Music has been used to debilitate political foes for ages. Now academics and musicians want to reclaim the art for peace.
Illustration by Addison Eaton
Sound impacts our bodies in a manner no other art does: It moves us—physically and spiritually. No matter the political sentiment, geographical context, or zeitgeist, profound music compels us to create more art; to go on and cast deeper impressions in history. Most cogently, given music’s visceral connection with our bodies, it shapes the emotions running underneath our skin. But what happens when music is used to distort those very same experiences?
“Futility music,” utilized in America’s psychological operations or “psyops,” began shortly after the military prison in Guantanamo Bay opened. But the development of sound as intimidating power long predates the detention facility. There’s evidence of Romans practicing brass and percussion to wreck opponents’ nerves, the Nazis embraced sonic torture to break prisoners in their concentration camps, and the Royal Ulster Constabulary used white noise against the IRA. Americans of a certain age may remember 1989’s “Operation Nifty Package,” during which Navy SEALs pressured Panama’s Manuel Noreiga into surrendering to U.S. forces in part by blasting Van Halen’s song “Panama” on repeat. Closer to home, the FBI used much less rock ‘n’ roll during the 1993 siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, TX, choosing a playlist that included Nancy Sinatra, Andy Williams, and Christmas carols.
Civilians not anticipating an unwelcome visit to a CIA black site or having their religious cult or dictatorship busted up should still take heed. In 1997, Department of Defense contractors and the DOD’s Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Task Force introduced the method of applying extremely focused beams of infra-sounds—sound waves lower than 100 vps—to “disperse crowds” or “disable hostage takers.” Around 2000, LRAD systems (Long Range Acoustic Device) became commonplace and were used within the contexts of warfare and hailing ships in, but also—and this is where its permeation into normal life begins—they’re now an option for local police forces facing crowd-control demands. LRADs do to crowds what a single interrogator does to a detainee: Spatially disorient before incapacitating them.
From “I Love You” by Barney to “Saturday Night Fever” by the Bee Gees, from “The Beautiful People” by Marilyn Manson to “Fuck Your God” by Deicide, “futility music” used at Gitmo was executed specifically to shatter the will of a prisoner. Confined to a windowless and pitch-dark space, the detainee would be subjected to 30 to 40 hours of ear-piercing pop and metal music. In one of many harrowing cases, detainee Binyam Mohamed was forced to listen to Eminem and Dr. Dre for 20 days—nonstop. Such sonic warfare can induce physical symptoms like nausea, as well as serious psychological issues like hallucination.
Torture inflicted through music is nothing new for those aware of various empires’ implementation of percussion to terrorize opponents. For many, musicology is merely a study of technical production involving rhythms, waves, and frequencies. But for some, like Suzzane Cusick at New York University, radical musicology is a political study of not only the pleasures music generates but also the pain it causes once co-opted. Operating from the position that sound is rarely neutral in its political manifestation, scholars like Cusick are urging academics to delve into socially conscientious analyses of sound and its uses in political history. They’re also making appeals to students to exert effort in reclaiming music from state torture. The demand is simple: Reclaim music from fascism.
Reaching upon the aporia of acoustic torture, Cusick insists that music be used to repair rather than rupture. In the academic realm, this would involve devising theoretical and practical responses to futility music through demonstrations, boycotts, and by using technology to harmonize the persecuted. In the artistic realm, Cusick is joined by popular musical acts Massive Attack and Rage Against The Machine in their Zero dB Project—quite literally referring to “zero decibels” or plain silence. In one attempt to reclaim music from human rights violation, musicians have staged minutes of silence as a form of protest against governmental acoustic torture.
The case for reclaiming music is particularly significant in our time: With perennial wars surrounding us and their subsequent inhumane “wartime” policies, music is one medium replete with the possibility to strengthen dispossessed communities against the blows of excessive power. If music wounds, music also heals. It speaks truth to power, from rap lyrics to folk songs. Hailing from the Bronx, the Peace Poets create music that can be categorized as political art that does just that, calling out police brutality, even as law enforcement readies its LRADs. Given its revolutionary potential, politically progressive music is perhaps the most robust form of collectivizing social effort against hegemony. Many musicians, therefore, feel a moral obligation to create conscientious music that acts like a shield against suffering, and a seed for empowerment. After all, in the same taxonomical study of music, we have witnessed the potency of songs that birthed fearless revolutions. And in the light of demonstrations in the United States—from Ferguson to New York—a musical revolution is needed now more than ever.