The last time that the US administration’s use of music as torture hit the headlines was in June, when Stafford Smith raised the issue in the Guardian, and when, in an accompanying article, the Guardian noted that David Gray’s song “Babylon” had become associated with the torture debate after Haj Ali, the hooded man in the notorious Abu Ghraib photographs, told of being stripped, handcuffed and forced to listen to a looped sample of the song, at a volume so high he feared that his head would burst, Gray spoke up to condemn the practice. “The moral niceties of whether they’re using my song or not are totally irrelevant,” he said. “We are thinking below the level of the people we’re supposed to oppose, and it goes against our entire history and everything we claim to represent. It’s disgusting, really. Anything that draws attention to the scale of the horror and how low we’ve sunk is a good thing.”
In a subsequent interview with the BBC, Gray complained that the only part of the torture music story that got noticed was its “novelty aspect” — which he compared to Guantánamo[‘s] Greatest Hits — and then delivered another powerful indictment of the misappropriation of his and other artists’ music. “What we’re talking about here is people in a darkened room, physically inhibited by handcuffs, bags over their heads and music blaring at them for 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he said. “That is torture. That is nothing but torture. It doesn’t matter what the music is — it could be Tchaikovsky’s finest or it could be Barney the Dinosaur. It really doesn’t matter, it’s going to drive you completely nuts.” He added, “No-one wants to even think about it or discuss the fact that we’ve gone above and beyond all legal process and we’re torturing people.”
Not every musician shared David Gray’s revulsion. Bob Singleton, who wrote the theme tune to Barney the Purple Dinosaur, which has been used extensively in the “War on Terror,” acknowledged in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times in July that “if you blare the music loud enough for long enough, I guess it can become unbearable,” but refused to accept either that songwriters can legitimately have any say about how their music is used, or that there were any circumstances under which playing music relentlessly at prisoners could be considered torture. “It’s absolutely ludicrous,” he wrote. “A song that was designed to make little children feel safe and loved was somehow going to threaten the mental state of adults and drive them to the emotional breaking point?” He added, “The idea that repeating a song will drive someone over the brink of emotional stability, or cause them to act counter to their own nature, makes music into something like voodoo, which it is not.”
Singleton was not the only artist to misunderstand how music could indeed constitute torture — especially when used as part of a package of techniques specifically designed to “break” prisoners. Steve Asheim, Deicide’s drummer, said, “These guys are not a bunch of high school kids. They are warriors, and they’re trained to resist torture. They’re expecting to be burned with torches and beaten and have their bones broken. If I was a prisoner at Guantánamo Bay and they blasted a load of music at me, I’d be like, ‘Is this all you got? Come on.’ I certainly don’t believe in torturing people, but I don’t believe that playing loud music is torture either.”
Furthermore, other musicians have been positively enthusiastic about the use of their music. Stevie Benton of Drowning Pool, who have played to US troops in Iraq, told Spin magazine, “People assume we should be offended that somebody in the military thinks our song is annoying enough that played over and over it can psychologically break someone down. I take it as an honor to think that perhaps our song could be used to quell another 9/11 attack or something like that.”
Fortunately, for those who understand that using music as part of a system of torture techniques is no laughing matter, the Zero dB initiative provides the most noticeable attempt to date to call a halt to its continued use. Christopher Cerf, who wrote the music for Sesame Street, was horrified to learn that the show’s theme tune had been used in interrogations. “I wouldn’t want my music to be a party to that,” he said
What I find interesting is Gray's quoted comments, because I've seen this story linked round a bit, and it's always been with a smirk about how Britney Spear's tunes were being used to torture. Finally, a good use, it seems to suggest, with a chuckle at the end.
But, like Gray--whose music I don't really like--says, it's torture, plain and simple.