When Music Is Violence

Aguilera seems to have been chosen because female singers were thought to offend Islamist detainees. Interrogation playlists also leaned on heavy-metal and rap numbers, which, as in the Noriega case, delivered messages of intimidation and destruction. Songs in regular rotation included Eminem’s “Kim” (“Sit down, bitch / If you move again I’ll beat the shit out of you”) and Drowning Pool’s “Bodies” (“Let the bodies hit the floor”).

Does such coerced listening qualify as torture? The N.Y.U.-based musicologist Suzanne Cusick, one of the first scholars to think deeply about music in the Iraq War, addressed the question in a 2008 paper for The Journal of the Society for American Music. During the Bush Administration, the U.S. government held that techniques inducing psychological rather than physical pain did not amount to torture, as international conventions have defined it. Cusick, however, makes clear that the loud-music tactic displays a chilling degree of casual sadism: the choice of songs seems designed to amuse the captors as much as to nauseate the captives. Few detainees probably understood the English lyrics aimed at them.

No official policy dictated the prison playlists; interrogators improvised them on-site, making use of whatever music they had on hand. Pieslak, who interviewed a number of Iraq veterans, observes that soldiers played many of the same songs for their own benefit, particularly when they were psyching themselves up for a dangerous mission. They, too, favored the most anarchic corners of heavy metal and gangsta rap. Thus, certain songs served both to whip soldiers into a lethal frenzy and to annihilate the spirit of “enemy combatants.” You couldn’t ask for a clearer demonstration of the non-universality of music, of its capacity to sow discord.

The soldiers told Pieslak that they used music to strip themselves of empathy. One said that he and his comrades sought out a “predator kind of music.” Another, after admitting with some embarrassment that Eminem’s “Go to Sleep” (“Die, motherfucker, die”) was a “theme song” for his unit, said, “You’ve got to become inhuman to do inhuman things.” The most unsettling choice was Slayer’s “Angel of Death,” which imagines the inner world of Josef Mengele: “Auschwitz, the meaning of pain / The way that I want you to die.” Such songs are far removed from uplifting wartime propaganda like “Over There,” the patriotic 1917 tune by George M. Cohan. The image of soldiers prepping for a mission by listening to Metallica’s “One”—“Landmine has taken my sight . . . Left me with life in hell”—suggests the degree to which they, too, felt trapped in a malevolent machine.

As Hirsch and other scholars point out, the idea of music as inherently good took hold only in the past few centuries. Philosophers of prior eras tended to view the art as an ambiguous, unreliable entity that had to be properly managed and channelled. In Plato’s Republic, Socrates scoffs at the idea that “music and poetry were only play and did no harm at all.” He distinguishes between musical modes that “suitably imitate the tone and rhythm of a courageous person who is active in battle” and those which strike him as soft, effeminate, lecherous, or melancholy. The Chinese “Book of Rites” differentiated between the joyous sound of a well-ruled state and the resentful sound of a confused one. John Calvin believed that music “has an insidious and well-nigh incredible power to move us whither it will.” He went on, “We must be all the more diligent to control music in such a way that it will serve us for good and in no way harm us.”

German thinkers in the idealist and Romantic tradition—Hegel, E.T.A. Hoffmann, and Schopenhauer, among others—sparked a drastic revaluation of music’s significance. It became the doorway to the infinitude of the soul, and expressed humanity’s collective longing for freedom and brotherhood. With the canonization of Beethoven, music became the vehicle of genius. Sublime as Beethoven is, the claim of universality blended all too easily with a German bid for supremacy. The musicologist Richard Taruskin, whose rigorously unsentimental view of Western music history anchors much recent work in the field, likes to quote a phrase ironically articulated by the historian Stanley Hoffman, who died last year: “There are universal values, and they happen to be mine.”

Despite the cultural catastrophe of Nazi Germany, the Romantic idealization of music persists. Pop music in the American tradition is now held to be the all-encompassing, world-redeeming force. Many consumers prefer to see only the positive side of pop: they cherish it as a culturally and spiritually liberating influence, somehow free of the rapacity of capitalism even as it overwhelms the marketplace. Whenever it is suggested that music might arouse or incite violence—Eminem’s graphic fantasies of abuse and murder, or, more recently, the whiff of rape culture in Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines”—fans suddenly devalue music’s potency, portraying it as a vehicle for harmless play that cannot propel bodies into action. When Eminem proclaims that he is “just clownin’, dogg,” he is taken at his word.

Bruce Johnson and Martin Cloonan expose this inconsistency in “Dark Side of the Tune: Popular Music and Violence” (2008). They are not reactionaries in the Tipper Gore mode, trying to whip up a moral panic. Pioneers of pop-music studies, they address their subject with deep respect. Nonetheless, if music can shape “our sense of the possible,” as they say, it must also be able to act destructively. Either music affects the world around it or it does not. Johnson and Cloonan avoid claims of direct causality, but they refuse to rule out links between violence in music—in terms both of lyrical content and of raw decibel impact—and violence in society. Furthermore, musical brutality need not involve a brutal act, for a “song of vilification is in itself an act of social violence.”

The pattern of sonic aggression that runs from the Noriega siege to the Iraq War poses these issues in the starkest terms. There was a nasty undertow of cultural triumphalism in the hard-hitting, hypermasculine music used to humiliate foreign prisoners. “The detainee’s subjectivity was to be lost in a flood of American sounds,” Johnson and Cloonan write. On a symbolic level, the rituals at Guantánamo present an extreme image of how American culture forces itself on an often unwilling world.

Although music has a tremendous ability to create communal feeling, no community can form without excluding outsiders. The sense of oneness that a song fosters in a human herd can seem either a beautiful or a repulsive thing—usually depending on whether you love or hate the song in question. Loudness heightens the tension: blaring music is a hegemonic move, a declaration of disdain for anyone who thinks differently. Whether we are marching or dancing or sitting silently in chairs, we are being molded into a single mass by sound. As Quignard notes in “The Hatred of Music,” the Latin word obaudire, to obey, contains audire, to hear. Music “hypnotizes and causes man to abandon the expressible,” he writes. “In hearing, man is held captive.”

Quignard’s slender, unnerving volume is quite different in tone from the sober academic books on the theme of music and violence. It hovers in a peculiarly French space between philosophy and fiction, and goes on mysterious lyrical flights, animating scenes from history and myth. One astonishing sequence evokes St. Peter’s denial of Jesus before the third crowing of the cock. Quignard imagines that, ever after, Peter was traumatized by any high-pitched noise, and that he soundproofed his home to escape the cacophony of the street: “The palace was shrouded in silence, the windows blinded with drapes.”

For years, Quignard was active on the French music scene, organizing concerts and working with the Catalan viol player Jordi Savall. Quignard co-wrote the screenplay for the music-drenched 1991 film “Tous les Matins du Monde.” Soon afterward, he retreated from such projects and wrote “The Hatred of Music” as a cri de cœur. Although he does not explain this change of heart, he gestures toward the meaningless ubiquity of music in contemporary life—Mozart in the 7-Eleven. Quignard gives this familiar lament a savage edge. In a chapter on the infernal Muzak of Auschwitz, he quotes Tolstoy: “Where one wants to have slaves, one must have as much music as possible.”

The book’s most disquieting passages suggest that music has always had a violent heart—that it may be rooted in the urge to dominate and kill. He speculates that some of the earliest music was made by hunters luring their prey, and devotes a chapter to the myth of the Sirens, who, in his reading, beguiled men with song just as men once beguiled animals with music. Quignard muses that some early weapons doubled as instruments: a string stretched across a bow could be resonantly plucked or it could send an arrow through the air. Music relied conspicuously on the slaughter of animals: horsehair bows drawn over catgut, horns torn from the heads of big game.

What to do with these dire ruminations? Renouncing music is not an option—not even Quignard can bring himself to do that. Rather, we can renounce the fiction of music’s innocence. To discard that illusion is not to diminish music’s importance; rather, it lets us register the uncanny power of the medium. To admit that music can become an instrument of evil is to take it seriously as a form of hu­man expression. ♦


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