Al-Jazeera recently reported that U.S. forces blared Sesame Street songs on repeat to get Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib prisoners to talk back in 2003. According to a former Gitmo guard, inmates were left alone up to days on end with nothing to do but listen to the music. Some were strapped to chairs while the tormenting playlist blasted through headphones.
Although the U.S. has previously admitted to using music to influence the behavior of inmates, U.S. officials promptly denied wrongdoing. Pentagon spokesman Captain John Kirby said U.S. forces followed a strict policy against mistreating prisoners, declaring, “We do not torture. And we do not abuse our detainees at all.” Kirby said investigations had approved the use of music at the time, but didn’t know if it was still used at the prisons.
Award-winning composer Christopher Cerf wrote over 200 songs for Sesame Street over the past 40 years, and was stunned when he learned his music was being used to subjugate prisoners. Cerf is not the first artist outraged by his music being used this way. In 2009, Nine Inch Nails, Rage Against the Machine, REM, Pearl Jam, Jackson Browne, and other artists launched a campaign protesting the use of their music in torturing Guantanamo Bay prisoners.
Heavy rap and rock are not the only types of music used. Barney the Dinosaur’s “I Love You” was allegedly particularly effective at breaking prisoners. Music from the Meow Mix commercials was also used, as were Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. It’s easy to insert a snarky joke here about the unwitting artists creating music bad enough to be deemed a torture weapon, but most tunes will eventually work if repeated enough times at a high volume.
One cannot deny music is powerful. Runners perform better with the proper soundtrack, football players gear up with their school’s fight song, and soldiers use it to pump themselves up before battle. How does music provoke such a strong reaction?
Loud music cannot be shut out the same way loud speech can. When it becomes stuck in our heads it’s impossible to ignore — think of the ubiquitous “Call Me Maybe.” (You’re welcome.) Catchy Christmas ditties are regularly ranked among the most annoying songs.
However, music is also frustrating when we can’t grasp it. Western music is particularly damaging because of its unfamiliar tonal structures to non-Western detainees. Our brains automatically process music and try to anticipate what comes next, but this is very difficult for those who are unfamiliar with a particular style of music. Listening to unfamiliar tones and patterns on repeat is exhausting and maddening. Dissonant tones are effective on detainees across cultures as they tend to induce stress on everyone. (Most of us prefer consonant sounds.)
It’s unclear whether using music this way actually provokes prisoners to provide useful information or just makes them more resentful after they’re released. Regardless of one's position on torture, we must stop being disingenuous. Torture is partly defined as “great mental suffering or anxiety.” While the use of music may not rise to the severity of waterboarding — detainees are not fearing for their lives —the mental anguish they suffer must be considered torture.