The Church vs. "Wipe-Out"

This chapter used to be called "Music and Backwards Masking", which doesn't have the raw attraction to hold a reader's attention like "Victorian Parliamentary Procedure" does. If I didn't change the title, you likely wouldn't have read this far and you'd be leafing through some cheesy tabloid with bikini photographs of some movie star's illegitimate daughter or a description of how gallstones can be cured with chainsaw mix or something. But it's probably not good for me to be so smug; perhaps by the end of this chapter you may have preferred an analysis of Victorian parliamentary procedure. It's quite a cracking good story, you know.

But now the discussion begins. Are you resting comfortably? Do you feel good about your inner child? Is your misplaced neurosis a product of semi-consciously suppressed... Sorry. I just get carried away sometimes. In this chapter I talk about religion. I know that people always say that you shouldn't talk about politics or religion. But that's simply not true. You also should not talk about your operation at the dinner table, and you shouldn't talk about how smart your son is or how cute your cat is, ever. So you see, sometimes popular wisdom isn't right.

My topic isn't theology so much as it is religious fundamentalism, and for a change I'm not going to pick on the middle east but on our own, fine North American attempts to stamp out thought. I write carefully because I'm a Christian myself and am not trying to bash others with more literal beliefs. But you know, even if I'm one of the chocolates in the box, a few of those chocolates are mostly nuts, if you get my very subtle analogy.

When I was a teenager there were strong church-related campaigns in the southern USA to denounce 'back-masking', that is, encoding an offensive message in a rock song which is audible when played backwards. Hardly a topic which your pastor regularly speaks on. There is a definite paucity of commentary on it in scripture. Why is it that these movements always begin in the southern states? There must not be a lot to do in those parts between banjo concerts besides watch the cotton grow and foment conservative protests.

When I got older I started to think critically about this. Why is only rock music a threat for back-masking? Wouldn't you like to hear about an Andy Williams song exposed for backmasking? Forwards: 'Chestnuts roasting on an open fire..' Backwards: 'Blood children! Blood children! Yaaahh!' Why is there this bias? I suppose there isn't much chance of finding anything incriminating in orchestral music, unless you can make out messages from a clarinet played backwards (my Uncle Lester claimed to). Opera music is torture enough forwards. Anyone testing modern jazz would spend half their time figuring out what direction the music is playing in to begin with. And it's impractical to encode backwards messages, which necessitate convoluted lyrics, in country music; you need a larger lyrical vocabulary than 'my woman left me at the truck stop so I'm going to get drunk.'

So then I thought about this: how many people actually sit around playing their music backwards all day, anyway? It takes some skill to turn a cassette tape inside out, during which time you could sneeze and have a pile of tape ribbon on your carpet (well.. it could happen!) Or you could drag your turntable backwards, as you ruin the needle, assuming that you still even own a turntable and want to admit it in public. Compact discs? It can't be done on consumer players. The engineers probably anticipated some nitwit trying it. You can play music backwards on a computer if you like. But this was the 80s, when computers were giant and clunky and had flashing lights all over them, and were used for important things like launching nuclear weapons and not trivial concerns like music.

But no, the article says; the listener doesn't have to play the music backwards to be unwittingly seduced by the evil messages. According to a study conducted at the University of Cornfritter or something, your brain actually records the song in 24-bit digital stereo and then plays it backwards to scan for evil messages, all at an unconscious level; then your brain sends a message to the part of your brain which controls morality, instructing you to leave choir practice early to buy an M-16 and become an anarchist. This is all accomplished due to the highly technical skills of rock musicians who sign autographs in crayon.

Yet what I don't understand is, supposing this is true, then what is the difference between an encoded message in a recording and a message that appears naturally in conversation? Would not the words be the same whether spoken or sung? What if, at some time, some televangelist is talking to a crowd and hits upon the right combination of words? Mr. Bakker: "And it will soon come to be, if you each send me fifty dollars..." (This exact phrase, vocalized backwards: 'Blood children! Blood children! Yaaah!') Audience: "GrrrRRR! Destroy! Kill! Foam at the mouth!" Well, maybe not.

Perhaps what I needed was empirical proof. As a blind test, I went to my radio and tape recorder to test if back-masking was really true. This is what I heard:

Billie Jean is at my door
She's chasing a squirrel who
claims that I am a nun
But the chair is not my size...

This was followed by that lyrical classic, Louie Louie:

I say, Louie Louie
Whoa, baby wegagaroonoo
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Then five littamerr sanitnowtanit
Snrff floob Nixon and poached squid...

By this time I had had enough and went straight to my tape machine to play the phrase 'sanitnowtanit' backwards, certain in the knowledge that it held a dark, perverted meaning. Starting from my position of scientific objectivity, I heard this recorded sound in response to my labor: 'tinatwontinas.' No doubt this has some evil, profane meaning if translated from, perhaps, ancient Sumerian, which our highly underrated subconscious minds are perfectly capable of doing.

But, to be fair, the controversy is larger than backmasking. Much of the fundamentalist groups' complaints over the years have had to do with violent or sexual lyrics. In college, one of my professors showed us a videotape exposing the moral horrors of rock music. Included were clips of unknown alternative bands playing what is known as black metal. Using mood music and misquotes, the overall message was that the nation's youth is being seduced into perdition. It wasn't mentioned that most of these bands wouldn't sell out a hotel room, and that their albums are outsold by bird-chirp sound effect discs. Nor was it suggested that the few idiots who listen to black metal groups might have personal problems stemming from somewhere beside the music.

The heart of the argument lies in the belief that the moral content of a recording is derived from the artist's lifestyle. Songs like 'Rock me Amadeus'? Do Britney Spears' songs really have a profound moral dimension to them? What does Right Said Fred's lifestyle have to do with me? Should we stop attending movies or buying groceries because we disapprove of the lifestyle of the actor or the supermarket owner? "He left his wife! Well, I'm taking these radishes back to the store. Somebody's got to take a stand!"

But this exercise in logical aerobics pales in comparison to an additional argument I have heard: rock music is evil because the beat suggests sex. Thus music that has a strong rhythmic or percussive component is perverted. Bach would have loved this. I don't have much else to say on this; I can't criticize the basis of the argument because there isn't one. Besides, don't Christian rock artists use a strong beat? Have you seen Amy Grant chew up a live chicken on stage lately?

Well, in fairness, the furor over rock music and back-masking is well over two decades ago now and seems to have died down. The only minor controversy I hear about lately from the fundamentalists is over Harry Potter. Some church groups oppose young children reading or seeing the Potter books or films because they believe that the series glorifies the occult, what with all the witchcraft and magic presented. I'm not sure what the correct response to this is. Perhaps J.K. Rowling needs to place a large border on her books saying, Warning: this is a fictional book. It didn't really happen. Cars don't really fly.

I'm not sure what the answer is. I think most people with sense know that in life you need to be aware of good and bad influences on yourselves. "Look, honey! 'Cannibal Coven of the Underworld'—that looks like perfect mood music for the wine and cheese!" The problem is knowing where to stop:

"No, you children aren't listening to rock music in this house, it's the devil's flatulence. Let's listen to some jazz—whoops, Robert Johnson apparently sold his soul to play guitar… well, how about some classical music.. umm, Wagner was an anti-Semite who was endorsed by Hitler.. well, let's just read. No, you can't read Harry Potter, you'll want to become a witch. Let's read some classic literature with no magic or fantasy. Here's one—Peter Pan. Oops—that won't work. Okay, Hansel & Gretel... uh, more witches.. hey, I brought home a cartoon from the Bible bookstore, that should be safe. Let's put the tape in; it's called Veggietales. Wait a minute! Vegetables can't talk! Well, it's seven o'clock, I guess it's time for bed."

Thus endeth the discussion. Feel free to leave your turntable in the attic; it may be valuable someday. And now, for a comprehensive and detailed analysis of Victorian parliamentary procedure, I refer you to the political history section of your local library. Thank you.