In order to extract Manuel Noriega from his refuge in the Vatican Embassy in Panama City, the US military bombarded him with heavy metal music, including AC/DC, for fifteen days in December 1989. Learning from this episode, troops in Iraq have used music both to buoy up their own spirits and sap those of the enemy. Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” is a favourite. “We’ve been punishing our parents, our wives, our loved ones with this music for ever. Why should the Iraqis be any different?” asked band founder James Hetfield. Prisoners at the infamous Guantanamo Bay incarceration camp in Cuba have been treated to Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walking”, “Sing-Along With Mitch Miller” Christmas carols, and, worst of all, the Barney theme tune.
The historical and mythological precedents do not go unacknowledged. Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Dan Kuehl notes that “Joshua’s army used horns to strike fear into the hearts of the people of Jericho. His men might not have been able to break down literal walls with their trumpets. But… the noise eroded the enemies’ courage. Maybe those psychological walls were what really crumbled”.
In the siege of the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas in March 1993, loudspeakers were used as a tactic of sleep deprivation. The sonic content programmed by the U.S. Department of Justice included Tibetan chants, Christmas music, sirens, squawking birds, laughter, and rabbits being slaughtered. Excessive volume and incessant playback had their effects, but so too did the specific content, especially the scream. As Douglas Kahn notes “Screams when trafficked in culture in their powerful self-evidence, in their amplitude and affect, simultaneously assert themselves and elude meaning. They resemble noise in this respect”. The scream is a product of our insides turned out; it is the audio manifestation of body horror.
This week’s assignment was disengeniously entitled “The Soundtrack”. It proposes a similar torture exercise to those discussed above. Any “song” (a term I assume was meant to be defined by pop standards) played repeatedly loses all referential meaning, not to mention emotional impact. It becomes only a delivery vehicle for normative sonic content. Knowing already this outcome, I refused to submit to this experiment.
Portions of this post are adapted from my paper “Becoming Noise: Unwanted Sounds From Helmholtz To Hegarty”.