Man, that last post was way too long. Should have been one short paragraph. I do gas on sometimes. I should work on brevity.
But speaking of The New Yorker, since I was, I'd just like to provide a link in passing to Alex Ross's article "The Sound of Hate" in the July 4th, 2016, issue of the magazine. Might be the single best essay about music I've ever read. It starts out appearing to be a modest book review, of the new translation (from the French) of Pascal Quignard's 1996 book The Hatred of Music. He starts by talking about using music as a weapon—sound as violence, as a military weapon, as an instrument of torture, and as personal violation in the form of an intrusive "piercer of envelopes" (Quignard's phrase).
That last relates back my recent post about firecrackers torturing dogs, veterans, and Hmbl. Eds.
Along the way he touches on a number of things that, in isolation, have interested me over the years—from 7-11's use of Mozart to drive off teenage loiterers in its parking lots, to music's group-defining function, to the use of bouncy polkas blaring from loudspeakers to drown out the screams of victims in Nazi death camps, to musical infiltration as cultural hegemony, to the notion that music is always a positive art form being a post-Romantic-era formulation. "When music is applied to warlike ends, we tend to believe that it has been turned against its innocent nature," Ross writes. "To quote the standard platitudes, it has charms to soothe a savage breast; it is the food of love; it brings us together and sets us free. We resist evidence suggesting that music can cloud reason, stir rage, cause pain, even kill."
Writer Alex Ross in 2008. Photo by Mark Mahaney, used by permission.
Music can be used to psych up an athlete for a challenge, or to agitate crowds. It can certainly be transgressive, but its meaning and acceptance changes as it is co-opted into culture—you can sometimes hear anthems of counterculture 1960s revolution used as muzak in supermarkets now. Few who saw the respective movies will forget the helicopters attacking over the blare of Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" in Apocalypse Now, or the massacre scene in Arthur Penn's Little Big Man where the cavalry advances on the helpless native village to the airy lilt of "Garryowen." And it's a curious fact that "humans react with particular revulsion to musical signals that are not of their choice or to their liking." My reclusive and enigmatic musical-polymath friend Kim once had to quit a job because they played "inoffensive" classic pop hits over the PA system all day in the workplace, and he couldn't stand it.
In the end, Alex Ross suggests we "...renounce the fiction of music’s innocence. To discard that illusion is not to diminish music’s importance; rather, it lets us register the uncanny power of the medium. To admit that music can become an instrument of evil is to take it seriously as a form of human expression."
A beautifully crafted, brilliant, deeply considered short essay. Highly recommended. It's online, under the title "When Music is Violence."
Original contents copyright 2016 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
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Featured Comments from:
Aaron Britton: "What timing, my wife and I were just talking last night about our dentist going on a Disney Cruise. The dentist talked about how they piped in Disney music all the time over the PA, even in the rooms. Wow, talk about hell."
BruceK: "Very interesting article. As a footnote, I went in for surgery this past January, and there was background music playing in the OR as I was wheeled in. The song? Dylan's 'Knockin' on Heaven's Door.' Good thing I have a sense of humor...."
JK: "Anyone who has ever been to Yodobashi Camera in Japan will have its theme song seared into their brain. It's set to the melody of 'The Battle Hymn of the Republic' with some silly lyrics telling you which trains to take to get there, played in an endless loop all day. I honestly wonder how the employees put up with it without going off the deep end. (And yet I Youtube'd it just now and have to admit feeling a pleasant moment of camera-buying nostalgia.)"