Sunday, May 18, 2008

Music as Torture: A Top 23 List

A Top 23 List of Music as Torture

Mother Jones reports on music used as torture by the U.S. military, and provides a top 23 list worthy of the record store geeks from the film High Fidelity. Of course, this isn't funny, but five years into the war I'm so numb that dark humor is all I have left.

Music in the wrong context can be painful, which anyone who has been through a painful romantic breakup knows (this explains why I can't listen to Joni Mitchell anymore), and this tactic amplifies that pain several more notches. There's been a movie centered around the concept; in Death and the Maiden, Sigourney Weaver's character flashes back to a past as a political pisoner, when guards raped her while playing the Schubert piece for which the film is named. And the U.S. military has done this before, repeatedly blasting Van Halen's "Panama" at that country's deposed dictator, Manuel Noriega, in an eventually successful tactic to force his surrender.

The Germans have an actual word for it: "ohrwurm" or earworm, a song that burrows into your brain like that slimy creature digs into Chekov's ear in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That would explain some of the simply annoying items on this list like the Meow Mix song, which as long as a decade ago was so well known that Dr. Evil sang it to his hairless feline Mr. Bigglesworth in Austin Powers.

Any song can be torturous when repeated too often, and any parent who's ever had a three year old bill certainly understand the inclusion of the Barney theme on the Mother Jones list. In classic rock radio, this is known as the "Stairway To Heaven" effect, after the Led Zeppelin masterpiece that has been overplayed into a cliche. Sometimes that doesn't work, though: I could stand to hear AC/DC's "Shoot To Thrill" a few thousand times without complaint, except perhaps for a request that the guards turn up the volume a notch to eleven. I like to think so, anyway, but then I'm sitting comfortably in my home and not lying naked on a concrete floor at Gitmo.

We have the rah-rah patriotism element represented, although in several cases that's misinterpreted. The torturers clearly aren't listening to lyrics beyond the choruses, which explains the inclusion of the radical-left sentiments of Rage Against The Machine. It's a fate that befell the Clash back in my youth -- and still does, as their biggest hit, "Rock The Casbah," is transmuted from a nuanced satire on Iran's ban in western music into a Let's Kick Some Ay-Rab Butt anthem.

Bruce Springsteen's "Born In The U.S.A." saga of an unemployed Vietnam vet disowned by his country has been abused as a patriotic anthem ever since it was new, when Ronald Reagan tried to appropriate it for his 1984 campaign. Springsteen, who wasn't endorsing anyone back then but is officially backing Barack Obama these days, objected, and Team Reagan dropped it. If you want to catch the deeper meaning of the song, skip the familiar version and listen to the acoustic original, an outtake from the Nebraska album that's included on the Tracks boxed set.

The torturers must have also included Eminem's "White America" only for its first mock-patriotic lines. Near the end of the song, Eminem directs an F bomb at Second Lady Lynne Cheney and her predecessor Tipper Gore. Mrs. Gore would likely have slapped a label on Christina Aguilera's "Dirrty," the main representation of hyper-sexualized pop culture on this list.

The last song, Prince's "Raspberry Beret," naturally wins this list a special place for me, as it's my own accidental blogging theme song.

Bur my main regret is that the torturers who put this playlist together included Metallica's "Enter Sandman." Maybe we'd all be better off if they'd taken the anti-war message of the group's "One" to heart instead.

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