Tomorrow's main Grammy showdown seems almost a fix, pitting the potty-mouthed Eminem against the legendary Bruce Springsteen and his elegy for the fallen firefighters. Even though the Springsteen album isn't all that great (sorry, all you Bruce diehards), he's the odds-on favorite, because "The Rising" taps into the free-floating nostalgia of the moment for old rockers and the growing sentimentality about Sept. 11, 2001.
"The Rising" hits all the right notes, as we've come to expect them. The album is about heroes and hope, about seizing triumph from the ashes. Whenever the lyrics stray into anger or ambiguity -- "a lonesome day," "a sky streaked with blood," the digression resolves itself in a crescendo of chorus: "It's alright, it's alright, it's alright, yeah," repeated six times. Or in the now-famous ode to the firefighters, which begins in hell and ends in Hallmark: "May your strength give us strength/May your hope give us hope."
It's the most natural human instinct to spin a meaningful story from death. And with his music and personal kindness, Springsteen has eased the pain of many a New Jersey widow. But in the public realm, this form of mourning starts to feel a little oppressive: a rush to closure, to move on to better things. The idiom, in songs, on TV, in political speeches, turns a massive, incomprehensible act of savagery into digestible bites, small tokens that could almost be called cute.
Commemorations of Sept. 11 tend to follow the comforting arc of VH1's "Behind the Music," from success to disaster to triumph: a forced march of rescue workers who fell in love and widows who vow their husbands did not die in vain. Or my favorite: Diane Sawyer, who in her feature "63 Reasons to Hope," about babies born to Sept. 11 widows, cooed, "You can't be sad when looking at a gurgling, smiling baby."
The hopeful ending is sacred, and unpleasant detours are not tolerated. William Langewiesche's book about rescue efforts at Ground Zero is nothing if not a tribute to hero-saints; on every page are vivid descriptions of firefighters, engineers, medical examiners giving their all. But because he also reported that some firefighters looted jeans from a nearby Gap, his book tour was widely picketed and the firefighters' union as well as the New York press denounced him as a fraud.
Partly this is attributable to American optimism. But usually the switch from mourning to triumph happens so fast that it tends to flatten the original tragedy. In President Bush's eulogy to the victims of the space shuttle crash, some were offended by his quoting from the prophet Isaiah. But what struck me more was the line right before that: "Our journey into space will go on." This was saying, in effect, that the deaths will not change a thing, that without a pause we will continue our business as usual. The sentiment was echoed by dozens of radio commentators who, almost before the parts had fallen, were up to their usual chatter about "appropriations for NASA" and "the importance of manned flights."
You can see it in the efforts to build anew at the World Trade Center site, where "Remember" is taking a back seat to "Rebuild and Renew." Memorializing already seems a footnote to the headier themes emerging about "an exciting revival of modern architecture," as one headline read, captured in antiseptic models dotted with "gardens of peace," fueled by faith in the rejuvenating power of towering glass and steel.
It is possible to talk about hope in a way that doesn't sound as if one is callous to the despair of the moment. Martin Luther King Jr. was a master of this idiom, always balancing both moods in a sentence, most famously in "The Promised Land": "Only when it's dark enough can you see the stars." Or his image of people facing down dogs and hoses but still singing. Or Abraham Lincoln, who delivered his hopeful prognoses for the Union broodingly.
But political talk now does not risk that ambiguity. We'll no doubt see the proof at the Republican convention, which chose New York for the obvious historical resonance: subtle analogies between the firefighters and the Bush war room, between Republican victory and the nation's triumph over evil. With background music by a high school marching band playing its own rousing rendition of "The Rising."
The writer is a member of the editorial page staff.