Music torture, one of the War on Terror’s most enduring hits, made headlines again last week, as Reprieve, a British-based human-rights organization, announced a campaign to protest the practice. Characterizing prolonged, high-volume exposure to songs like Neil Diamond’s “Coming to America” and Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” as “even more horrific” than physical torture, Reprieve is calling on governments and the U.N. to uphold and enforce anti-torture treaties and encouraging artists and music fans to engage in “silent protests and actions” at upcoming concerts and festivals.
At a time when millions of us blast infinitely looped soundtracks into our skulls at volumes the U.N. would never sanction, the idea that having one’s penis slashed with a razor blade (to use an example the Reprieve press release cites) is actually preferable to listening to the Barney theme song for hours on end naturally provokes some skepticism. But if one’s initial reaction to the phenomenon of music torture is to crack cynical jokes, the next one is usually to compose a playlist. After all, who hasn’t lain in bed at night plotting elaborate ways to poison their upstairs neighbor as the steady thump of The Chronic leaks down from above? Or aimed their speakers at the ceiling and put Diamanda Galas on repeat play in an effort to retaliate? Music as torture makes intuitive sense to us. In milder incarnations, we’ve been subjected to it, and practicing it, for years.
In the context of genuine warfare, however, what role should music and other forms of pop culture play? According to a 2003 memo authored by U.S. Army Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, the purpose of incorporating music into interrogation efforts is to “create fear, disorient ... and prolong capture shock.” On the one hand, this statement attributes great sway to pop culture: Who knew a brutal application of James Hetfield’s sinister nursery rhymes might be the only thing standing between us and Code Orange apocalypse? On the other hand, we’ve apparently lost faith in the notion that our Billboard chart-toppers are the ultimate soft-power bunker-busters. During the Cold War, we didn’t need to weaponize Elvis singles in an effort to break down our enemies. The Communists got a taste of rock ’n’ roll on their own and eventually demanded more.
Ironically, pop culture is a far more powerful force now than it was when it was working its magic behind the Iron Curtain, and not just because Britney is a much better dancer than Elvis ever was. It’s more abundant, it’s more diverse, it’s more accessible, it’s more immersive, it’s more controllable—it offers its acolytes an infinite number of ways to order their lives, pursue meaning, establish their identities.
Take the practice of music torture itself. Apparently there is no Army-wide playlist or programming strategy that determines what songs get utilized. Like radio DJs of yesteryear, soldiers are simply encouraged to make selections from their own private collections. In part, no doubt, the Army permits such autonomy because the actual songs don’t matter much—music torture achieves its coercive power through repetition, duration and volume more than lyrical or melodic content. But it’s obvious the interrogators take advantage of their freedom: Whether it’s Barney simpering about best friends loving each other or Neil Diamond belting out odes to that new and shiny place, America, the songs they choose consistently function as a kind of darkly comic commentary on the situation at hand. In the iTunes era, even torture in the name of the state becomes a mode of individual expression.
But is that really how we want to showcase our freedom to the world? Al Qaeda and its supporters aestheticize their actions too, of course. They stage decapitations with an eye toward how they’ll play on cable and the Internet. They produce video clips like Jihad Hidden Camera, which presents footage of American soldiers being killed in combat as a “comedy.” They create video games like Night of Bush Capturing. Even as their pop-culture canon grows, however, it fails to expand. Instead, it offers its acolytes only one way to order their lives and pursue meaning: through jihad and killing infidels. While al Qaeda’s auteurs draw from a wide range of sources—Jihad Hidden Camera contains sound effects from Tarzan movies and canned sitcom laughter, for example—everything is just grist for the cause to them, propaganda waiting to happen. When we turn everything from heavy metal to kiddie-show theme songs into soundtracks designed to generate fear and shock, we’re essentially doing the same thing. Surely, our pop culture deserves better than that.