In Britain it was another ballad, another global import megahit, arriving here with the spontaneity of a powerpoint build. But in America it was jetsam, a fragment of wreckage to cling to in a time of fear. Within days of the World Trade Centre falling, “Hero” had been remixed to incorporate found audio from 9/11, a collage of sobbing witnesses, panicked rescuers, and the drained sincerity of politicians interrupting Enrique Iglesias’ every line.
It’s a remarkable thing to listen to, pop snatched up into history, pushed beyond the limit of what it can accommodate. The sentiment of the song – Enrique as hero as lover – shifts into Enrique as firefighter, as cop, and as anyone desperately trying to help and to reassure. But the juxtaposition of pop and tragedy, grotesque as it is, works, because Iglesias himself is so lachrymose: his stagey chokes and moans and trembling lips mix into place smoothly alongside the real agony caught on tape. “I just wanna hold you… I just wanna hold you…” Iglesias murmurs at the end, exhausted and bereft. Romance turns into terror sex.
But of course it works the other way round: the sombre ennobling of “Hero” to fit the raw need of a numbed public is also a detournement of the audio it uses. It’s the first step in turning the attacks into kitsch. “Hero” is used as an emollient, something to frame 9/11 as a narrative of horror followed by hope and unity and resolve. Which turns out to only be half the story.
At fifteen years’ and an ocean’s distance, 9/11 can be a hard event to focus on: its meaning keeps shifting as the dominos it set in motion fall. For a few years it almost seemed to me to be receding, becoming just a secular patriotic holiday in America. The financial crisis loomed larger as the determining event of our times. Of course this was naive, and this week proved it, by connecting the two events as parents of the next great upheaval. Beneath the coat of empathy and unity represented by “Hero”, the attacks created an abscess of fear which built and built and finally burst. Those whose most important issue was the economy, the exit polls said, voted solidly for Clinton. The votes of those who picked immigration or terrorism brought President Trump to power. “I will be your hero”. I alone.
Clearly, this is not the review I expected to write. In its original – and best-known – version, “Hero” is a superior piece of shirt-rending. It has a strong hook, it crests powerfully, Iglesias sings it well, over-emoting with intent, turning himself into a matinee idol, his emotions intensified by the glow of technicolor. But in its unadorned version, “Hero” also contains the antidote to simple narratives and shows of strength: on the verses in particular, Enrique Iglesias sounds vulnerable, full of doubt and need – he has no confidence that his plea to help will work, but he needs to make it as much as his lover needs to hear it. That humility makes the song, and redeems it: in an age of strongmen, reciprocity is the secret power of the weak.