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Music as a weapon of war

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Award-winning "Sesame Street" songwriter Christopher Cerf discusses what it was like to learn that his music was used to torture U.S. detainees in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay.

How did you feel when you found out your music was being used in this way?

It was a mixture of things. I’m certainly against anything our country does that’s openly in violation of the Geneva Convention, because it could be done back to us. So, that was my first reaction.

I don’t like torture of any kind. Obviously, interrogation can sometimes be necessary, but the idea that my music would be used ... I was furious, on one level, and, I have to say, bemused on another. It just seemed insane. And, of course, it hurt my feelings a little bit, too, that my songs were bad enough that anyone thought they’d be useful in this way.

I did see some very dark humor in the idea that having to listen to Elmo could get someone to talk. It occurred to me that a song I wrote called “Put Down the Duckie” might actually be useful in getting an Iraqi to quit the Ba’ath Party.

But the important point is the way the prisoners were treated. Obviously, they didn’t ask my permission to use my music, and I don’t like that they did. But if they used other music, the effect would be the same.

You were the subject of the documentary "Songs of War," which followed you as you explored how music could be used in this way. Who did you speak to?

We spoke to lawyers, activists. We even spoke to a kid who had been a prison guard at Guantanamo. And we talked to other people whose music had been used. Drowning Pool, a heavy-metal rock group, thought it was great that their music had been used in interrogation.

I also talked to Moazzem Begg, who had been detained. That was a chilling discussion. I don’t take everything he said at face value, but there seems little question that he was mistreated, and his story – to the degree that you accept it – is shocking.

One of the most interesting parts was talking to Mike Richards, who trained U.S. soldiers to withstand torture in case they were captured. He said a lot of the techniques we taught our troops to withstand are now being used in interrogation.

His view was that that kind of interrogation doesn’t really work because it’s so unpleasant that you’ll say anything to get it to stop. At which point, what is the information you get really worth? He says interrogation works better when you – ethically or not – win the person’s cooperation somehow, in more carroty ways than stick ways.

I still feel that music might be better than physical torture, if you had to choose. But Mike actually subjected me – they actually put me in a dark cell and made me listen to my own music for a long time at a high volume. And boy, I was glad when I got out of there.

What was that like?

At first, it was very disorienting and unpleasant. I knew I could stop it, so it wasn’t the same as actually being imprisoned, but Mike was a brilliant psychological warfare guy, and he put enough doubt in my mind. You begin to lose your sanity. I was quite shaken by it, honestly. Though I couldn’t wait to go tell all my friends about it, either.

Did it make a difference what music was played?

I actually liked it better when they played Drowning Pool than when they played my music, because it had a beat. Elmo’s voice – now, I love Elmo, so don’t quote this out of context, but he can be kind of screechy if you have to listen to him for a couple hours singing the same thing over and over again with volume that’s almost at the level of pain.

It’s so disorienting that you can’t think … and, if you feel that way after half an hour, imagine how you’d feel after hours and hours of that in a confined space or in the dark, day after day. I can see how that could be incredibly destructive.

I just don’t like the idea that our country detained people, often for years, without being sure what they were guilty of – that people were treated this way on the off chance they’d have something to say.

Does it bother you that it’s your music being used by your government in this way?

My problem is with the use of techniques like this, not with whether they used my music. In a way, I’m actually glad they used my music, because it gives me a chance to talk about this. I don’t want to see us use illegal techniques in warfare. And nobody would’ve ever asked me what I thought if this hadn’t happened.

© Japan Today

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17 Comments
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what a wishy-washy ridiculous response. I would have sued the US government for using his music without his permission.

-3 ( +0 / -3 )

Barry Manilow, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen would be formidable weapons.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

Polka Music would do me in. Imagine hours of it at high volume.

Achy breaky country music and those horrible teeny bopper love songs would work well.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

Basically anything after 2008.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Japan has an unlimited source of J Pop if they ever run out of Lady Gaga

0 ( +2 / -2 )

With j-pop Japan has enough to DESTROY the whole world many many times over!

The stuff drives me nutso even though I am not locked in a tiny dark room

1 ( +3 / -2 )

There is no middle ground when they start playing "Barnie". It's either attraction or repulsion of the sort that visualizes green and purple shreds floating in the air. There was also a really dead period in music (at least in the USA) running from roughly 1947 through 1950. I wonder if it would work at Gitmo?

0 ( +0 / -0 )

The United States, when it comes to human rights it's "Do as we say, not as we do!"

0 ( +1 / -1 )

With j-pop Japan has enough to DESTROY the whole world many many times over! The stuff drives me nutso even though I am not locked in a tiny dark room.

J-pop has a following. And a large one. (Not including me, though). And just about every other country in the world has a pop genre that drives the "older/other" generation nuts. I can usually turn it off and stay away from places where it is played.

That said, I imagine that classical music, jazz, ballads, country & western, you name it, when played loud and long enough can drive you literally crazy.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

presto345,

I am sorry but j-pop & now its spawned k-pop is aweful stuff, its a plague, I pray it doesnt spread too much outside of Japan & Korea on the producing side of it.

And yes there is mind numbing pop everywhere but the AMOUNT in Japan is simply nasty, pervasive, aweful stuff, sorry IT JUST IS! LOL!

0 ( +0 / -0 )

America seems to have taken the Japanese road, and now believe that psychological oppression and torture are not "really" real oppression and torture anymore.

The things America is doing to people these days is truly and thoroughly sick and twisted. A fun little game for disgusting people who should not be anywhere near having power over others in the name of decent Americans who would not dream of doing these things.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Want to get a Full Confesssion ?-Put up some Ethel Merman singing "God Bless America" for about one day & they'll be sobbing & slobbering Anything! Now That's what i call Edutainment!

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

Am I a bad person for laughing at many of his responses?

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Guantanamo is still open? Obama always keeps a promise!

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

With j-pop Japan has enough to DESTROY the whole world many many times over!

I'll be happy with JPop. I can't say the same about US music.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

Lot of comments, but no one seems to be affected abou the "torture" issue.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Beibers music is torture to me but no matter what you like or dislike if it is played over and over and over....anything can can drive you bonkers. Like the steady drip of water...or if you have kids.."Are we there yet?"

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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