The U.S.’ Torture Song "Playlist" Includes Artists You'd Never Expect
When the Senate Intelligence Committee released its summary of the CIA's gruesome detention and interrogation programs, chief among the tactics noticed was the use of music. In several instances, the report noted that detainees and suspects were subjected to loud, blaring music in addition to other inhumane treatments, and while the average listener may be soothed, excited, or generally pleased by the tunes of their favorite artists, music has been used by the American government for far more insidious purposes. In fact, as Tom Barnes reported to Music.Mic in April, music has been used in torturous instances since the early 2000s to "create fear, disorient … and prolong capture shock."
Musical torture, at first blush, may not seem like the most problematic of methods. After all, when compared to waterboarding, sleep deprivation, and physical abuse, how bad could some white noise be? But according to Sgt. Mark Hadsell, a member of the U.S. Psychological Operations team, music is a much more powerful and subversive tool than we may imagine. Speaking with Music.Mic, Hadsell said, "If you play [a song] for 24 hours, your brain and body functions start to slide, your train of thought slows down and your will is broken. That's when we come in and talk to them."
Each component of the so-called "torture playlist" was meticulously selected, and some of the names on the list are surprising. After all, who could've ever thought that the Meow Mix jingle or the Sesame Street theme song could be used to break someone's will? Or that Christina Aguilera's "Dirty" could be weaponized? But as innocuous as these television, advertising or radio hits may seem, their use in various torture methods displays a more insidious side to their lyrics and melodies.
The following are some of the most common songs used by interrogators as part of their questioning tactics.
Barney Theme Song ("I Love You")
According to a 2008 article from the Guardian, the lovable purple dinosaur and his song about love and acceptance served an entirely different purpose in Guantanamo Bay, when prisoners were endlessly subjected to the tune. While Bob Singleton, the mastermind behind the famous theme, wrote in 2009 that it was "absolutely ludicrous" to think that "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 may have underestimated the power of intense volume and ceaseless repetition.
With lyrics like "I love you, you love me - we're a happy family./With a great big hug and a kiss from me to you,/Won't you say you love me too?" it may seem difficult to believe that Barney could ever be part of a torture scheme. But according to the Guardian, songs like this theme are played as "futility music," designed to reinforce the hopelessness of an inmate's situation.
"Fuck Your God" by Deicide
On the other end of the spectrum from Barney's "I Love You" were songs like Deicide's "Fuck Your God," which was played at full blast for hours on end, creating chilling effects not only on the prisoners, but on prison guards as well. Tony Lagouranis, a former U.S. Army interpreter, wrote in his book, Fear Up Harsh: An Army Interrogator's Dark Journey Through Iraq,
As Umar knelt, we took turns yelling our questions into his ears. His head twisted around as he tried to figure out where we were. After about a half hour, he started moaning. I imagined he was crying behind his sandbag. We pushed forward, getting harsher with our words. My throat was sore, my ears were ringing, and the lights were disorienting. I realized I wasn't going to be able to stand this much longer.The music and the lights were making me increasingly more aggressive. The prisoner, still not cooperating, was making me increasingly angry.
Despite the fact that the lyrics of the song are, in fact, anti-Christian, at some point, interrogators rely more upon the violence of the melody (or lack thereof) itself, rather than the message. It seems that any music that attempts to transmit a message of hate ultimately becomes useful in the hands of interrogators.
The Meow Mix Jingle
Again, it seems unlikely that a series of "meows" could be utilized in torture chambers, but when juxtaposed against heavy rock tunes like the aforementioned "Fuck Your God," the US military found these almost laughable tunes to be surprisingly effective at creating a maddening effect.
"Dirty" by Christina Aguilera
Particularly effective as a means of torture was the use of the "bad Muslim" trope, which attacked the moral framework of many faithful followers of Islam. Christina Aguilera's "Dirty," and other songs with hypersexualized lyrics or particularly provocative music videos were used to taunt male prisoners whose religion required celibacy or sexual purity.
In addition to playing such songs, female interrogators were purported to conduct interviews while shirtless, further compounding the psychological stress endured by these prisoners. Women in the military also allegedly gave "forced lap dances" and rubbed what they identified to be menstrual blood on inmates.
"The Real Slim Shady" by Eminem
Eminem was a particularly popular choice for interrogators, as songs like "Kim" and "White America" were also cited as common torture songs. While the undeniably lyrics of "Kim" make it a more obvious choice for the playlist, "The Real Slim Shady" seems a bit more inconspicuous — innocent, even. But according to Binyam Mohamed, who endured the song for 20 straight days, even the catchiest of tunes quickly takes its toll on an already enfeebled mind. As per investigative journalist Andy Worthington's reports, Mohamed told his lawyer,
There was loud music, Slim Shady and Dr. Dre for 20 days. I heard this non-stop over and over, I memorized the music, all of it, when they changed the sounds to horrible ghost laughter and Halloween sounds. It got really spooky in this black hole … Interrogation was right from the start, and went on until the day I left there. The CIA worked on people, including me, day and night. Plenty lost their minds. I could hear people knocking their heads against the walls and the doors, screaming their heads off … Throughout my time I had all kinds of music, and irritating sounds, mentally disturbing. I call it brainwashing.
Ultimately, much of the music chosen, like Metallica's "Enter Sandman" or Drowning Pools "Bodies," was made effective by the complete foreignness of the sounds. Detainees who had never been exposed to heavy metal were simply unprepared to be accosted by the screams of these musicians for hours on end. Other songs were intended to drown out the possibility of having any other thoughts, and others still were simply meant to drive detainees insane.
And while the thought of such a perverse use of an art form may be despicable to some, there were certain musicians who were unperturbed by the use of their craft in the war against terror. James Hetfield, co-founder of Metallica, has noted, "If the Iraqis aren't used to freedom, then I'm glad to be part of their exposure," which may give all of us pause before deciding which artists to patronize the next time we're looking for some new tunes. Images: Danny Jackson/YouTube; Getty Images