might become (enlightened, worldly, and terror-ridden)?

  • McGee

    I can’t believe this song is still on the radio. Tony, from 2 years ago, probably nobody understands what you’re saying: that if America remains ignorant, we won’t have terrorism, but that if we become enlightened and understand our place in the world and our role in starting conflicts, we’ll have terrorism. But, in fact, as this ignoramus’ song declares, we were ignorant when we got attached! I.e., ignorance leads to terrorism via irresponsible citizenship.

    I think about politics and power when I hear this song because that’s exactly what the song is about. It has a very explicit theory of politics and power: ignorance makes the American fatty everyman a-political, and Christianity makes the American everyman innocent. We are neither.

    This isn’t a love song, Tony (and even those are political in a sense if you consider the way pop music creates and reinforces limited norms of love, commitment, and family). “Where Were You” is propaganda, and should be critiqued as such.

    You don’t need to be a Marxist or Lefty to hate this song. Check out Thomas Jefferson and Ron Paul. One day, it will be conservative to oppose American war. Indeed, true conservatism–conserving nature, crafts, noncommercialized rural values like a reverence for life, and lost skills like sewing and cooking–is desperately needed. What we don’t need more of is the liberal consensus (“government does right by us and we should trust the team we prefer”) and patriotism like this.