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February 8, 2007 6:07 AM   Subscribe

Turn it off: The Society for Ethnomusicology issues a position statement against the use of music as an instrument of torture.
posted by Miko (39 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Music for torture also previously covered on MeFi here, here, and here.
posted by Miko at 6:09 AM on February 8, 2007

It's disturbing that we need to condemn the use of any specific tool as an instrument of torture, as if there might be some tools which are OK to torture with.
posted by hoverboards don't work on water at 6:13 AM on February 8, 2007

Yay SEM!

I've had occasion to work with some of these folks. An excellent group of people doing really interesting things.
posted by Fezboy! at 6:31 AM on February 8, 2007

Complain thought they want, the music of Yoko Ono will always be a device of torture.
posted by Astro Zombie at 6:32 AM on February 8, 2007

I wonder if the Society for Thumbscrews has issued a similar statement.
posted by Citizen Premier at 6:46 AM on February 8, 2007

Only took 4 comments for Yoko's name to come up! But I'd say Kenny G is far more disturbing, hands down, no contest. His name actually cropped up in one of the articles, too, so I guess it's a no-brainer: that man's music is THE ideal instrument of torture.

Aside from the levity, though, this is clearly an issue worthy of shedding some light on. And hoverboards, surely you don't really don't think anyone at the SEM is implying that any other methods of torture are "OK". Obviously they're simply trying to draw attention to this specific use of music as a torture device.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:55 AM on February 8, 2007

I was afraid to click on the link "http://www.sibetrans.com/trans/trans10/cusick_eng.htm" because I expected it to be the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Talk about torture.
posted by yhbc at 6:56 AM on February 8, 2007

Good post. And fantastic headline.
posted by micayetoca at 7:03 AM on February 8, 2007

It's disturbing that we need to condemn the use of any specific tool as an instrument of torture, as if there might be some tools which are OK to torture with.

"The Society for Ethnomusicology condemns the use of torture in any form." is the first sentence of the first link. Forgive them if they go on a bit about their field as it relates to the topic at hand.

Great essay under the music link.

the music of Yoko Ono will always be a device of torture.

Covered in the music article, and supported by my own experience watching Rolling Stones' Rock & Roll Circus. Dirty Mac on stage is a powerful, wonderful, amazing thing—a collection of rock talent rare and dazzling....and then for the very next song they're the backing band for Yoko's godawful screeching. On the other hand, there's Yes, I'm A Witch.
posted by carsonb at 7:09 AM on February 8, 2007

Anyone experience a toddler and a Barney album? If so, can anyone tell me if I can call a tribunal on my child?
posted by MrGuilt at 7:24 AM on February 8, 2007

My Room 101 song is "No Rain," by Blind Melon. It's unignorably awful. I'd confess to the Lincoln assassination to get away from that abomination.
posted by breezeway at 7:25 AM on February 8, 2007

I'll take Barney over the Wiggles any day. The Thomas the Tank Engine program has the nicest music of the little-kid shows, if you ask me.

Back to the topic at hand, I remember reading Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich as a high school sophomore, and I remember thinking, "Reagan is right—this is an evil empire. Thank goodness we don't treat people that way."

Even then, I understood that our military and intelligence personnel committed human rights offenses, but I also understood (or thought I did) that these were the result of rogues or "bad apples", not the systematic dehumanizing brutality of the gulags. Twenty years later, we as a nation have come to the point where we craft narrow legalistic definitions of torture, to justify any mis-treatment of prisoners so long as it does not leave an obvious physical mark on their bodies, and we have a rancorous public debate over just how much of this torture is acceptable. The answer is now, as it has always been: none.
posted by Mister_A at 7:36 AM on February 8, 2007

Well shit, what else are all those Michael Bolton records good for?
posted by jonmc at 7:39 AM on February 8, 2007

Well shit, what else are all those Michael Bolton records good for?
But seriously I have a lot of empathy for their position.

(I am not against torture an any respect: sheeseh... KY Jelly not for internal consumption)
posted by edgeways at 8:16 AM on February 8, 2007

The "music" link, Prof. Suzanne Cusick's "Music as Torture" is a brilliant piece of work worthy of FPP status in its own right. To a professional student of musicology, steeped in the cultural ubiquity of music and its charms, and cognizant of the incorporation of forms of music into the fabric of every society--including that of 21st Century BushMur'ca--the concept of using music as an instrument of torture must be especially nauseating.

I am disappointed that the easiest response of those "in the blue" is to offer A&R advice to the torturers. The Cusick article documents similar responses from the LittleGreenFootballers and FreeRepublicans, q.v.

As Molly used to say to Fibber on the radio:

"T'ain't funny, McGee."
posted by rdone at 8:29 AM on February 8, 2007

the concept of using music as an instrument of torture must be especially nauseating

I think that's why the statement struck me. SEM is a really sophisticated and interesting group, and I'm sure it particularly saddens them that music, perhaps the most ancient and ubiquitous form of human artistic expression, is being used for cruelty, as a weapon of war.

As a student of music, I also find it quite interesting (though of course repugnant) that use of music in this way is so effective. The very elements that give music its artistic impact (repetition, pitch, rhythm, compelling vocal and instrumental sounds) are the things that make its 'weaponized' use so painful to the mind and senses. It is testament to the susceptibility of our physical systems to the powers of music.
posted by Miko at 8:49 AM on February 8, 2007

People have to get some of that stuff out of their systems, rdone. We all know that these comments are not an endorsement of torture. A little gallows humor is sometimes the only antidote to life's horrors.
posted by Mister_A at 8:50 AM on February 8, 2007

Miko, I'm really starting to wonder about your RPM album now.
posted by cortex at 9:04 AM on February 8, 2007

(Also, pop-culture nod to A Clockwork Orange. The empathy I felt for the ruination for Alex of Beethoven was such a powerful thing—a sense of sudden unbalancing, the desire to say "no! Whatever else, whatever justice is meted out, don't ruin the music!")
posted by cortex at 9:11 AM on February 8, 2007

Look, rdone, I don't happen to have opinions on waterboard makes and models or thumbscrew gauges. Here we have something I can relate to that's used for torture, and my way of expressing that relation is to tell you what song would have me biting my tongue off after an hour or so of repeated listening.

It's horrible, yeah, music as torture. While even my favorite song could be turned against me (and yes, that would be even worse torture), it's worth pointing out that, when asked the rat-mask question, "What is your greatest fear," there already is a tune out there that makes me squirm. Which makes me wonder: would my Room 101 song be my favorite, or my least favorite?

I'm no professional student like you, but I can sniff disdain when it shits its pants. Calling us footballers and freeps because we couch our opinions in few words and personal terms is a pretty nasty turn. I'm sure you didn't mean it that way.
posted by breezeway at 9:20 AM on February 8, 2007

I look at this sort of thing optimistically: musical diversity means protection.

Which is to say: let 'em arrest me and music-torture me all they want-- they can't touch me. I'm into the Fall.
posted by koeselitz at 10:04 AM on February 8, 2007

I am disappointed that the easiest response of those "in the blue" is to offer A&R advice to the torturers. The Cusick article documents similar responses from the LittleGreenFootballers and FreeRepublicans, q.v.


I was filled with joy when I learned that Music was among the very few universal commonalities among cultures in my (intro) Anthropology class. We're capable of having mystical connections to music, so to see it perverted in this way really is too much.

Cultural humiliation is profound bad faith.

on preview: Individual responses to the article(s) could focus on whether music (in general) should be kept sacrosanct as positive art (and never used to hurt people) or if it doesn't deserve that distinction, instead of a contest of what artist sucks more. That would me more to the topic, I think.
posted by cowbellemoo at 10:12 AM on February 8, 2007

Nah, breezeway, I'm not a professional student: just a lawyer AND a banjo player.

But I have played and sung for over 40 years. Music has brought me much happiness in a world where happiness is most often in short supply. To those who would pervert the tool of beauty and joy into a Satanic instrument of degradation, disorientation, and domination, my response is clear: be damned. For the rest of us, there are many other things to sardonically joke about. However music may inflict unintentional pain and suffering on some auditors, the use of music intentionally to inflict pain and suffering is never acceptable. It is inhuman, because the joy of music belongs to every human being by right.

If one is not comfortable in finding oneself in the same epistemological bag as the Freepers, it would appear that self-examination is in order, at least as the status of one's own trousers. I offer no disdain, only a sad if pointed reminder that we brilliant liberal hippie polymaths of MeFi can unwittingly appear inhumane, too.
posted by rdone at 10:36 AM on February 8, 2007

would my Room 101 song be my favorite, or my least favorite

The rub is: it doesn't matter in the least -- you don't get to choose. As a torture victim, you'd a helpless recipient of whatever your captors choose. That's why it works, and that's why issues of personal taste are fairly irrelevant. That song you feel you hate at this moment could sound like, well, like music to your ears after a few months of continuous torture in whatever fashion, simply because it represents a familiar, peactime expression from your safe home culture. Your very most favorite song could forever cause you to cringe, quail, cry, or have nightmares, if used in this way against you. The point: it doesn't matter what music is used - it matters that music is used, at all. This is one of the points made in the linked essay -- that interrogation training teaches the use of music for torture, but does not dictate which specific types of music are used. That, apparently, is left up to individual soldiers in the situation.

Another interesting connection is that music's psychological power has been weilded in war in other ways. World Wars I and II offered quite a lot of pep-rallying Victory songs, both intended specifically as propaganda and arising in pop culture. It's really only in recent times that we think of music more as a medium for protest rather than for propaganda.
posted by Miko at 10:38 AM on February 8, 2007


Thanks to ye for the link. It has caused me to think hard about a terrible issue, yet another tragic way that the USA is forfeiting the "decent opinion" of mankind.
posted by rdone at 11:05 AM on February 8, 2007

Someone is a "freeper" if they make a joke about something that happens to be important to you?

Do you accuse your trousers of cultural imperialism if they don't hold a crease?

Oh well, how about we all just send rdone our logins and passwords and he/she can just fill in whatever comments we should be making.

Thanks for the link, Miko.
posted by Divine_Wino at 11:27 AM on February 8, 2007

On topic:

Human beings are grotesque, perverse and callow for the most part, except when they are not. The use of music in torture (even if it is mostly being used as a crude way of disorienting or scaring someone, as opposed to the more elaborate Clockwork Orange method of taking something that someone loves and turning it against them) is a tiny facet of the larger fact that cruelty and lack of empathy seem to be as deeply embedded in the human psyche as love of music, so of course people are going to be tortured to a soundtrack. It's just like a surly teenager blasting Cannibal Corpse to piss off his parents except with stress postures and cold water baths and sexual humiliation. It fucking sucks.
posted by Divine_Wino at 12:09 PM on February 8, 2007

Electricity makes it so we can see our loved ones at night. We can hear their voices through telephone wire for long distances. Septic systems wash our ellfuvia away and give us a cleaner, healthier life. Firehoses save lives and property from conflagration. Knives keep us from choking on big chunks of food, and razors keep our faces and legs clear of stubble so we can please the ones we love. Drugs cure us when we're sick. Slivers of bamboo help keep our teeth clean, fighting tooth decay.

All of these wondrous things can be perverted by torturers into horrible weapons of degradation.

A picture or recording of a loved one, or one's own child, can be turned into the worst torture of all.

I agree, torture is awful, no matter what the instrument is. Music torture is bad medicine.

It's no surprise when folks' reaction to the topic echos the (should be) familiar "listening to that song is torture" line, though.

We're talking Orwellian stuff here. Is it any wonder that I brought up Orwell? In Room 101, you do get to choose. You have to. "It doesn't matter" isn't an option.

Someday soon, they'll be using internet forums as instruments of torture. I sure hope that's a long way off.
posted by breezeway at 12:15 PM on February 8, 2007

Metafilter: internet forums as instruments of torture.

There’s an irony there in using what soothes the savage beast as torture. Although I found blasting Noreiga with “War Pigs” sorta ironic as well. But y’know, one rarely gets to play any music at it’s highest volume so I’m thinking it’s that repressed teenager thing alluded to above.
posted by Smedleyman at 1:13 PM on February 8, 2007

From the Cusick article, under the cheerful heading: "Music, torture and the blogosphere (or, Is it torture, and what’s the playlist?)":

Bloggers who accept the premise that music could be torture participate eagerly–indeed, almost gleefully–in virtual conversations aimed at producing the ideal playlist for either battlefield or interrogation-room use. {21} Two with particularly creative, sustained conversations are http://littlegreenfootballs.com , a mixed-sex, right-leaning political blog run by web designer Charles Johnson (best-known for exposing the forged documents about President Bush’s military service that led to Dan Rather’s retirement from CBS) and http://freerepublic.com, a sharply right-wing political blog whose musical conversations are dominated by men. “Little green footballs” staged a contest for torture suggestions in mid-May, 2003, attracting nearly 200 responses in a matter of hours. Some of the most frequently mentioned choices are “all rap music”, “Horse with no name”, “Alone again”, “MacArthur Park”, “Honey”, “You light up my life”, all the recordings of Cher, Yanni, Bobby Sherman, Kenny G. Harry Belafonte, YMCA and the BeeGees, and all disco.

Cusick goes on to say:

Whatever one might make of this playlist (it seems to me to indicate the blog’s demographic rather precisely), http://littlegreenfootballs.com ‘s competition provoked few mean-spirited comments. By contrast, Free Republic’s June 10, 2005, posting of a news story about the Army’s quest for a new speaker system to deliver music as a weapon or “torture” device sparked repertoire suggestions that were occasionally laced with multivalent venom. Suggestions early that evening included the music of Sousa, Welk, Donny and Marie, Barry Manilow, sound effects ranging from Tibetan chants to rabbits being slaughtered, the fantasy of Bill and Hillary singing “I got you, Babe”, and “anything by Yoko Ono”.
posted by rdone at 1:45 PM on February 8, 2007

the music of Yoko Ono will always be a device of torture

cheap and easy shot. Elvis Costello did a fantastic cover of her song, "Walking on Thin Ice."

Looking forward to reading the links after I get my work done, though. Thanks for the post.
posted by Listener at 2:19 PM on February 8, 2007

Rdone, you equate bloggers gleefully compiling an ideal soundtrack ideal for the torture room with bloggers pointing out what songs make them cry uncle. I don't.

Music is not only for spreading joy and good feelings. Quite a lot of music, from prehistory to the present day (drum cadences, war chants, hakas, bagpipes, bugle calls, Megadeath, etc.), exists to communicate one idea: "I'm coming over the hill, and if you're still where you are when I get there, I'm going to smash your skull through your asshole."

I like that kind of music as much as I like the other. Does that also make me capital-S Satanic?
posted by breezeway at 2:21 PM on February 8, 2007

Breezeway, I'm sorry that my remarks have discomfited you.

Music for the promotion of in-group solidarity in times of conflict is universal. Martial music aimed at supporting morale and frightening the enemy is also universal. Singing "Men of Harlech" in the face of the Zulu warriors at Rorke's Drift or striding onto the field behind the pibroch are a far cry from buffeting a helpless, captive human being with relentless amplified sound for the express purpose of breaking him down to an Orwellian husk.
posted by rdone at 2:54 PM on February 8, 2007

And I'm sorry I made remarks with the intent of discomfiting you. I agree with you completely. And I think most everyone who's posted here does, too.

I still hate that Blind Melon song, though.
posted by breezeway at 3:33 PM on February 8, 2007

1st thing I thought of when I saw the thread was Prisoner of Pachelbel.
posted by theora55 at 4:30 PM on February 8, 2007

If I am a musician, can I deny the torturers permission to use my music under copyright public performance laws?

It might be a good bit of political theatre for famous musicians to publicly deny permission-- especially those who know their music *has* been used for torture.
posted by Maias at 8:16 PM on February 8, 2007

Good call on Clockwork Orange. I feel resentful after just one Enter Sandman, it must be awful as a torture instrument. Sound loudness/pain levels.
posted by nickyskye at 8:51 PM on February 8, 2007

Listener: "Elvis Costello did a fantastic cover of her song, 'Walking on Thin Ice.'"

I'm sorry, but are you serious? Even somebody who isn't musically trained can tell how off-key the horn section is with the rest of the band on that track. And it's produced like it was recorded in the bathroom in my basement. There's a reason they waited until "Out Of Our Idiot" and "Seven Bloody Marys" to release that crap.

Maybe you've heard some live version I'm not aware of.
posted by koeselitz at 8:19 AM on February 9, 2007

From the third link:
This modern system [of no-touch torture] aims to combine “sensory disorientation”–isolation, standing, extremes of heat and cold, light and dark, noise and silence–with self-inflicted pain, both physical and psychological, so as to cause a prisoner’s very “identity to disintegrate”. {14} Whether that disintegration takes the form of induced regression (to infantile behavior) or induced schizophrenia, “the effect is much like that which occurs if he is beaten, starved or deprived of sleep” {15} . The prisoner becomes psychologically powerless before the authority of interrogators, both dependent and unable to resist. Moreover, the experimental data showed this “modern system of torture” to be much more efficient than beatings or starvation, producing psychological disintegration in a matter of days, rather than weeks or months. And, as one CIA researcher noted, it was hard to document, for with the exception of the standing (which can cause grotesque swelling/bruising of the feet and legs) these “techniques” leave no visible marks on the fleshy surfaces of a human body.

This is really disturbing stuff. The fact of music being used is arbitrary, and as the article points out that's why it's left to the individual soldiers to pick the music. Sound has physical effects but conveniently doesn't leave material evidence.
posted by Listener at 3:30 PM on February 10, 2007

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