If music be the food of love, play on.
– Shakespeare, Twelfth Night

I was working on research on Hip Hop and Reggaetón when I came across an article from The Nation titled “Disco Inferno.” The blurb: Blasting Western music at detainees is a widely accepted ‘torture lite’ technique. What does that mean?” The article exposes the practice of using sensory overstimulation as torture, specifically using American music. Bayoumi argues that, “With torture music, our culture is no longer primarily a means of individual expression or an avenue to social criticism. Instead, it is an actual weapon, one that represents and projects American military might.[. . . .]Torture music is the crudest kind of cultural imperialism, grimly ironic in a war that is putatively about spreading “universal” American values” (33). He goes on to expose public responses to the practice of torture music was “not indignation but amusement,” including compilations of favorite “interro-tunes” and tongue in cheek comments about Christina Aguilera (33).

The use of Western music as torture device has its roots in the use of noise as a form of psychological torture, which would not leave marks and yet would be psychologically crippling to the tortured. Noise would be played at high volumes—particularly effective were crying babies, glass breaking, and of course, sounds of warfare. But of course, we must “make the pie higher” (Mr. George Bush) and incorporate good ole American music into the practice of dehumanization.

Reading this article made me cringe. The thought of being imprisoned and have strobe lights in my face and blasting music non stop makes me want to curl up into fetal position. I’m sure my brain would just explode! I am extremely sensitive to music. I can hear discordance (intentional or not) from miles away and I have nearly perfect pitch. I will walk out of concert halls (or rehearsals) if anyone/instrument is off key because it grates on my nerves.

I am not a professional musician but I have performed to entertain audiences before and the thought of anyone appropriating a recording I am on to torture makes my blood boil. Why aren’t Springsteen and Aguilera and Spears suing the pentagon? If musicians have come together as a class before to fight against hunger in Ethiopia (USA for Africa with “We are the World” which has its own imperialist issues but I won’t go there), against drunk driving (RADD), against AIDS, and even, albeit smaller scale, against the war and against Mr. Bush. I realize there is a lot to protest against these days, trust me, I realize it, but with music were being used to destroy the human spirit, I can’t help but feel that artists might actually have some power to at least bring this to the public’s attention and raise some serious ethical (and legal) questions. What frightens me most is that The Public might not care.

I also wonder about the uses of these techniques, not as torture but as social control: prisons in the states still use techniques such as sensory deprivation, sleep deprivation, and climate control as ways to “control” prisoners. Retail jobs use it as employee control! My partner worked at a convenience store for a while (I think it was a month actually) and one of the things that drove her crazy was the music track, which featured muzak and commercials in a neverending loop. It was inescapable and it didn’t vary. The monotony of it would set her teeth on edge. This is the case in many retail establishments.

So we buy Mozart and Beethoven for babies tapes but we make each other work with repetitive obnoxious music (for not much money usually) and we accept the use of music as torture—Bayoumi cites Barney used as torture. While parents or caretakers of preschoolers will recognize the infuriating qualities of the big purple dude, the thought of the same music that makes little kids dance and giggle in preschool being used to torture innocent human beings makes my stomach turn.

Call me an idealist but I see no moral or ethical justification for torture ANY KIND, and much less for the use of music as torture. What’s next? Reading poetry to people over loudspeakers?


Bayoumi, Moustafa. “Disco Inferno” The Nation Dec 26 2005. 33-35.


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