Music as a weapon
Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I was just thinking about the aggressive use of music, for instance by the U.S. armed forces against Manuel Noriega in Panama, or Steve Zahn against his guppie neighbors on Treme. What music would you blast at someone to let them know you’re unhappy with them? There’s the temptation to use something that’s just plain bad, but I think I’d want something that expresses myself, if not the best part of myself. In honor of the current primaries, I’ll go with Thrill Kill Kult’s “Days Of Swine And Roses.” I consider myself a Christian, of a sort, but someone should take a stand against all the zombie vampirism. —Bob K
These days, I can’t think of a better kiss-off song than Cee Lo’s “Fuck You,” in its unadulterated form. Advantage: It’s a catchy, fun song that I wouldn’t mind hearing over and over if, say, I was trying to force a tyrant out of his stronghold through sheer repetition. Also, it expresses a clear, simple, comprehensible sentiment. Disadvantage: It might not work as a weapon, because my target might enjoy it as much as I do. But hey, maybe our feud would break out into a dance party.
I can only think of the way my own brain chooses to torture itself, and that’s with Justin Bieber’s “Baby.” Only in my case, I wouldn’t play the entire song, I’d just play the chorus: “Baby, baby baby oh! / Like baby, baby, baby no!” on an endless loop, because that’s exactly what starts going on in my head at the mere mention of that song or Bieber’s name. A few repetitions of this is enough to drive anyone insane. If that song has the same effect on my enemies that it has on me, I will vanquish them in no time.
In my younger days, I actually had occasion to use music as a weapon, but I would like to point out that it was in retaliation. (“They drew first blood,” as my friend Rambo would say.) I had a horrible downstairs neighbor who blasted shitty music while she exercised in the early morning. She’d find a favorite horrible song (Third Eye Blind and Blues Traveler were favorites, to give you an idea of what year we’re talking about) and blast it, on repeat, for her entire hour-long workout. Same song, 60 minutes in a row, at like 6 a.m. And then she had the gall to complain that I “walked loud.” Anyway, the revenge, and as a grown-ass man I’m not particularly proud of this: I put a boom box under my bed (directly over her bedroom) and put Quincy Jones’ theme from Sanford And Son very, very loudly, on repeat. And then I left the apartment, so as not to drive myself crazy. I can’t remember if this prevented her from playing “Runaround” 20 times in a row anymore, but it felt good nonetheless.
In college, my roommate (TV’s Keith Monday!) and I lived upstairs from two dudes we called Lenny & Squiggy for two years. We fought a low-level war with them for a long time. They objected to the dunking contests we held with mini basket and foam basketball, we got annoyed by their building-rattling surround sound. They said we stomped around like elephants, we took a Super Soaker full of bleach to some clothes they left on their deck for weeks. But one of our favorite ways to torture them was to take our stereo speakers, place them face down on the floor, and blast Harmony Corruption by Napalm Death. (“Vision Conquest” worked well, though I was always partial to “The Chains That Bind Us”—awesome album, by the way.) We’d play at least a few songs at high volume, which would usually lead to them banging a broom handle on their ceiling. (They’d do the same when we’d sync the Christmas lights hanging around our main room to Radioactive Goldfish.) Eventually, we reached a sort of wary truce with Lenny & Squiggy, but Harmony Corruption was always ready for deployment, like some kind of death-metal nuclear missile.
I, too, had a very annoying neighbor in college. Mine was a heinous brand of bro that would sit on his front porch—inconveniently located within feet of my bedroom window—and play Bon Jovi covers on his acoustic guitar over and over and over. Then he’d have some friends come over, and they’d sit in rapt silence as he again played the same songs over and over. Since it was summer in Southern Ohio, it was swelteringly hot, and I couldn’t close my window, nor would an A/C unit fit in it. One day, after several months of this torture, I snapped, turned my speakers around, and blasted Kid 606’s PS I Love You. It’s not a bad record if you’re into screeches and IDM, but I kind of doubted this guy was. Every time he’d bring out the acoustic guitar, I’d retaliate with my patented sonic assault. I think he got the message eventually.
In this year of supposed doom, why not R.E.M.’s “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”? It’s catchy as hell, but would serve as a not-so-subtle reminder that the world just might be headed there. During move-in day when I was in college, a Cleveland radio station played it for 24 hours while they changed format. Strangely enough, everyone seemed to be hypnotically unable to change the station, and it was audible everywhere. While that wasn’t exactly torturous, I still believe we might have been part of some governmental research project or something.
If someone wanted to piss me off, they’d play 4 Non Blondes’ “What’s Up” at maximum volume, but I wouldn’t be able to do the same, because that would necessitate that I own a copy of it. When I read this question, the first thing that leapt to mind was a moment from college. The guys in the dorm room next to mine decided that they wanted to throw a raging party on a weeknight, and I needed to combat the noise somehow. So I started racking my brain for something that would sound really annoying if I put the speaker up against the wall and cranked up the volume, and for whatever reason, the first thing that occurred to me was the bass solo on Bauhaus’s “She’s In Parties.” Seemed like a good idea at the time—which was well past midnight—but the effect wasn’t as profound as I hoped. In retrospect, I probably should’ve gone with Ministry’s “Stigmata.”
I’ve used music as a weapon a few times throughout my life, not even counting the night I was on tour with an old band of mine and got so drunk onstage, I knocked one of our singer’s front teeth out with my guitar. But the most pragmatic example I can think of was during Off The Wall, a weekly DJ night I used to have in Denver. I played ’70s and ’80s music, and the dance floor would get to be a miasma of booze and sweat by the time 2 a.m. rolled around. Even after the lights came on and I spun my obvious last song of the night (“Last Dance” by Donna Summer, naturally), people would just linger and mill about. So I came up with a surefire way to clear the floor: I cued up “Every Time You Go Away”—Paul Young’s extra-schmaltzy cover of the Hall & Oates tune—and let its cloying perfume fill the air. That alone didn’t make anyone leave, of course; on the contrary, it made them stop milling and start slow-dancing. But this is what I’d do to finally drive them off: I’d start the song at a very soft volume, barely audible. Then during the chorus, when Young sings the line “Every time you go away,” I’d crank the volume to a deafening level for the last two words: “GO AWAY.” Then I’d immediately crank it back down. Then back up. Then back down. After the fifth or sixth earsplitting “GO AWAY,” people got the idea. Seems cruel, I know. But after a few months of my merciless abuse, I’ll be damned if a few of the regulars didn’t start loving it—to the point where they’d stay on the floor and shout “GO AWAY!” at me every time Young did it to them.
I feel that, like John McCain on the subject of “advanced interrogation techniques,” I have a personal connection to this question, having once lived in an apartment beneath a woman who, for reasons unknown to me, once decided to play the Ramones’ theme song to Pet Sematary over and over, for what felt like a week straight. That was a real object lesson in how quickly a song you have no particular problem with can start to feel like a sock full of nickels pounding you between the eyes once it sits in your lap and takes out a mortgage there. I suppose the question underlying this question might be, “What music do you think you could stand to be in close proximity to, for as long as it takes, that you’ve found can clear a room faster than a meth-head with a butcher knife?” After giving due consideration to such personal favorites as Cecil Taylor, Mofungo, Diamanda Galas, and Taylor Swift, I think I’d best go with Jerry Reed in his comic deranged-cracker mode, as I’m pretty sure I already hold the world record for back-to-back multiple replays of “Amos Moses” and “Tupelo Mississippi Flash,” if only the Guinness people would recognize that as a category. Sadly, and mystifyingly, the reactions of people sharing a car with me have left me convinced that this is a minority taste. But if this is for some extraction operation in the Balkans, and I don’t have to hear a note of it myself? Bertie Higgins’ “Key Largo.” No question.
I would use Pat Benatar’s “Stop Using Sex As A Weapon” as a weapon.
I’m not proud of this, but once after having a disagreement with my mother, I stormed into my room, put on side two of Guns N’ Roses’ Use Your Illusion I, fast-forwarded to the proper place on the tape (this was a low-tech, high-effort tantrum), and blasted the unsubtle kiss-off song “Back Off Bitch.” How did my mom respond to this outrageous use of music as a weapon? Not at all, because she didn’t notice. (Sorry, mom!)
I frequently punish my wife with music on long car trips because I am a sadistic person, and though I claim to enjoy being happily married, some small part of me evidently does not enjoy that. The songs I’ve found most effective are fairly wide-ranging, but if I had to narrow it down to a top three, I’d probably go with these: 1) Miley Cyrus’ “Party In The USA,” which is one of those songs that’s only three minutes long but feels several years long. 2) Anything from any number of recordings of Jesus Christ Superstar, which is a great musical that has probably more terrible cast recordings than any other great musical. (I particularly recommend an Australian version from the ’90s which is just ridiculous.) 3) Will Smith’s “Wild, Wild West,” which is honestly just the worst, and a song most people have mercifully forgotten because the movie it was based on did poorly. Allow me to remind you.
Partying in New Orleans is second nature to its residents, like eating, breathing, or consuming bourbon. During my years in the city, I did a fair bit of this myself. But one night, a downstairs neighbor was partying a bit too much a bit too late on a Tuesday night, and it was summer, and the air conditioning wasn’t working well, so I put on Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music as loud as my stereo would go with all speakers on the floor, face down. As with Steven’s tantrum, though, it was for naught; the next day, said neighbor exclaimed happily, “I had no idea you were a Lou Reed fan!”
I’m choosing to go a slightly different way with this, because I tend to think about songs as emotional weapons rather than as auditory assaults based on pure noise. These types of songs that you would play for an ex to let them know just how bad they made you feel in the hopes, that they’ll somehow feel just as bad. Right now, there’s no better example of that song than Gotye’s “Someone That I Used To Know,” which incredibly works as a double punishment. It’s both an ode to a female lover who cut off all contact, and a retort by said ex in which it’s revealed that the breakup was the girl’s fault. The insertion of a female voice into the song at first feels like a stunt, but it throws the entire song into new relief. As such, it hits the true target of so many of these types of weaponized songs: the listener. We’re often trying to punish someone else, but it’s sometimes more delicious to keep punishing ourselves instead. Like the lyrics say, you can get addicted to a certain kind of sadness.
One hungover morning during my freshman year in college, I was desperately trying to sleep the symptoms away, but there was one minor challenge: Noreaga was performing on-campus for a festival, and only a couple hundred yards from my window. Ordinarily, that would be a blessing. His debut album, N.O.R.E., had just been released, and remains a legitimate almost-classic. Unfortunately, at the time, “Superthug” was its biggest single. Or, as you might better remember it, the “What What” song, in which the Queens MC literally shouts the rhetorical threat “What What” for several bars over an early, underdeveloped Neptunes track. And on this dreary, hungover day, he performed it not once, not twice, but three times. I felt like Bill Murray being tormented each new sunrise in Groundhog Day by Sonny and Cher, but without ever getting out of bed. Hearing “Superthug” still makes me queasy, and if someone ever bristles me just so, and if I’m rich enough, I will hire Noreaga to redeem himself and re-stage that day’s set—with prejudice.
Reading Kenny’s response makes me wonder at the long-term psychological effects on those fortunate (?) enough to have attended the Watch The Throne tour. Twenty years from now, our society will feature a sizable segment who flinches at the mere mention of words like CRAY-on and CRAY-fish (or Kreayshawn, but that might be for different reasons). I’ve used hardcore music, from Brotha Lynch Hung to Refused, to spite parents, roommates, and neighbors when occasion called for it, but as I get a little older, a little smarter, and a lot meaner, I think less about blunt-force trauma and more about the kind of psychic brutality that could drive people to question their very existence. Like “Revolution 9” by The Beatles, played not loud, but at a just audible level through a small speaker spackled into the wall between my apartment and the one next door, on some sort of standalone device hotwired to the building’s grid so it never runs out of power. Or a quietly nagging Skrillex loop somehow rigged to trigger every time the platinum-Jeep-driving douchebag down the street uses a kitchen appliance. “Honey, is the blender broken?” “No, it’s fine.” “Then why does it sound like an engine that won’t turn over?” I mean, really, people. We’re adults now. It’s time we start thinking like the terrorists.
I can’t tell you why I know this firsthand, but if you played Devo’s version of “Working In The Coal Mine” on infinite repeat, you’ll have no problem driving someone out of whatever spider hole they’re in. It could be because of the early-’80s synthesizers tapping out the original version’s workaday rhythms, making them all seem like a new-fangled high-tech (for the time) form of drudgery, where you bemoan working in front of your computer rather than the fact that you’re getting black lung mining for coal. Or it could be the lo-fi recording quality, which makes the song sound almost like it’s in warbly mono. Even if you get past all that, the part where the worker intones slowly, “Lord! I am sooo tired! How long can this… go… on?” I’m listening to the song as I type this, and that line makes me just want to put my head down on my desk and take a nap. Imagine if it’s played full-blast over and over again, and you’ll get the idea.
Personally, I love Sparks—Ron and Russell Mael’s 40-year-plus shape-shifting sibling rock project—but most people I’ve tried them on haven’t just disliked their songs, they’ve violently hated them. This is especially true of their work from 2002’s Lil’ Beethoven onward, which largely revolves around keyboard loops and repeating the same lines over and over. If you don’t share their sense of humor, this can be deeply irritating, and though I love “There’s No Such Thing As Aliens” (from 2006’s Hello Young Lovers), I can see how it would drive someone to distraction. Over increasingly bombastic fugal synth-strings, all you get to hear over and over is “There’s no such thing as aliens,” “No no no no” and a few additional pieces of evidence: “Look out the window / Look out the door.” Case closed.