In Woody Allen's 1971 political satire, "Bananas," a prisoner is forced listen, over and over, to the cast recording from the 1920s musical "No, No Nannette.”
The scene is good for a laugh. But there's nothing funny about reports that Guantanamo Bay detainees were blasted with loud and repeated playings of everything from the "Sesame Street" theme to the old “Meow Mix” commercial jingle to Queen’s "We are the Champions."
A coalition of musicians, including Pearl Jam, R.E.M. and the Roots, is supporting a Freedom of Information Act request demanding details of interrogations reportedly accompanied by an ear-splitting soundtrack. The National Security Archive submitted a list of some 30 performers – including the Bee Gees, Britney Spears and Tupac Shakur – and asked which of those artists' songs were used against prisoners, The Washington Post notes.
The move, part of a larger effort pushing for Guantanamo Bay's closure, marks the latest chapter in the often uneasy relationship between politics and popular music.
Folk music long has given voice to protest, well before Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger plucked a guitar or banjo and bucked the establishment. In the rock era, you can draw a squiggly line between George Harrison's "The Concert for Bangladesh" and Bono's mix of music and world causes. Bruce Springsteen, a meld of Guthrie and garage band, has used his platform, for better or worse, to tout John Kerry and Barack Obama for president.
He probably wasn’t pleased by reports that "Born in the USA," blared at Gitmo during the Bush years.
But the artists' personal feelings or political bents aren’t the primary issues. Using music as an instrument of torture is cruel and potentially counterproductive.
Music is as close as we come to a common language, and can help bridge cultural and political divides. A documentary set to air on PBS next month – "How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin" – argues that the youth movement spurred by the Fab Four seeped through the Iron Curtain and ultimately helping bring about Glasnost.
That all may sound overblown, but when Vladimir Putin, a child of the Soviet 1960s, winds up giving Paul McCartney a personal tour of the Kremlin in 2003, the theory doesn’t seem so far-fetched.
Speaking of PBS, the alleged use of the “Sesame Street” theme at Guantanamo Bay is particularly insidious given that the children’s show is seen in one form or another in 120 countries, making the Muppets cloth cultural ambassadors and promoters of understanding.
The White House reportedly put a quick end to the musical interludes on Guantanamo Bay in January after President Obama took office. Let’s see if the administration is as speedy in filling the FOIA request so we can get a complete accounting of possible abuses.
Music can be a powerful force that can connect people. It shouldn’t be used to break them – or, potentially, the tenets of the Geneva Conventions. Whether the tune is being called by The Boss or Big Bird, the idea of using music as a weapon is, well, bananas.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.