14 March 2013

Music and the War on the Nerves

Dr James Kennaway
Dr James Kennaway studied at LSE and the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine before completing a Master's at King's College, London and a PhD at UCLA in 2004. Since then he has worked at the University of Vienna, Stanford University and the Viadrina University in Frankfurt-an-der-Oder, Germany.

When I started work on my book Bad Vibrations: The History of the Idea of Music (link) as a cause of disease on the strange story of medical fears about music, I assumed that the story was more or less over by 1945. The crushing military and ideological defeat of Nazism, with their notions of ‘degenerate music’, did not, however, mean the end of the debate on music as a medical threat. Not only was the Cold War fertile ground for paranoia about music’s effects, it was also a period in which serious work was done to attempt to establish music as a deliberate means of inflicting harm of people’s physical and mental health via the nervous system. Pavlovian and Behaviourist conceptions of reflex action were used to promote a view of music as a trigger of neurological responses that could be manipulated by those in power. Moreover, it soon became clear to me that our own times are the real Golden Age of anxiety about music and its medical impact. The internet has provided scope for the development of many new (and old) theories about the supposed impact of certain kinds of music on physical and mental health. More alarmingly, it also seemed that after outlining innumerable nineteenth and twentieth-century accounts of fears about music, my book would have to end with music that was actually doing people serious harm in the context of acoustic weapons and the systematic use of music in torture. This blog post takes a look at the bizarre and worryingly topical question of the use of music in the ‘war of nerves’.

Music as a Weapon

The use of music in warfare, to give courage to one side and intimidate the other, has been a recurring theme in many cultures. In some ways, of course, the military use of music goes back at least to Joshua’s trumpets at the battle of Jericho. However, the emergence of sound as a serious weapon has depended on recording and amplification technology and is still perhaps in its infancy. The German media theorist Friedrich Kittler pointed to the military roots and connections of much modern media technology, noting for example, that radio broadcasting was merely an extension of the military communication systems of World War One without the ability to speak back. Audiotape, stereo sound and many other developments also owed their origins in large part to the military. As he put it, ‘The entertainment industry is, in any conceivable sense of the word, an abuse of army equipment’.

The development of acoustic weapons has often occurred in response to particular military and political circumstances, most notably the American experience in Vietnam, the British in Northern Ireland and the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. It is no coincidence that such techniques have been pioneered by democratic states, where there is greater incentive to develop means of causing pain and controlling others that do not look bad when featured in the media. Weapons with science fiction names such as Beams, Blast Wave, Bullets, Curdler Unit and Deference Tones have been created and marketed. Some of them use ultrasound, that is, sound lower than 20 Hz per second, below the limit of human hearing and therefore beyond the realm of music. Others, however, use music to inflict physical and psychological harm, potentially damaging the health of those affected. Although media coverage of the subject tends to veer from hysterical technophobia to smirking trivialization, acoustic weapon are making progress.

The American use of music as a weapon in Vietnam was most famously exemplified in the scene in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now in which General Kilgore has Wagner played from assault helicopters. This was by no means artistic license, but reflected the practical military reality of ‘audio harassment’ in the war. Since the end of the Vietnam War, the most well known use of music as a psychological weapon was during the American siege of the Vatican embassy in Panama in 1989 when US troops in Panama played music at Vatican embassy to flush out the ousted dictator Manuel Noriega. A few years later, the American authorities played Nancy Sinatra’s ‘These Boots were Made for Walking’ at the disastrous Branch Davidian Cult siege at Waco, Texas. The ‘War against Terror’ has been a boom time for the developers of acoustic weapons, especially the Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD), which is sold both to concert organizers and to the military, a striking example the emerging entertainment-military complex. The LRAD has been used to repel so-called ‘looters’ in New Orleans in the chaotic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and to control crowds at protests in Pittsburgh.

Music and the Conditioned Reflex: Brainwashing

The idea of music as a potentially dangerous hypnotic force that might overwhelm listeners had been fairly common in the late nineteenth century, but had faded considerably during the early decades of the twentieth century. With the rise of dynamic psychology in the wake of Freud, the assumptions made by Charcot and his colleagues about the automatic character of hypnotic responses to music went out of fashion. However, after the Second World War, the influence of Ivan Pavlov and Behaviorism in psychology and beyond led to something of a revival in medical attention to ‘musical hypnosis’, especially in the context of the emerging concept of ‘brainwashing’ - the idea that external forces could destroy the autonomy of listeners and achieve real mind control. Although many on the Left have fretted about the music’s power to undermine the political autonomy of the audience, it proved particularly popular on the Right. This is perhaps due to the emphasis the right has put on unconscious irrational drives and their lack of faith in the power of the autonomous self to resist external forces, something which has often made them interested in the psychology of automatic response. In any case, the theme of musical brainwashing has recurred many times since the Second World War, generally relating to fears of subversion of the individual and national will by external forces.

The term ‘brainwashing’ emerged during the Korean War, when it was feared that Communists had developed powerful forms of mind control. The CIA then promoted the term to explain the behaviour of American POWs and began its own research into such techniques, some of which used music. The CIA supported extensive research into sensory deprivation, sometimes using noise, as a means of extracting information. For example, it was later revealed that much of the work done in Montreal in the 1950s by Donald Hebb into sensory deprivation techniques and by Ewen Cameron on ‘psychic driving’, the use of drugs, insulin and tape recordings to wipe the memories of mental patients, was funded via CIA front organizations such as the Society for the Investigation of Human Ecology. In the following decades the US authorities developed forms of ‘no touch torture’ including music at places such as the School of the Americas, an American training centre for anti-Communist military and paramilitary personnel. Music appears to have been used in torture in a number of regimes that had secret policemen trained by the CIA. For instance, Julio Iglesias was played to political prisoners by the Argentine military dictatorship.

A Pavlovian view of music as brainwashing was apparent in books such as Battle for the Mind by the prominent English psychiatrist William Sargant, which portrayed rock ‘n’ roll as a dangerous threat to the mind. He later argued in an interview in Newsweek that Patty Hearst had been turned from an heiress kidnap victim into a politically motivated armed robber by loud rock music. The notion of music as a means of brainwashing appears in Anthony Burgess’s 1962 novel A Clockwork Orange and the 1971 Stanley Kubrick film adaptation, both of which depict the fictional ‘Ludovico Technique’, a form of aversion therapy that involves being forced to watch scenes of graphic violence while hearing music, finally combining images of Nazi atrocities with the protagonist’s favourite music, Beethoven.

In America right-wing evangelical Christians have used the idea of rock music as a sinister form of brainwashing to argue that it was literally a Communist plot. David Noebel, today better known for writing bestsellers with the ‘Left Behind’ author Tim LHaye, argued that, ‘The Communist scientists and psycho-politicians have devised a method of combining music, hypnotism and Pavlovianism to nerve-jam the children of our nation without our leaders, teachers or parents being aware of its shocking implications’. ‘If [such] scientific programmes [were] not exposed,’ he warned, ‘degenerated Americans will indeed raise the Communist flag over their own nation’. He provided ingenious if paradoxical reasoning to explain why Communist states banned rock music although it was their own sinister invention - it just showed that they know how dangerous it really was! Along with well-worn themes relating to sex and drugs, Noebel also brought to light a less common aspect of music’s dangers – the threat posed to plants. He reported an experiment conducted by Mrs Dorothy Retallack of Denver that demonstrated, he claimed, that avant-garde classical music made plants wilt and Led Zeppelin made them die.

Cold War fears about Soviet capacities in this regard were reflected by the joke scene in Billy Wilder’s 1961 comedy One, Two, Three in which the song ‘Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka-Dot Bikini’ drives the young Communist Otto Piffl to make a false confession. The CIA supported extensive research into sensory deprivation, sometimes using noise, as a means of extracting information.

The American anxiety about musical brainwashing that developed in the context of the Cold War in the 1950s was in part shifted onto another supposed worldwide conspiracy during the Reagan era - Satanism. During the 1980s and 1990s a full-scale moral panic swept the country, linking the pseudo-science of brainwashing, the literal belief in a supernatural satanic threat and the musical genre of heavy metal. A wide range of books with titles like The Devil’s Disciples, and (my personal favourite) Hit Rock’s Bottom accused certain bands of brainwashing innocent American teenagers with subliminal messages to lure them into the worship of the devil, sexual immorality, murder and suicide. One apparent element of this diabolical plot was the use of so-called ‘Backmasking’, hidden messages in the music that only made sense to the conscious mind when played forwards, which, it was argued, could influence listeners subliminally and thus damaging their mental health. Self-proclaimed experts often disagreed about what dangerous message was hidden in the music, and exposed themselves to ridicule with their analysis of backmasking tracks. One well-known preacher in Ohio publicly burned a recording of the theme tune to the TV series Mr. Ed (which featured a talking horse) because he said it had ‘Someone sing this song for Satan’ backwards.

The Musical War on the Nerves in the ‘War on Terror’

The notion that music could play a role in manipulating automatic and conditioned responses in the nervous system to control behaviour has found an alarming echo in government policy over the past few decades in terms of the use of music in torture. Since the attack on the World Trade Center in New York in September 2001 the use of torture in the West became an overt political issue. In a way that would have seemed inconceivable beforehand, torture in certain circumstances has been openly advocated in the press in democratic countries. At the same time, senior Bush administration figures began to redefine the terms ‘torture’ and ‘prisoner of war’ to allow ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ to be used against captives held at a large number of camps, most famously at Guantanamo Bay in the American enclave in Cuba, Abu Ghraib in Iraq and Bagram in Afghanistan. Typically for a democratic state in the post-war era, the American techniques avoided the clichés of torture and anything that would leave obvious physical scars. Nevertheless, these techniques, which as well as the use of music, included extreme temperatures, being shackled in stress positions for hours and waterboarding, were intended to cause extreme levels of physical and mental distress. They are considered to be torture by most observers, including the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, and in many cases, the American authorities have previously treated them as torture when they were used against their own soldiers.
The kinds of music used to inflict pain on prisoners varied widely. A Freedom of Information Act request from the National Security Archive, a civil rights organization, revealed that the following music was regularly used.  ‘AC/DC, Aerosmith, the 'Barney & Friends' song, The Bee Gees, Britney Spears, Bruce Springsteen, Christina Aguilera, David Gray, Deicide, Don McLean, Dope, Dr. Dre, Drowning Pool, Eminem, Hed P. E., James Taylor, Limp Bizkit, Marilyn Manson, Matchbox Twenty, Meat Loaf, the 'Meow Mix' jingle (an ad for cat food), Metallica, Neil Diamond, Nine Inch Nails, Pink, Prince, Queen, Rage Against the Machine, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Redman, Saliva, the 'Sesame Street' music, Stanley Brothers, the Star Spangled Banner, Tupac Shakur’. In some ways this may seem a fairly random list of contemporary American music. However, several different strategies appear to be at play. Some of the music used, such as the song ‘Fuck your God’ by the heavy metal band Deicide aimed at the religious humiliation of Muslim prisoners. Similarly, sexually explicit songs by the likes of Britney Spears and Christian Aguilera were a form of the sexual humiliation of prisoners from socially conservative countries that also took the form of enforced nakedness and worse.

Much of the music concerned clearly amounts to what Slavoj Zizek has called an ‘initiation into American culture’, an attempt to browbeat and terrify foreign captives with the signs of American victory. Often this is done with an implicit assertion of victorious American masculinity over the vanquished. That certainly seems to be the context for the comments made by American Sergeant Mark Hadsell, interviewed by Newsweek, who said that his personal favourites include the song ‘Enter Sandman’ by the heavy metal band Metallica. ‘These people haven't heard heavy metal before’, he explained. ‘They can't take it’. Another form of psychological suffering using music relates to what some in the US military termed ‘futility music’, highly repetitive songs, often from children’s TV, which would break the will to resist in those being questioned. These elements, combined with the sensory overload that could be (and is) achieved with white noise, is designed to ‘fry’ detainees, making them pliable for questioning. As Hadsell put it, ‘If you play it for 24 hours, your brain and body functions start to slide, your train of thought slows down and your will is broken. That's when we come in and talk to them’.  The psychological effects of this cannot easily be dismissed. There are reports of self-mutilation caused by many hours of such treatment. One detainee left in a cell with loud rock and rap music and strobe lighting for many hours literally tore his own hair out.

When the use of enhanced interrogation techniques became well known, some organizations, such as the American Psychiatric Association and the American Medical Association passed resolutions against their members’ involvement in such practices. However, the American Psychological Association did not do so until 2007. In 2005 they explicitly stated that members were not barred from ‘national security endeavours’, and as late as August 2006, the US Army Surgeon General, General Kevin Kiley, spoke at the American Psychological Association, dressed in full uniform and declared that ‘Psychology is an important weapon system’. Although musicologists were certainly not directly implicated in the same was as psychologists, it is striking that the American Musicological Society only passed a resolution against the use of music in torture in 2008, after a similar resolution failed in 2007. Among musicians there has been a variety of responses. Some, like R.E.M., Pearl Jam, David Gray and Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, complained about use of their own music and objected to the practice in general. In Britain, the anti-torture charity Reprieve started the ‘Zero dB’ campaign to protest against the use of music in torture, which has supported by a significant number of musicians. Others, including Stevie Benton of Drowning Pool and James Hetfield of Metallica, have publicly supported the use of their music as part of interrogation techniques. Benton told Spin magazine that he took it as an honour.

Much of the media coverage of the music as torture issue has been in shockingly bad taste. American TV, radio and print media in particular have generally regarded this possible breach of the Geneva Convention against people who on the whole have not even been charged with a crime as a subject for humour. Indeed, some of the reports have been stomach churning. For instance, the American musician Christopher Cerf, whose music for the children’s television programme Sesame Street seems to have been used as part of interrogation techniques, expressed satisfaction that it ‘might really help out’, and cracked jokes about the royalties he was due. However, in subsequent media appearances, Cerf has been vociferous in his condemnation of torture. Susan Cusick acutely notes the extent to which American press reports on musical torture seem to invite the reader to identify with the torturer rather than the victim and to regard the whole business as a joke. This attitude was reflected in the pivotal scene in the film adaptation of Jon Ronson’s book Men who Stare at Goats. Having achieved some form of redemption by releasing a man being tortured with music in Iraq, the protagonist is sickened to see the idea being a subject for humour on American TV on his return.

The ways that music has been instrumentalised to inflict damage on the neurological and psychological health of ‘listeners’ over the past few decades is of course in sharp contrast to most people’s associations with music with wellbeing and music therapy. Along with the continuing debate on the hypnotic powers of the ‘wrong’ sort of music on the young, it also displays a remarkable degree of continuity not only to twentieth-century debates on Pavlovian conditioned response but also to nineteenth-century worries about music as a source of nervous over-stimulation. Discussion of Victorian psychiatry often takes a rather moralising and critical tone about the authoritarian character of the discipline and the abuses involved. What has been happening over the last few decades, with the active collaboration of a good number of physicians and psychologists, has been in many ways just as sinister. Critical approaches to neuroscience and the history of medicine have often been implicitly political, but issues of this kind perhaps demand more active engagement.

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