Friday, July 24, 2009

War music

Why is the American military using music [to break down prisoners]? After all, it could as easily use white noise, or ‘sonic booms’, Israel’s weapon of choice whenever it has wanted to frighten Lebanon without going to war. Moustafa Bayoumi, in an article in the Nation in 2005, suggested that music is used to project ‘American culture as an offensive weapon’. But if the use of American music is a blunt assertion of imperial power, why are metal and gangsta rap the genres favoured by interrogators at Gitmo? One reason [suggests Jonathan Pieslak, author of Sound Targets: American Soldiers and Music in the Iraq War] is that metal is uniquely harsh, with its ‘multiple, high-frequency harmonics in the guitar distortion’, and vocals that alternate between ‘pitched screaming’ and ‘guttural, unpitched yelling’. ‘If I listened to a death metal band for 12 hours in a row, I’d go insane, too,’ James Hetfield of Metallica says. ‘I’d tell you anything you’d want to know.’ (One interrogator told Pieslak that he tried Michael Jackson on Iraqi detainees, but ‘it doesn’t do anything for them.’)

One can imagine other dissonant forms of music – serial music, or free jazz – being equally effective. But not many military interrogators listen to Schoenberg or Stockhausen – or, for that matter, to Cecil Taylor or Albert Ayler. The use of metal and rap, it turns out, mainly reflects the soldiers’ taste. As Pieslak shows, it’s the music many of them listen to when they’re ‘getting crunked’ – pumped up for combat missions. Songs like Slayer’s ‘Angel of Death’ put them ‘in the mood’ to fight because their pounding, syncopated rhythms sound very like a volley of bullets being fired from an automatic gun, but the same songs are also deployed in interrogation, and in combat, to terrify people and break them down. It all depends on where you’re listening, and who controls the loudspeakers.
-- Adam Schatz, LRB

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