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Should torturers pay royalties?

Some people still think music used as a form of torture is one big joke, like in the movies

JAIME J. WEINMAN August 4 2008
THE BACK PAGES

Should torturers pay royalties?

Some people still think music used as a form of torture is one big joke, like in the movies

JAIME J. WEINMAN August 4 2008

Should torturers pay royalties?

music

Some people still think music used as a form of torture is one big joke, like in the movies

JAIME J. WEINMAN

Is music torture? And more importantly, do torturers owe royalties for the music they use? Earlier this month, singer David Gray told the BBC that he objected to the use of his sentimental pop song Babylon in interrogations at the Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib prisons, adding that music can be torture no matter what kind it 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.” Much of the reaction consisted of snarky jokes about Gray’s music; Caitlin Moran wrote in the London Times that “reaction to Gray being used in Guantánamo has been fairly unanimous. In that everyone has found it hilarious.” That’s nothing new: when musical torture has been talked about at all, it’s usually as a joke. Except that just because it sounds bizarre doesn’t mean it’s not true. And it might not be so funny in real life.

Musical torture gags have been a particularly popular device in movie comedies. The most famous version of this joke is from Billy Wilder’s One Two Three (1961), in which the East German Communists force a suspect to confess by repeatedly playing the song ItsyBitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini. The suspect finally breaks down when his tormentors play the record on a Soviet-made record player that plays everything back at the wrong speed. Woody Allen used a similar joke in his movie Bananas, except with the operetta song Stout-Hearted Men.

These jokes date from a period when music wasn’t frequently used as a weapon, except as a way of boosting or lowering morale (countries would broadcast their own music into enemy territory). In recent years, what started as a joke in Hollywood movies has been increasingly real: Suzanne G. Cusick, a musicologist at NYU, wrote a piece for the Journal of the Society for American Music in which she mentioned, among other examples, a prisoner who in 2002 and 2003 was forced into sleep deprivation “either by water poured over his head or the sound of Christina Aguilera’s music,” and a Gitmo detainee who was '‘forced to listen to music by Eminem and Dr. Dre for 20 days.” A writer for Mother Jones magazine mentioned that songs by Neil Diamond and Metallica are also on the “torture playlist.” Real-life music torture bears a strange resemblance to the old joke from the movies, since prisoners really are forced to listen to songs they hate. Christina Aguilera was the 2002 equivalent of ItsyBitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.

There’s a simple reason why music can be a torture device: music is, essentially, noise, and noise can induce pain. Loud music can make a person feel disoriented and make him want to do anything to stop it, both of which can go a long way toward getting a confession. Turn the volume up high and blast the sounds at an unwilling person, and music becomes an almost ideal interrogation technique: one that pushes someone to the breaking point, but doesn’t leave any physical scars. Cusick cites it as an example of what interrogators call “no-touch torture.

But even if musical interrogation can constitute torture, it’s still not taken very seriously by the public. Gray’s objections sparked very little interest in the Geneva Conventions but a lot more in the international conventions on copyright: Gray set off a round of discussion about whether interrogators just use any piece of music they want without paying. Wired.com asked “Does government owe royalties on torture music?” while Howard Knopf, an Ottawa lawyer who writes about copyright law (excesscopyright. blogspot.com), wondered ironically if it was the prisoners at Guantánamo who owe money for these impromptu performances, pointing out that ASCAP has tried to collect royalties for music played in nursing homes and prisons: “It went after the Girl Guides not so long ago. And if it could try to make a buck off Girl Guides, who are nice people, why not alleged terrorists?” One commenter found a flaw in this theory, pointing out that royalties are owed on “public performances” of music, while torture is usually done in private.

Which just shows how far musical torture has come since it was only a movie joke; it’s now very real, and inspires all kinds of reallife reactions, from impassioned protests to arcane copyright arguments. “What we’re talking about here,” Gray said, “is people in a darkened room, physically inhibited by handcuffs, bags over their heads and music blaring at them.” That might even be more important than copyright law.