30 October 2009

The Gitmo Playlist

Remember when President George H.W. Bush authorized the ousting of Manuel Noriega and they blasted Van Halen's "Panama" (among other songs) to frustrate the dictatorial druglord into surrendering?  Ah, good times.  Well, you may also be aware that the C.I.A. likes to revisit the playbook from time to time and so they've apparently been using music as a weapon in their interrogations of prisoners of war held in Guantanamo Bay.  In response, nearly twenty recording artists/groups have signed a petition asking for the immediate end to this practice.  They want a list of all the songs played, and they want President Barack Obama to close the facility altogether, immediately.

Now, it's not surprising that so many recording artists would object to their music being used in this capacity; many of the petition's signers have built their careers and reputations as being socially-conscious liberals such as Rosanne Cash and Steve Earle.  Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine and Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails have learned that their bands's music has been included in the audible assault, and have cried foul.

Of course, the quickest way to find out whose music was played would be for the involved artists not to petition a release-of-information from the involved intelligence agencies, but rather to simply complain to the Recording Industry Association of America and insist on being paid royalties for those public performances of their music.  You might think I'm kidding, and maybe in part I am, but I think there's a kernel of merit to this idea.  The artists can then donate the recovered royalty fees to a charity of their choosing, or what have you.

The danger, I think, in this public pursuit of information is that there is already a morbid fascination with "The Gitmo Playlist."  Our society has increasingly become list-obsessed over the last decade or so, and when we know there's a list to be found, we insist on knowing its contents.  Rosanne Cash should know all about this, since her recently released album is, in fact, titled The List in reference to a list her famous father gave her of one hundred classic folk and country-western songs he felt essential for her to know.  Every interview she's given in promotion of the project has included a discussion of how eager other people are to know the rest of the songs named on the Man in Black's list.

Could we see an iTunes Essentials: Torture at Gitmo playlist emerge from all this?  Even if Apple did not compile the list themselves, there are bound to be iMixes published from any publicly identified songs.  We already know that Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." has been identified as having been part of the selection; how perverse would it be--and contrary to the intent of the involved recording artists--should fans flock to these songs now?

I don't mean to suggest that objecting to this use of their recordings should be dismissed; obviously, these are artists who feel as though their work has been hijacked and perverted in the context of torturing human beings and this bothers them.  To be honest, I find it rather easy to separate the issue of "Don't play this music to harangue prisoners" from the broader issue of the prisoners themselves.  And, personally, I like creative approaches to things so the idea of using music to make people uncomfortable doesn't, on paper, offend me in the least.

I would side with the recording artists in this matter, ultimately because I think there's something personal about crafting a work of art and I can easily see how troubling it would be for the originators of a song to find out it has been co-opted for something to which they object strongly.  It would help, I think, if there was any sense that anything other than humiliation has taken place in Guantanamo Bay in the last seven years.  We've yet to be informed of any meaningful confessions coaxed from anyone housed there; indeed, we're unclear just how many detainees were even enemy combatants in the first place to have anything to confess.  "Panama" earned some infamy for driving Noriega into custody, and so that use of music had a clear objective and result.  This, like the Guantanamo Bay detention program at large, seems to have been more of a meandering exercise in sadism.

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