Dr Eleanor Peters, Senior Lecturer in Criminology, Department of Law & Criminology, Edge Hill University. Eleanor worked for many years as a youth justice researcher in the voluntary sector and is the author or co-author of several publications in this area. She is currently researching the connection between music and crime.
My interest in music as a subject for criminological study goes back a long way. I was born and brought up in the Black Country, and some of you will realise the significance of this in musical terms as the home, alongside its neighbour Birmingham, of heavy metal. References to metal in the media and in academic texts portrayed it as a misogynistic, devil worshiping cult followed by greasy working-class white young men; a picture I found unrecognizable from my involvement in a local metal scene. In the pivotal Subculture: The meaning of style, Dick Hebdige (1979) says heavy metal fans ‘can be distinguished by their long hair, denim and ‘idiot’ dancing (the name says it all).’ Chambers (1985; 123) describes the heavy metal audience as being ‘composed of a popular alliance of scruffy students and working-class followers.’
Later I read about the use of heavy metal music as a method of torture and wondered why my beloved music was used in such a way. This was the response of Christopher Cerf, composer of the Sesame Street theme, when he discovered that US intelligence services had tortured detainees at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib using his music. His journey is documented in the film Songs of War, where he meets soldiers and ex-prisoners who discuss their experiences of music as torture. This includes an interview with members of the band Drowning Pool who say they were aware of soldiers using their music in Iraq, and that they were regarded as the unofficial soundtrack of the military. The band members do not answer directly Cerf’s questions to them about their songs being used as an interrogation tool, but joke about how their music could be torture for people. Of course, this is ‘funny’ because everyone ‘knows’ metal is torture (‘they don’t even sing, they just shout’, ‘what a racket!’). Although various types of music have been used to torture, as part of enhanced interrogation techniques (more commonly known as ‘torture lite’), the use of heavy metal and rap by US forces was partly the result of the personal tastes of soldiers but also because of it being culturally alien to detainees. This use evidently breaches the UN declaration of human rights article 5, ‘no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment’ (Universal declaration human rights) and the Geneva Convention.
It does not have to be heavy metal or children’s TV theme tunes; any music or noise over a certain volume can cause harm to humans. Hearing can become damaged when the frequency of a sound exceeds 20,000 hertz. As Attali (1984; 27) argues ‘in biological reality, noise is a source of pain. Beyond a certain limit, it becomes an immaterial weapon of death.’ However, there are reasons why certain genres of music are more likely to be used in conflict situations and this is because ‘metal and rap are part of a larger system of cultural beliefs that project certain power relations or ideologies’ (Pieslak 2007; 124). Heavy metal is loud, fierce and to many, discordant with violent lyrics.
While the use of music as torture in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay is an obvious human rights violation, there are other forms of injustices that a criminological study of music can uncover. Even when specific laws are not being violated, the erosion of the protection of people’s rights in terms of freedom and autonomy, which is one of the most common social injustices, can be instigated by the state. The United Nations has had a Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights since 2009, which highlights the importance of human rights in artistic expression and freedom, and the knowledge that music can reflect more important messages about problematic social arrangements and practices, rather than just being entertainment.
Where music has perceived negative consequences, then censorship can be a perceived answer; in these cases, laws regulate and discipline popular culture. There are power issues at play in whose, when, and what music and sound is labelled as deviant and this can lead to an erosion of liberty. Heavy Metal has often been at the centre of debates about censorship and is banned or suppressed in a number of countries around the world, for example, Russia, China and Malaysia (LeVine 2010). It is not just those less democratic countries where metal (and other ‘deviant’ music) is outlawed; for example, the alleged links between listening to heavy metal and suicide or committing violent acts has a long history. Following suicides and suicide attempts of American fans, Ozzy Osborne was sued in a US court over his song Suicide Solution, despite it being about alcoholism, and Judas Priest were accused of suicide-inducing hidden messages on their album Defenders of the Faith (Wright 2000). The Columbine school shooters were alleged to be Marilyn Manson fans (Muzzatti 2004) and this led to a decline in airplay, and bans on performing in many locations for the artist. Indeed, Manson has recently said that Columbine ‘destroyed his career’ (Petridis 2017).
Political censorship can be understood predominantly in terms of censorship, occurring through laws, interpretations of those laws by judiciary and police, and government actions. Moral censorship of musicians is exercised through ‘social pressure by religious and other social movements, and economic pressure through the refusal of economic entities such as record companies, radio stations, music video channels or music programmes to air their music’ (LeVine 2017; 55). Moral censorship can be exercised though religious or campaign groups such as Mediawatch UK, which was formerly called the National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association (NVALA), whose first president was the campaigner Mary Whitehouse, or the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) in the US, formed by women with strong connections to Washington politics who called on governments to ban, or corporations to suppress, certain forms of expression.
If censorship is conceived as the control of information and ideas, this can be explored through the example of grime music. In common with its close musical relation, rap, grime has been deemed to be many things; violent and misogynistic (Springhall 1998) and responsible for deaths and riots (Bramwell 2015). The perceived problems associated with grime and similar musical forms (such as Afrobeats, bashment, all of which are commonly described under the umbrella term ‘urban’) have led a suppression of live events featuring these genres. It is difficult for artists to find venues to play in, partly because of the Metropolitan Police form 696. Originally introduced in 2005 as a risk assessment for live music to prevent violence, the original form 696 was amended in 2009, when two questions which asked for the ethnic make-up of attendees and the genre of music being performed were removed following accusations of racial profiling, and the unfair targeting of specific musical genres on a racial basis. Despite the form now being rescinded, black promoters still feel discriminated against when trying to book clubs for gigs (Bernard 2018).
Avowedly political musicians in despotic countries where artistic voices are being silenced by political, religious, cultural, moral activities endure similar problems in terms of economic suppression of their music. As LeVine (2017) discusses, some musicians are moving to Europe, sponsored by the anti-music censorship group Freemuse, to be able to work and play their music. One musician, Ramy Essam, ‘the bard of Tahrir’ is currently exiled in Sweden. Moroccan rapper L7a9edis (or El-Haqed, translated as ‘the enraged’) is currently applying for political asylum in Belgium. These artists faced arbitrary arrest, beatings and torture but also the inability to make a living because of bans on airplay and performances in their home countries and travel restrictions preventing them from touring abroad.
The continued social injustices that can occur through the use, abuse, and suppression of music have great importance to criminologists who are interested in how state and corporate power can be used against the most powerless in society. The erosion of freedom of expression for many musicians, the use of music as a means for the powerful to torture the powerless are areas that the discipline of criminology has much to contribute.
Attali, J. (1984) Noise: The Political Economy of Music. Manchester, University of Manchester Press
Bernard, J. (2018) Form 696 is gone – so why is clubland still hostile to black Londoners? Guardian, 31 Jan
Bramwell, R. (2015) UK Hip-Hop, Grime and the City: The Aesthetics and Ethics of London’s Rap Scenes. London, Routledge
Chambers, I. (1985) Urban rhythms: Pop music and popular culture. Macmillan, Basingstoke
Hebdige, D. (1979) Subculture: The meaning of style. Abingdon, Routledge
LeVine, M. (2010) Headbanging against repressive regimes: Censorship of heavy metal in the Middle East, North Africa, Southeast Asia and China. Freemuse, Report no. 9. Copenhagen, Freemuse.
LeVine, M. (2017) Enraged and defiant: Revolutionary artists against the state in Morocco and Egypt. In Kirkegaard, A et al (eds) Researching Music Censorship. Cambridge, Cambridge Scholars Press
Muzzatti, S. L. (2004) Criminalizing Marginality and resistance: Marilyn Manson, Columbine and cultural criminology. In Ferrell, J et al (Eds) Cultural Criminology Unleashed. London, Glasshouse Press.
Pieslak, J. R. (2007) Sound targets: Music and the war in Iraq. Journal of Musicological Research, Volume 26, Issue 2-3
Petridis, A. (2017) ‘Columbine destroyed my entire career’: Marilyn Manson on the perils of being the lord of darkness, Guardian 21 Sep
Songs of War  A&O Buero filmproduktion for Al Jazeera
Springhall, J. (1998) Youth, Pop Culture and Moral Panics: Penny-Gaffs to Gangsta Rap, 1830-1996. London, Palgrave Macmillan
Dr Eleanor Peters, Senior Lecturer in Criminology, Department of Law & Criminology, Edge Hill University.
Copyright free images: from author and pixabay (CC0 Creative Commons Free for commercial use, No attribution required)