It’s Not “Just Music”

Anyone who has ever seen even a slightly scary movie understands that music is responsible for a large part of your emotional reaction to it. A clip of children playing in the surf is nothing, it’s not even worth watching for longer than five seconds – until the Jaws theme is played under it. If you don’t believe me, pull a horror DVD from your collection and watch how someone walks through a house and opens a door – with the sound off. I’m quite sure you’ll prefer to watch Oprah instead.

Music has that power and the film industry has used it to it’s fullest, combining images and sound so that innocent pictures turn into hair-raising experiences. The opposite works just as well. Pictures of 1960s Vietnam set to polka music (as per Good Morning Vietnam) make the whole war seem a silly affair: the strictly utilitarian, ugly, olive green Mitsubishi jeeps used in the movie suddenly become comical, wobbly vehicles. Director Barry Levinson knew very well what he was doing. Music is a very powerful tool indeed.

And that’s why I am surprised that in an article in today’s Guardian musicians mainly play down the effects of music when played extremely loud to Guantánamo prisoners. Never mind Metallica frontman James Hetfield’s comments – he seems to think his fans are still fourteen years old and still believe in his tough guy shtick. No, even Bob Singleton, the clasically trained composer of the theme of Barney the Dinosaur, an unlikely torture song alongside the metal and rap tracks of Guantánamo, doesn’t see it. “[W]e’re not talking about dynamite or nuclear devices here. Music is just music,” he says.

It strikes me as rather odd that someone whose career is music, can so easily dismiss the effects of it. I can very well imagine Stephen King using that Barney tune in one of his movies and I’m sure that Singleton can as well. Just play it to some scenes shot in a concentration camp or during a bombardment – I know that’s a sickening thought, but that’s just the point. And I can imagine wishing for that ‘nuclear device’ after a few hours of Barney played at full volume – especially under Guantánamo conditions.

However, where big pop acts are blatantly absent from the duty roster for gigs for the troops (The Lloyd Dobler Effect, anyone?), apparently rejecting the wars the US is entangled in, they clamp up when it gets really too close for comfort, unwilling even to find out if the US Marines are paying for the privilege of performing their tunes to an involuntary audience.

The days of Country Joe McDonald and the Fish are long gone. Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn. Indeed.