What Ted Cruz Gets Right About Listening to Music

He says 9/11 made him a country fan. Why doubt it?

Alan Jackson performs on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

In 2001, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 irrevocably changed America. They also apparently changed Ted Cruz’s musical tastes. Here’s what the presidential candidate told Gayle King when asked about his listening habits on CBS This Morning:

You know, music is interesting. I grew up listening to classic rock and I’ll tell you sort of an odd story. My music tastes changed on 9/11. And it’s a very strange—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 and I have to say, it—just as a gut level, I had an emotional reaction that says, “These are my people.” And so ever since 2001 I listen to country music, but I’m an odd country music fan because I didn’t listen to it prior to 2001.

Intellectually curious—yes, quite. The word “pandering” has come up a lot in the Internet’s coverage of Cruz’s comments; Slate’s Ben Mathis-Lilley described sarcastically how the quote was “spoken like a normal human being with genuine, relatable interests.”

It would take forensic analysis of the CD booklets that have sat on Cruz’s passenger seat over the past two decades to determine whether he’s being honest about his musical habits, and not just saying things to please certain groups of voters. But I won’t be as quick as many others to poke fun at Cruz’s professed come-to-cowboy-Jesus moment. He's inadvertently highlighted a large but often unrecognized truth about music fandom, which is that it can be as much about social and political identification as it is about aesthetic preference.

Cruz is right that rock and country, with some exceptions, differed in their responses to the fall of the Twin Towers. The most significant rock document that explicitly addressed the tragedy in the years immediately following it was Bruce Springsteen’s The Rising. Kurt Loder summed up its themes in a Rolling Stone review:

Springsteen wades into the wreckage and pain of that horrendous event and emerges bearing fifteen songs that genuflect with enormous grace before the sorrows that drift in its wake. The small miracle of his accomplishment is that at no point does he give vent to the anger felt by so many Americans: the hunger for revenge. The music is often fierce in its execution, but in essence it is a requiem for those who perished in that sudden inferno, and those who died trying to save them.

Neil Young also focused on the human impact of 9/11, with "Let's Roll," which paid tribute to United 93's passengers. But aside from those examples and a little Bush-bashing, rock in general was surprisingly quiet about the attacks. Nu-metal and back-to-basics guitar bands ruling the charts at the time said almost nothing about them; works like P.O.D.’s “Alive” and U2's All That You Can't Leave Behind took on added resonance because of what had happened, but were actually written before 9/11.

Meanwhile, country’s biggest artists released fiercely patriotic songs that vented some of the anger that Loder’s Springsteen review referred to. Toby Keith’s "Courtesy Of The Red, White, And Blue (The Angry American)" hit No. 1 on Billboard’s country charts, thanks in part to these lyrics:

Hey Uncle Sam
Put your name at the top of his list
And the Statue of Liberty
Started shakin’ her fist
And the eagle will fly
Man, it’s gonna be hell
When you hear Mother Freedom
Start ringin’ her bell
And it feels like the whole wide world is raining down on you
Brought to you courtesy of the red, white, and blue

Alan Jackson’s “Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning” was a lot less angry but still openly sentimental, and it too went to No. 1 on the country charts. So did Darryl Worley’s pro-war “Have You Forgotten,” released in 2003. There were dissenters like Merle Haggard, but the fact that the Dixie Chicks faced huge amounts of fan backlash when they spoke out against the Iraq War says a lot about attitudes in the genre's mainstream at the time.

There are many different reasons to like a particular song or style of music, and identifying with the lyrics are one of them. Anyone who appreciates the new Kendrick Lamar album for what it says about race, or the new Sufjan Stevens record because it portrays grief so well, knows that. Country music’s response to 9/11 clearly mirrored and arguably fed into the popular feelings that created public support for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. So it shouldn’t be that surprising that the genre’s lyrics and attitude caught the attention of Cruz, who was working in the Bush administration at the time. He might be exaggerating when he says his tastes changed "on" and not "after" 9/11, but then again people did respond in dramatic ways to that dramatic day, and anyone craving a shot of pure musical patriotism would have been able to have it satisfied by, say, Brooks & Dunn's "Only in America," released five months earlier.

Social habits provide another reason to like a certain kind of music; anyone who's been turned onto a band by a friend knows that. And once groups of people are involved, politics are involved, hence why streaming sites can tell if you’re a Republican or Democrat. The most interesting thing about Cruz's statement is that he says the genre’s response to 9/11 made him realize that “these are my people.” Not that “this are my set of aesthetic values, including twangy voices and slide guitar.” What you listen to can be as important as who you listen with, and, as Cruz probably realizes, who they vote for.