Viewpoint

Barney, the purple torturer?

Some months ago, Mother Jones magazine put together what it called a “torture playlist” of songs that American interrogators have used in their sessions with detainees during the last few years. “Torture's Top 10” was what one newspaper called it.

I have no idea whether the list is accurate. It includes mostly the kinds of songs you might expect – by Metallica, Drowning Pool, Deicide, Eminem. One song made an extremely obscene reference to the religion of others.

But I must admit I was surprised to see that one of the songs supposedly used to break the will of terrorist suspects and cause them to confess to crimes against humanity was the well-known “I Love You” from the “Barney” TV series. That's a song that I produced and arranged in the 1990s (to the tune of “This Old Man”). And this is certainly not a use I ever would have dreamed of for it.

After hearing that news earlier this year, I put the issue aside. But last week, the story came up again when the British newspaper the Guardian, in a follow-up article, quoted some musicians and songwriters saying they were upset about the morality of using their art for torture. “It's shocking that there isn't more of an outcry,” said British singer-songwriter David Gray, whose song “Babylon” was apparently played over and over to a detainee at Abu Ghraib at a volume so loud he “feared his head would burst.”

Songs take on life of their own

Well, I'm sorry, but I'm not terribly upset about the use of “I Love You.” I'm amused and slightly perplexed, but no composer can have much of a say about what happens to his songs after they leave his hands. Songs take on a life of their own once they hit the public consciousness, and we songwriters just get to go along for the ride.

When I heard that “I Love You” had been used at Abu Ghraib to break the will of terror suspects, I just laughed. It's absolutely ludicrous. A song that was designed to make little children feel safe and loved was somehow going to threaten the mental state of adults and drive them to the emotional breaking point?

Would it annoy them? Perhaps. (There was one comment from a reader on the Mother Jones Web site that said: “I would tell them where Jimmy Hoffa is buried if they played the Barney song more than once.”) I'm sure the song could have the same effect on some people as my neighbor's leaf blower has on me. After all, it was produced for the pleasure of toddlers, and adults would no more want that as a steady musical diet than they would want strained peas for food. But could it “break” the mental state of an adult? If so, that would say more about their mental state than about the music.

Naturally, I want my music put to its best use – entertaining and encouraging children. But in the end, it is the users and listeners who determine the best and worst use of it.

No apologies from me

Music is just music. It can't change anybody's mind against their will.

The idea that repeating a song will cause listeners to act counter to their own nature makes music into something like voodoo, which it is not.

Some people have told me they would go stark raving mad if they had to hear Celine Dion or “Freebird” one more time. For some, it's just a few minutes of Philip Glass. I've heard that “I Love You” can do that to people too, but I happen to like the song, as do millions of preschoolers all around the world. No apologies from me about that.

Ultimately, the real issue here does not have to do with the morality of the music being played but with the morality of the people who are playing it. And there's not a thing that I or any other songwriter can do about that.

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