In “A Clockwork Orange,” Alex, the violent anti-hero, is captured and subjected to a brutal re-conditioning process to stop his enjoyment of raping, beating, and killing. Unfortunately, the disturbing images he is shown as part of his treatment are accompanied by the works of his favorite composer, Beethoven. Alex begs his captors to stop the treatment saying “It’s a sin! He did no harm to anyone! Beethoven just wrote music!” At the end of his ordeal, Alex is released, and whenever he tries to commit an act of violence he gets so sick that he wants to die. As an unintended consequence of his treatment, Beethoven’s 9th Symphony has the same sickening effect on him, so Alex can no longer listen to the composer he loves.
The process that ruined Beethoven for Alex is a basic cognitive dissonance scale exercise.
Linking music that is high on Alex’s scale to images and experiences he finds repulsive or upsetting, along with pain and discomfort—these are all are low, in negative territory— inevitably brings Beethoven down to the point where he can no longer experience pleasure from his compositions.
Many great and popular works of music have been damaged this way, most recently this Christmas in Nashville, when a strange man named Anthony Quinn Warner blew up a city block and died in the blast.
Moments before it blew up,Warner’s parked RV broadcast Petula Clark’s iconic 1964 hit “Downtown“:
When you’re alone and life is making you lonely
You can always go
When you’ve got worries, all the noise and the hurry
Seems to help, I know,
Then the explosion came, ripping through a downtown Nashville block, injuring at least eight people and damaging more than 40 buildings.
Clark, who is still performing at 88, was understandably chagrined. “Of all the thousands of songs – why this one?” she wrote on Facebook. It’s not in the same league of unethical conduct with blowing up buildings, of course, but permanently wrecking previously beloved songs by linking them to ugly events and images is a rotten thing to do, whether one is an artist or a deranged maniac, like Warner.
I used to love Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite; I played it all the time. Then I saw Fritz Lang’s masterpiece “M,” in which Peter Lorre plays the Child Killer of Dusseldorf as only Peter Lorre could. When the urge to kill a child started building within him, the madman started whistling “The Hall of the Mountain King,” the climax of Grieg’s suite. He would whistle it faster and faster until another young victim had been slaughtered.
I could never listen to that composition again after seeing “M.”
Of course, there are many other examples. David Lynch made the sappy Bobby Vinton hit “Blue Velvet” creepy forever. Quentin Tarantino did the same to “Stuck in the Middle With You” in his “Reservoir Dogs.” Moving over to the maniac side, I will never forgive Charles Manson for making it unpleasant to listen to the White Album. (Well, I wasn’t going to forgive him anyway.)
Now I won’t be able to think of “Downtown” without imagining a giant “BOOM!” at the end.