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Music To Torture By

Back in 1961, director Billy Wilder had a pretty good laugh at rock's expense. In One, Two, Three, his zingy satire of politics and consumer culture, a Commie sympathizer is tortured into submission by repeated plays of Brian Hyland’s novelty hit "Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini." At the time, the bit must have provoked plenty of guffaws, especially from rock haters who saw the music as harbinger of societal decline. It may have even amused pop fans as well: With its cha-cha beat and chirpy chorus, "Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini" is one of the most cloying, nails-on-a-blackboard relics of the pre-Beatles pop era.

But in an increasingly surreal world, what was once parody is now reality. Tucked away in one of the recent reports about the CIA’s use of severe interrogation methods was news that detainees at Guantánamo Bay had been driven to talk--or driven insane, whichever came first--by being subjected to continuous, loud plays of a Red Hot Chili Peppers song.

The song, which wasn’t named but may have been “Torture Me” from 2006’s Stadium Arcadium album, joins the government’s own Torture Top 10. At Abu Ghraib and other locations in Iraq, prisoners have been pummeled with everything from the jackhammer blast of Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” to, of all things, the lulling folktronica of David Gray’s “Babylon.” Three years ago, Time reported that detainees at Guantánamo Bay were being subjected to unnamed Christina Aguilera songs.

Admittedly, my first response to all these reports was trivial amusement: Did repeated exposure to the Chili Peppers song—or merely Flea’s squirmy, hyperactive bass lines--make prisoners crack? Hearing “Babylon” several times a day on the radio, circa 2001--now that was torture! Haven’t prisoners at Guantánamo suffered enough without subjection to Aguilera’s never-ending assault of melismatic bombast? And did the American team use iPods--and, if so, what happened when the battery inevitably died halfway through an interrogation session?

When I stopped pretending to be a VH1 talking head and started thinking cogently again, I grew offended on several levels. Of course, there's the clear physical and psychological trauma being inflicted; one can only imagine the damage on both one’s psyche and eardrums caused by brain-rattlingly loud infusions of Metallica. I recently learned that, along with a lot of people my age, I’ve caused myself a degree of midrange hearing loss--and that happened before I even owned an iPod.

As someone who’s been elevated, inspired, and moved by pop for decades, I also felt slagged as a music fan. The underlying message in the use of those songs in such a manner is that rock and roll is truly dangerous. It’s potentially so unhealthy, so malignant, that repeated exposure to it can actually hurt you! (Tellingly, bluegrass, jazz, and polka records are never cited in any of these reports.) The whole idea is a flashback to the days of One, Two, Three, but in real life and with no sense of humor.

The last of my complicated reactions to these reports was a twisted sense of pride. At a time when Mike Huckabee was dragging along his electric bass to seemingly every campaign stop and jamming with local bands on the likes of “Fortunate Son” or “Sweet Home Alabama,” could there still possibly be people out there who feel rock music is suited to play the role of tormenting, excruciating noise? Apparently so, and it remains strangely generational (if not so strangely partisan).

The first time many of us heard about this tactic was 1989, when U.S. troops attempted to flush out Manuel Noriega from a compound in Panama by blaring Led Zeppelin and Twisted Sister. It’s no coincidence that both that incident and the recent use of the Chili Peppers took place during Bush administrations. Whether it was the Parents’ Music Resource Center censorship hearings that took place during Ronald Reagan’s second term or Richard Nixon inviting the Carpenters to perform at the White House, the GOP has always signaled its disdain for rock. (The party may be the last people on earth to think the music is genuinely offensive in a One, Two, Three kind of way.)

But at a time when America’s cultural and economic strength is waning, the use of rock as torture may signify something else. If we can’t force any more Gap stores or Coca-Cola down the throats of people in faraway lands (just two companies that have seen falloffs in certain international markets), there’s always our loudest, most unbearable pop music. In an ironic twist, rock is now the government’s friend--the most aggressive, and possibly last, stand of cultural imperialism.

David Browne’s latest book,
Goodbye 20th Century: A Biography of Sonic Youth, will be published in June by Da Capo.

By David Browne