Julia Panek

Why Music Will Always Be Just A Little Bit Evil

A pair of new studies reinforce decades of fear of music

Earlier this week, a study conducted by a group of computer-security researchers at the University of Michigan and the University of South Carolina revealed that “malicious music files” can corrupt tech-enhanced consumer devices. The headline: “It’s Possible to Hack a Phone With Sound Waves, Researchers Show.”

“It’s like the opera singer who hits the note to break a wine glass, only in our case, we can spell out words,” said one author of the paper, explaining that they were able to transmit commands through coded messages in the music. And recent history has shown that as the internet of things continues to grow in size, with companies developing self-driving cars and people buying smart refrigerators, the tech that people use daily is becoming more and more vulnerable to hacking.

In finding that a so-called “musical virus” was particularly detrimental to smart tech, the researchers — intentionally or not — echoed a long-held cultural obsession with subliminal messages in music. Just last month, another study suggested that upbeat music can drive people's negative behavior. The researchers split participants into three groups: those exposed to a ’90s dance hit, those exposed to James Brown’s “I Got You (I Feel Good),” and those who received no exposure to music. The majority of participants who had heard the most upbeat, happy music were more inclined to perform uncomfortable tasks, such as telling a student she couldn’t participate in the study even though she would lose credits for the semester if she didn’t. “Music can make people more compliant, more aggressive and even racist,” concluded Israeli psychologist Naomi Ziv.

The idea that music can influence people to do harm, or perhaps even brainwash them, has persisted for decades. In the first half of the 20th century, jukeboxes were controversial for a number of reasons. Racist segregationists didn’t like that they made it easier for young white people to listen to historically black music, like rock and roll; temperance crusaders worried about their association with sinful speakeasies and roadhouses that couldn’t afford bands.

Years later, in the 1980s, the sexy pop music of Prince and Madonna inspired the formation of the Parents Music Resource Center, whose members — including Tipper Gore, then-wife of Tennessee senator Al Gore — attempted to combat the nasty via warning labels and parental advisories (which continue to exist in some form, even though the PMRC’s ideas are a little old-fashioned by today’s standards). The same decade brought the “Satanic Panic,” under which journalists like Geraldo Rivera pushed the theory that heavy metal bands like Iron Maiden and Black Sabbath were actually engaged in or encouraging violent satanism. That furor intersected with some serious real-life cases, including that of the West Memphis Three, three young men falsely convicted of murder after a trial that made reference to their love of Metallica's music.

As long as music goes in waves, and particularly if those waves are adopted early by young people, artistic innovators and provocateurs will always run the risk of seeming a little bit evil in the eyes of some worrying parents. Where once teenagers gathered in public spaces to listen to music unsuitable for their homes, now they listen to it privately on their headphones and computers sans warning labels. Or they can hit festivals, a new breeding ground for debauchery and subsequent exaggerated fears. Last year, Buenos Aires reportedly banned concerts involving synthesizers, and the German electronic pioneers Kraftwerk made headlines for being, initially, unable to play a show there. The move was designed to combat the perceived danger of EDM festivals, where the combination of large crowds, sweltering temperatures, and drug use can lead to death in extreme cases. Terrified of future incidents, but clearly confused as to what makes a concert dangerous (hint: it’s not the hardware onstage), the government of Buenos Aires decided to ban not just events where electronic music is played and danced to, but the instruments themselves, as if a Calvin Harris song could somehow hurt a person.

What's most interesting about the two recent studies on the potentially corrupt nature of music is how they upend traditional notions of what makes music “evil.” While dark and/or political themes have come under frequent attack in the past (think of N.W.A’s stories of police violence in the late ’80s, or Marilyn Manson’s goth-Bowie schtick a decade later), the Israeli study concludes that, actually, it’s happy pop music that might make people more comfortable doing wrong. (In other words, Katy Perry is right.) The other particularly techy study — reminiscent of the way the archvillains in 2001's Josie and the Pussycats embedded subliminal advertisements in pop songs — suggests that music can literally be weaponized in ways that go beyond endless analysis of its supposedly immoral subject matter.

Music has never been more accessible than it is in 2017. It’s mostly free, you can share it instantly, and new artists can become nationally known faster than in past decades. Because of this, there are more opportunities than ever for those who are inclined to find something new to fear in music. The new wave? Music can (maybe) hack your devices and spy on you. And, of course, that tape you play for your kids in the car just might turn them into the Village of the Damned.

Don’t say we didn’t warn you!