Olympic Scupture Park, Seattle, Winter 2014
Malcolm Gladwell recounts the final days of the 1993 Waco, Texas standoff in his excellent article “Sacred and Profane” from the March, 31 issue of the New Yorker. He specifically cities a new memoir by Clive Doyle, a survivor of the incident and a follower of the millennialist Branch Davidians. Gladwell’s article offers a revelatory critique of how to negotiate with religious groups. What really caught my attention, however, was Doyle’s mention of how the FBI used music to disarm the followers and hasten their capitulation. Or the insidious tactic of weaponizing sound.
In the government’s eyes, the Branch Davidians were a threat. The bureau trained spotlights on the property and set up giant speakers that blasted noise day and night–the sound of “rabbits being killed, warped-up music, Nancy Sinatra singing ‘These Boots Are Made for Walking,’ Tibetan monks chanting, Christmas carols, telephones ringing, reveille.” Doyle writes, “I got to where I was only getting about an hour or two of sleep every twenty-four hours.”
Critic Alex Ross traces the psychological use of music in warfare back to at least WWII when the Soviets broadcast Shotakovich’s Seventh Symphony into enemy territory. One can imagine even earlier intimidation uses of sound by Revolutionary War fife and drum corps or bagpipes in the Highlands, though, I haven’t done enough research to find specific accounts that old. However, recent leaks exposing “enhanced” interrogation in the name of the War on Terror have sparked a flurry of inquiry into psychological warfare.
Musicologist Suzanne Cusick is probably the leading scholar investigating the implications of this new paradigm. She parses out two primary covert uses: music (or broadly, sound) as a physical weapon, and music as a torture device (the government issue terms are the cutesy “no-touch” or “enhanced” methods). She claims the U.S. sound barrage of Panamania president Manuel Noriega in 1989 (Operation Nifty Package) was the first mainstream example of modern sound warfare. More recently, during the Iraq War, troops would similarly blare deafening music to disorient their opponents (see siege of Fallujah). Jonathan Pieslak interviewed Iraq War veterans on their musical choices (usually hip-hop or metal) for his book Sound Targets: American Soldiers and Music in the Iraq War. (I haven’t read this one but it’s on my list.)
One of Cusick’s revelations continues to blow my mind. She asserts that the government’s notion of sound parallels that of many 20th century artists and theorists, and may even have been influenced by government-contracted Ivy League research. This shared aesthetic definitely blurs the distinction between sound and music, but there’s one catch. The genre of music is what people usually mention, but Cusick cities a report where the interrogators reveal that music is incidental to their goal. Instead, sound and its characteristic frequencies and amplitudes matter more than content. (Though it’s important to add that interrogators often purposefully select culturally offensive music for added effect.) Allegedly, sound is ridiculously effective at “breaking” a detainee’s subjectivity. So effective, they begin to lose their identity. Somewhat ironically, this is often how listeners describe their experience of hearing great live music; they use terms like “losing” themselves or “becoming one” with the room.
Fast forward to the present and enter the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Al Jazeera recently obtained leaked documents:
Additionally, the report allegedly says that Abu Zubaydah [a detainee] was stuffed into a pet crate (the type used to transport dogs on airplanes) over the course of two weeks and routinely passed out, was shackled by his wrists to the ceiling of his cell and subjected to an endless loop of loud music. One former interrogator briefed about Abu Zubaydah’s interrogations from May to July 2002 told Al Jazeera that the music used to batter the detainee’s senses was by the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
As you might imagine, the Chili Peppers weren’t happy to find their music on the playlist for “enhanced” interrogation. “Our music’s positive man,” said drummer Chad Smith. “It’s supposed to make people feel good… It’s bullshit.” These techniques seem infinitely more pernicious than physical beatings for one obvious reason: since the trauma is mostly psychological, I imagine they’d be hard to prosecute in human rights court. I also believe that “no-touch” torture deprives the detainee and the artist their cultural agency. It shits on everyone’s culture. And anytime art is used as a weapon only bad things follow.
I know this is some heavy stuff that might seem trivial but I think it’s an issue that needs more attention, and not just from the musicologists or sound nerds like me. From pouring over blog comments on this kind of torture, I think there are plenty of misconceptions about the power of sound to physically and psychologically distort the human body. It’s time we acknowledge that it can do real and lasting damage.
If you’ve stayed with me thus far, you may be interested in the playlist-of-shame. Below I’ve put together the unfortunate greatest hits:
Bob Singleton, Barney “Theme”
Joe Raposo, Sesame Street “Theme”
Country music, most anything
Metallica, “Enter Sandman”
Eminem, “White America”
Queen, “We Are The Champions”
Here are worthwhile articles and papers on music and torture if you’re inclined to dig deeper: