Musical mind control from Mesmer to the Satanic panic.
To lose oneself in music is generally regarded as a good thing—an ecstatic experience, or at least an absent-minded pleasure. But despite the Eminems, Daft Punks, and Sister Sledges of the world, Western culture has often had niggling fears about letting go in that way. What if the music can make you do things? What if surrendering to it means surrendering the parts of yourself that hold you back from madness, adultery, and murder? What if heavy metal sends teens on killing sprees? What if rock and roll makes girls shed their sexual inhibitions, causing a rash of nymphomania and pregnancy and the collapse of social order—or what if it can whip crowds into a malleable frenzy, leaving them the pitiful stooges of Communist or other sinister causes? What if it can be used with other forms of thought control to turn people into Manchurian Candidate–style automatons?
The fear, however implausible, that music has mysterious powers—that it can hypnotize or brainwash, making us the playthings of malign manipulators or our own dark instincts—has crept into the public discourse surprisingly often over the past two hundred years. Concerns about the medical, sexual, social, and political consequences of musical hypnosis are an essentially modern business; until the eighteenth century, trance states were often seen in a positive light, even as a way of connecting to the divine. But against the background of the internalized self-control demanded by modern urban society, trance states have been increasingly regarded as pathological symptoms—something to be explained by doctors, not priests.
The ambiguous, picaresque career of Franz Anton Mesmer, the pioneer from the 1770s of Animal Magnetism and its associated hypnotic techniques, epitomized this trend, recasting trance in a semi-occult medical context.He and his followers often used music in their treatments, favoring in particular the ethereal and uncanny sound of the glass armonica, which uses friction to produce tones in a series of graduated glass bowls. Along with many other aspects of Mesmerism, this musical element often provoked a titillated fascination as well as skepticism and mockery. Many of the themes that dominate the debate on musical hypnotism have their origins in discussions and satirical depictions of Mesmerism, especially the sense that the entranced person—often a woman—was open to the sexual manipulation of the magnétiseur who put her there. In 1790, the English Quaker A. Fothergill suggested that the impact of the “magnetic professor” on “delicate females of fine feelings and susceptible nerves” was to stimulate “their passions to the highest pitch … till the wished-for crisis comes,” like a bridegroom.
The same kind of fears about sex and mind control recurred in the Paris of the 1870s, when the neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot conducted the most systematic work on sound and hypnosis in the nineteenth century. Charcot and his colleagues apparently created hypnotic and indeed catatonic fits among their female hysterical patients by using gongs, gigantic tuning forks, and even children’s lullabies. Charcot regarded these trance states as expressions of a semi-epileptic neurological condition, akin to the reflex action that makes a patient kick when hit on the knee with a doctor’s hammer. Although modern medicine does recognize “musicogenic epilepsy”—in which music, even specific songs (such as, according to one study, Mariah Carey’s “Dream Lover”) provokes epileptic fits—it’s likely that Charcot’s striking and vividly photogenic results were the consequence of suggestion and straightforward simulation by the women concerned. There was a strong theatrical and implicitly voyeuristic character to these experiments, with the women involved becoming minor celebrities in Paris after they were shown off to the public. Beyond Paris, the reaction to these experiments often focused on the sexual dangers involved. A character in Tolstoy’s strange 1889 novella, The Kreutzer Sonata, calls for the state control of music to prevent magnétiseurs from hypnotizing women with immoral purposes in mind. The American psychologist Aldred Warthin had been told of cases of spontaneous orgasm among Wagner fans hypnotized by the music, but in an 1894 article he regretted to announce that his attempts to replicate these results had not been successful.
In the early decades of the twentieth century, the concept of hypnotic music faded as hypnosis came to be seen as a matter of suggestion rather than a neurological reflex. But in the fifties, it made a rather sudden comeback amid the panic about brainwashing. Although the concept has roots in Chinese thought, its modern sense dates from the Korean War—when Communists had apparent success in converting American POWs to their cause, the CIA alleged that the troops were the victims of a mind-control campaign. The agency began to invest serious money in the so-called MK-ULTRA program to see if they could achieve similar effects themselves. Much of their research drew on Ivan Pavlov’s work with learned or conditioned reflexes—work that also employed tuning forks, metronomes, and whistles. The English psychiatrist and Pavlovian William Sargant became a leading authority on the power of music to brainwash; he wrote that Beatlemania was a dangerous possession cult and suggested to Newsweek that Patty Hearst had been turned from a kidnapping victim to an armed robber by having been forced to listen to rock music.
The idea of musical brainwashing had considerable resonance in this period. Anthony Burgess’s 1962 novel A Clockwork Orange and Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film adaptation both depict the fictional “Ludovico Technique,” a form of aversion therapy that involves “very like sinister” music, reaching a climax in a scene in which images of Nazi atrocities are played against the music of Alex’s favorite composer, Beethoven. (Alex himself expresses some skepticism about music’s civilizing effect—“Civilized my syphilized yarbles,” he exclaims. “Music always sort of sharpened me up.”) American conservative evangelicals were quick to adopt the idea of musical brainwashing as an explanation for what was happening to the young people of their country. In books like 1966’s Rhythm, Riots and Revolution, David Noebel, long part of Billy James Hargis’s segregationist Christian Crusade, argued that sixties rock ‘n’ roll was literally a Kremlin plot. “If the following scientific program is not exposed,” he warned, “degenerated Americans will indeed raise the Communist flag over their own nation.” He provided ingenious if paradoxical reasoning to explain why Communist states banned rock music, even though it was their own sinister invention—it just showed that they knew how dangerous it really was!
In the Reagan era, the anxiety about musical brainwashing shifted onto another supposed worldwide conspiracy—Satanism. The eighties and nineties in America saw a full-scale moral panic that linked the “science” of brainwashing to a supernatural satanic threat emanating from heavy metal music. A wide range of books with titles like The Devil’s Disciples, Rock’s Hidden Persuader, and (my personal favorite) Hit Rock’s Bottom spread the word that certain bands were brainwashing innocent teenagers with subliminal messages to lure them into the worship of the devil, sexual immorality, murder, and especially suicide. Such was the panic that the Parents’ Music Resource Center sold a fifteen-dollar “Satanism Research Packet.” Much of the anxiety focused on the supposed ability of messages recorded backward (so-called backmasking) to influence listeners subliminally. “Experts” often disagreed about what the backward message actually was. A well-known preacher in Ohio publicly burned a recording of the theme song to Mister Ed because he said it contained the lyric “Someone sing this song for Satan” when played backward.
The backmasking scare really took off when it was used to link heavy metal to the rise in teen suicide, even though songs about suicide were by no means a new phenomenon. In 1985, Ozzy Osbourne faced a lawsuit based on the accusation that his song “Suicide Solution” had brainwashed a nineteen-year-old into attempting suicide. The case was thrown out on freedom of speech grounds, but the idea of “subliminal” backmasking appeared to offer a way around First Amendment protections. The parents of two teenagers who shot themselves in 1985 blamed Judas Priest, claiming that “satanic incantations are revealed when the music is played backwards.” Their expert witness (a marine biologist—I’m not making this up) said he could make out the words “do it” when the song was played in reverse. The case was unsuccessful, but the idea of metal as a form of potentially lethal brainwashing entered the public imagination. After Richard Kuntz killed himself while listening to Marilyn Manson in 1996, his father testified before a U.S. Senate Committee, arguing that musical brainwashing was responsible; several media reports blamed Manson for the Columbine school massacre in 1999.
Though it’s proved very popular in these various contexts, it should go without saying that the whole idea of musical hypnosis or brainwashing is fundamentally bogus. Music can play a limited role in the creation of trance states, but it certainly doesn’t work in the automatic way theorized—or willed—by those who have been most concerned about its dangers. In any case, there’s little to suggest that we can be hypnotized against our will, let alone without our knowledge; people can be manipulated, of course, in all sorts of ways, but the evidence from the Korean War and elsewhere is that it old-fashioned fear and violence are most apt to change behavior. Likewise, the notion of subliminal messages subtly brainwashing impressionable youths is highly questionable. Weak stimulus in fact has a weak effect, and that backward messages have been shown to have no effect at all.
The debate surrounding musical brainwashing has never really been about music at all: it’s about sex, self control, and social order. For a certain kind of social conservative, it’s always tempting to construe other people as the marionettes of agitators or our basest, most primitive instincts. The directly physical effect of music, its ability to make listeners’ bodies literally resonate, giving rein to their own impulses and potential group dynamics, can always put it at odds with ideals of discipline, making it an especially adept vehicle for some of society’s deepest anxieties. Music certainly can change behavior. It can increase sales in a shopping mall, but it can’t make you someone else’s puppet.
Dr. James Kennaway is a Historian of Medicine at Newcastle University. He has previously worked at Oxford, Stanford and Vienna. His book Bad Vibrations: The History of the Idea of Music as a Cause of Disease was published in 2012.