“Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning)”

Written by Brittany Fietsam. 11 November 2014.

Debuting two months after the attacks of 9/11, at the 35th Annual CMA Awards, “Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning)” still touches the hearts of many Americans today. Not only did the song reach number one on the Billboard country charts, stay in the top charts for five weeks, receive the label “Best Country Song” from the Grammy’s, and claim “Song Of The Year” by the Academy of Country Music and Country Music Association, but it was also placed in the permanent Congressional Record, the most recognized published record of the activities of the United States Congress. The song brought singer and songwriter, Alan Jackson, back into the spotlight as well as brand him as a respectable country artist. He was also labeled in the magazine Entertainment Weekly as “Alan Jackson: A Cowboy [who] Comes Through When the Country (And Country Music) Needs It Most” (Routhier). The nostalgic lyrics work parallel with the song’s structure and style and are a reminder to listeners of how they and others felt on that day (Dukes).

Though Jackson was unsure about publishing the song due to the sensitivity about the subject and rawness of the lyrics, his wife and publisher encouraged him to. The song’s appropriateness cannot be argued. The softness of the tone and sad, sweet lyrics helped comfort the hurting nation. The verses in the Verse-Chorus-Bridge Formed song all focus on a variety of ways others were handling the situation. The chorus switches to Jackson, where he builds a sense of humble and honest credibility, “I’m just a singer of simple songs, I’m not a real political man,” and then offers advice, “faith, hope and love are some good things [God] gave us, and the greatest is love.” In other words, the verses create a common ground among people while the chorus is Jackson’s way of promoting a peaceful response to the conflict. This arrangement makes the song feel like a conversation between the Jackson and the listener. Jackson also includes many references to religion in the song. He sings about praying, “looking up to heaven,” “knowing Jesus and talking to God,” going to church, and the Bible.

“Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning)” still holds distinction from many of the other songs that are about the tragedy of September 11, 2001. It was common for songs about the heartbreak to be geared more towards American Pride, such as Toby Keith’s song, “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)” (2002). While these more vengeful songs filled listeners with a sense of pride for the United States, Jackson’s hit brought unity in another way. “Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning)” contains a lot of pathos, mostly in the form of questions. The song refers back to emotions and reactions that many were experiencing, such as the line “Did you feel guilty ‘cause you’re a survivor?” Jackson calls out for people to also remember what they were doing at the time the tragedy was taking place–for example, “Were you teaching a class full of innocent children?” Both samples from the lyrics bring listeners a sense of sadness even if they did not have the exact thoughts or occurrences. Phrases from the lyrics such as “innocent children,” “heroes who died,” and “the greatest is love” do a good job at tugging at people’s emotions, and triggering these feelings plays a big role of the memorability of the song.

Jackson did take risks with the release of “Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning),” but producing his song was very beneficial not only to him but many Americans as well. The slower tempo works parallel with the sentimental lyrics, capturing a “healing touch” to the nation (Dukes). After analyzing this hit, it is apparent that Jackson was encouraging Americans to unite and act out of love instead of hatred or violence. He uses the song’s structure to progress from simply forming common grounds within the verses in the perspective of questions to the listeners, and then relating to the same emotions and cutting off outside influences on his own personal stance. This makes Jackson appear more credible and the song more genuine, which is important to the appropriateness of the hit. Also, promoting peace is a clear, underlying goal of Jackson’s in the song. He persuades tranquility in the last two lines of the chorus and in the bridge, where his questions of “where were you” begin to focus on doing things for others, when the rest of the song concentrated more on the self. Overall “Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning)” was a distinct and appropriate song released to a sensitive crowd at a complex time. Due to the progressive, qualitative structure along with the kind lyrics, Jackson succeeded in creating a comforting song that continues to provoke strong reactions from Americans today.

Time Form Listening Cues Discussion
0:00 Intro Strings and acoustic guitar The song opens with light strings which crescendos into the main guitar melody that is consistent throughout the duration of the song.
0:13 Verse 1 “Where were you…” Jackson begins the first verse by introducing the main topic of his song through flowing lyrics emphatically sang with southern twang.
0:48 Verse 2 “Did you weep…” The repetitive nature of the bongo drums combined with the recurring banjo and guitar melody allow the listener to focus on Jackson’s lyrics.
1:24 Chorus “I’m just a singer…” The chorus opens with a short drum fill that opens up the sound with stronger snare hits and cymbal hits. In addition, the strings sit on top of the band, bringing together the mellow tone of the song.
1:58 Verse 3 “Where were you…” The song then reverts to the closed sound of the first verses, this time paired with steel guitar, whining over the top of Jackson’s lyrics.
1:58 Verse 4 “Did you open your eyes…” Similar sounding to the previous verses.
2:33 Bridge “Did you go to a church…” The bridge starts with more freedom from the background instrumentals by increasing their volume and presence with Jackson. Furthermore, towards the end of the bridge, the song begins a slight ritard, slowing down and leading into the final chorus’.
3:25 Chorus x2 “I’m just a singer…” Similar to the first chorus, the drum fill cascades into the final chorus. The strings have more presence, adding to the crescendo of the song.
4:33 Outro “And the greatest is love…” The first noticeable part of the Outro is the lack of drums. The timing of the song then gradually slows down, giving the listener a feeling of closure. As the song ends, the strings and steel guitar come together in unison and fade to quiet.

Works Cited

Routhier, Ray. “Country To the Core; Alan Jackson Stays True To His Roots – And His Fans.”Portland Press Herald (Maine). 12 Sept. 2002.LexisNexis Academic. Web. 6 Oct. 2014.

Dukes, Billy. “Alan Jackson Shares Story Behind 9/11 Anthem ‘Where Were You.’” Taste of Country. Townsquared Media, LLC. 9 Sept. 2011. Web. 4 Nov. 2014.