by carl wilson

Celine Dion, Barney the Dinosaur and
the Weaponization of Culture (A Polemic)

josepadillaii.jpgfightinbarney.png
In this corner, alleged "dirty bomber"/torture victim Jose Padilla; in that corner, Barney.

The other day, reacting to my musings on the Celine Dion/Ennio Morricone moment on the Oscars, Zoilus reader Phil S. commented, "I can't think of any reason to purchase her recorded work, unless I get a job working in Gitmo for the U.S. State Department, in which case I'd definitely be forcing enemies of the state to sit through one of her Las Vegas shows on DVD. I'd probably have a hold of Osama by now."

It's an old joke, and I don't mean to single Phil out. If I dug back through my archive of Celine-hate in the press, I could quote a half-dozen similar formulations; you could Google up a dozen more. Trouble is, the commonplace reference to some disliked music as "torture" is not, in our time, some fanciful exaggeration, a pointed grotesquery like Lester Bangs's fantasy of bottle-slashing James Taylor in the 1970s. It's a literal, ongoing practice of statecraft. Yet it's still generally played for laughs in the media - when it was revealed a couple of years ago that the U.S. military had been blasting loops of Christina Aguilera and Eminem at prisoners, there were a hundred bottom-of-the-editorial-page bits of drollery in the newspapers guffawing, "Now they know how the rest of us feel!"

The fact is that firing ear-splitting recorded sound on repeat at prisoners isn't an aesthetic exercise. It's more like using blinding light and other methods of sleep deprivation and sensory overload - part of the "no-touch torture" repertoire that soft-authoritarian regimes like Bush's use to try to circumvent the Geneva Conventions (which, incidentally, forbid it). They're the flip side of sensory deprivation, and equally liable over time to cause the onset of schizophrenia-like symptoms and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Coincidentally, today in Now weekly in Toronto, Naomi Klein has a piece on Jose Padilla, the former Gitmo detainee who (as a U.S. citizen) has won the rare right to due process, though he's in no shape to stand trial. (Customs officers take note: This Jose Padilla should not be confused with the Spanish chill-out producer, though what you wanna bet?) Naomi's description of the section of Gitmo reserved for prisoners who've been driven over the edge deserves particular note. Former Army Muslim Chaplain James Yee says, "They would respond to me in a childlike voice, talking complete nonsense. Many of them would loudly sing childish songs, repeating the song over and over." Which calls to mind other reports that the music used to sandblast prisoners' consciousnesses at the prison in recent years has included Sesame Street music and the Barney the Dinosaur song. Is that what these delusional shells of human beings are helplessly babbling back to their captors?

Now, I get the impulse to blurt out, "Anybody with a toddler knows what effective torture the Barney song can be!" If I've never called a piece of music "torture" in print in the past decade, I'd be very surprised (though pleasantly). But when you stop and think, Sesame Street songs as psychic bludgeons isn't just ugly; it's a gross perversion of what that music was made for. It's the weaponization of culture.

Clearly, it is only one point on a spectrum that includes worse abuses. I don't mean to magnify it out of proportion. But I think people whose lives revolve around culture, and music in particular, should consider taking the lead in objecting to this one.

For purposes of torture, it doesn't matter what music you choose, though it's likely most efficient to use the most harsh or the most repetitive. In some cases the selections seem to be jingoistic, such as Metallica or Toby Keith brandished as brightly coloured flags with serrated edges. Other times, as with Eminem, they're probably attempting to offend cultural sensibilities. And with the Barney song, David Gray and Yoko Ono (both genuine cases), they probably are operating at the same glib middlebrow-snob level as a columnist or blogger.

Unlike some European legal systems, the anglo-saxon tradition doesn't include droit moral, the "moral rights" of a creator over her work, which (among other things) includes control over any use of the work that offends the artist's sensibilities. And I'm generally glad that it doesn't. Once a work of art is released into the public sphere, I believe, it becomes part of the collective unconscious, of popular/folk culture; compensation and copyright issues are trickier, but on principle images and ideas should be available for resuse, recontextualization, satire and even misappropriation. I don't think that the Catholic Church should control what artists do with icons of the Virgin Mary, or Muslims the image of Muhammad; and so I don't think Bruce Springsteen should have been able to stop Ronald Reagan from inverting the meaning of Born in the USA for propaganda purposes, though I wish people hadn't been careless enough to fall for it.

But musicians and music lovers' deeper moral rights are violated when the story goes beyond a figurative abuse of cultural discourse to the literal abuse of human subjects. And finally, some people are saying so. In February, the U.S.-based Society for Ethnomusicology took an official, unanimous position against the use of music as torture, demanding the U.S. government end the practice. (Predictably drawing yet more asinine humour.) In 2005, Irish music therapist Jane Edwards wrote a letter to Condoleeza Rice in protest and a column urging her peers to speak out (notice the Celine Dion crack she quotes). Perhaps the music industry could follow their lead, turning their attention from the "monetization" of music to the weaponization of it for a few heartbeats.

For further reading on torture and music: The ethnomusicologists link to this academic essay from the Transcultural Music Review. But for a more affecting, journalistic take, I highly recommend Moustafa Bayoumi's Disco Inferno, a Nation feature that was more than deservedly reprinted in the latest edition of Da Capo's annual Best Music Writing collection.

After that, whatever you decide about the issue, let's agree to this much: A moratorium on the crappy jokes, for the duration.

PS: On the subject of culture and torture, Jane Mayer's recent New Yorker piece on 24 is worth your time. Canadians beware: Kiefer Sutherland does not come off well.

In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, March 01 at 10:58 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (14)

 

COMMENTS

I thought some moral rights applied here. A few years ago, the Geisel/Seuss estate managed to prevent an anti-abortion group here in Canada from using the phrase 'a person's a person, no matter how small.' At least, I thought they did.

Posted by Dixon on March 11, 2007 5:54 PM

 

 

Kevin, good thinking, that's right on! I'd want to see an agitprop redux of the Blob, but only if they use Steve McQueen's song to promote it. Wild spaghetti stringy guitar like tentacles.

Posted by bflaska on March 5, 2007 9:40 PM

 

 

Lewis Lapham also has typically scathing editorial in the new Harper's about the blurred line between Hollywood and war. The piece is on the recent spate of Hollywood holiday movies (Babel, Children of Men, Apocalypto) that intentionally or unintentionally try to reassure Americans that they can use violence as means to an end and still retain a moral highground.

The New Yorker article reminded me of how alien invasion movies in the 1950s were meant to propagate xenophobia during the Cold War. Incidentally, I watched The Blob last night and it's funny how they freeze the blob at the end of the movie and drop it in the arctic. One character muses they'll be safe so long as the arctic doesn't melt... If there was ever time for an environmental agitprop sequel, it's now! Obviously Al Gore would star.

Posted by Kevin on March 5, 2007 5:03 PM

 

 

Two people. That seems too many, much too large a proportion given the small number posting here about music.

Posted by bflaska on March 3, 2007 2:08 PM

 

 

As a lapsed Presbyterian, I've only gone to church as an adult when visiting my parents. On the rare occasions when I was there for Communion (Presbyterians don't celebrate Mass every week), I would take the bread and wine as a moment to reflect on the atrocity of state-sponsored torture, which, after all, is what the Crucifixion is about (among other things). In my blinkered naivete, I pretty much exempted my own country, the U. S., from these reflections, even though our history would not exempt us. Needless to say, such naivete is no longer possible.

bflaska, Phil, anybody who's dealt with this in a personal way -- I can't tell you how sorry I am.

Posted by john on March 2, 2007 8:05 PM

 

 

I hope you don't feel picked on, Phil. It's a subject I'd been meaning to post about for awhile, and your comment just provided the occasion.

Posted by zoilus on March 2, 2007 6:51 PM

 

 

I actually did have a second thought after posting my stupid comments. Too late. As someone who has interviewed real torture victims and their families as they relate to my birth country Chile, I shouldn't take these matters as lightly as I appeared to in my comments. I regret the comment and wish I could take it back. After seeing it splattered on my favourite blogsite, I really regret the comment. Thanks for your well-put rebuttal Carl. I'll think twice before making flippant comments in the future.

Posted by Phil on March 2, 2007 6:11 PM

 

 

1. Torture is an obscene cruelty, yet it is being reduced to the status of the absurd.

2. Billy Wilder's movie "One Two Three" came out in 1962 and that's the film that used Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.

3. See what I mean?

4. How many of the 4 or 5 posters here have been personally acquainted with any victim of torture?

5. I'll answer first, if you don't mind, because I'm trying to make a point.

6. I never expected this to happen. But happen it has. In my life I've known people who have been imprisoned, tortured, and executed. One was a friend and room mate. The others were acquaintances. All were people I knew.

7. As these events happened some time ago, I have had a lifetime since. The enormity of these events forced me to spend some of that time trying to come to terms.

8. There have been many years intervening when I'd believe I had successfully come to terms.

9. Because of the events of the past five years in particular, I am obliged to think about these events again, and quite often. I know now that coming to terms is a process that will take me the rest of my life.

10. You are like me. You also are coming to terms with torture even if it hasn't touched you or anyone you know directly.

11. I prefer hearing Carl, Daphne, John express honest moral outrage.

12. When talk turns to torture I can't help it sometimes I end up thinking of the people I knew, the ones who were brutalized and then killed off. When that happens, sometimes I go on a downer. Sometimes I can barely contain my rage. One thing I never am is indifferent. Even so, I know I can seem to be insensitive. So I'm also asking you all to be mindful of yourselves.

13. I'm sorry this is such a long post. Torture is not the best topic of conversation for me, and that's because it's not an abstraction. In its predictable insidious way, torture got to me, too, just as it's designed to do. There's going to be a lot more people like me in the world.

14. Which is not to say don't talk about it, because we're obliged to now. Just be mindful.

Posted by bflaska on March 2, 2007 5:46 PM

 

 

I suppose that once you accept the killing of hundreds of thousands of civilians as a step toward meeting some hypothetical political objective, then the idea of torture might not be such a big deal. An important element of Mayer's story: Torture doesn't work as a way to extract information. It's no surprise that it's made such a big splashy come-back in the Bush Administration, whose members' defining personal experience of conflict is their own personal cowardice: to a man, the supporters and architects of the Iraq atrocity supported America's involvement in the Vietnam War and contrived not to fight it personally. They universalized their own personal cowardice, their lack of courage-for-their-convictions. Such people, imagining themselves subjected to torture, know that they would spill everything. In practice, this hasn't worked well not only because history gives us countless examples of people who do have the courage of their convictions, but also because the people being subjected to torture often have no useful information to spill. In any event, the colossal solipsism of the atrocity's architects is among the more stunning facets of the event.

I suspect musical torture has been around for a long time.

Cinematic depiction: Clockwork Orange.

Posted by john on March 2, 2007 11:20 AM

 

 

There was a movie back in the 70's - and SORRY, I forget the title - where a prisoner was "tortured"
with repeated airings of "itsy Witsy Teen Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini" as played on an off-centre 45.
Art imitates life?

Posted by bruce mowat on March 2, 2007 10:44 AM

 

 

Here's a related link for your consideration-

http://thinkprogress.org/2007/02/27/army-wants-jack-bauer-to-speak-out-against-torture/

Posted by Scott on March 2, 2007 10:16 AM

 

 

I'm not a 24 viewer either, partly because of the feeling I've had about its relationship to current events - the phoniness of the ticking-time-bomb scenario - and partly because the last thing I need is another reportedly addictive TV show. But weighing Doyle's column against Mayer's piece, the latter is more convincing; even if it's a bit undernuanced, I'm persuaded she's getting the story largely right, and that Doyle is a fan who's wishfully reading more balance into the show's details, and missing the forest for the trees. I could go point by point over his column (he claims that if the show were showing that torture "worked," it would stop having new threats each season...????), but without watching the show myself it doesn't seem appropriate.

Posted by zoilus on March 2, 2007 2:16 AM

 

 

agreed. once I heard that this sort of torture really exists, the jokes became rather less funny...

About the Jane Mayer piece: did you see Doyle's (semi-)response in the Globe Review? He said something to the effect of "only the simple minded could construe 24 as endorsing torture." And while I found Mayer's piece generally compelling and well-researched, one thing she did not come off as was a regular viewer of the show (even if she watched a lot as research for the piece). I've never actually seen more than a few seconds of 24. Do you think she missed something?

Posted by andrew on March 2, 2007 12:28 AM

 

 

thanks Carl. very well said.

Posted by john on March 2, 2007 12:13 AM

 

 

 

Zoilus by Carl Wilson