The Unethical Abuse Of Great Music

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.

Cognitive Dissonance

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

Downtown!

When you’ve got worries, all the noise and the hurry

Seems to help, I know,

Downtown!

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.

12 thoughts on “The Unethical Abuse Of Great Music

  1. I still love that song. I came from a small town in Delaware and went to college at the Rochester Institute of Technology. I was in the Electrical Engineering office and was talking to the secretary and mentioned I had to go downtown (meaning Rochester). She laughed (along with a few others in the office) and said, “Downtown?, you mean into the city of Rochester.” When I hear that song, that’s the story that comes to mind.

  2. I refuse to let terrible people win.

    White supremacists are not allowed to appropriate the Betsy Ross flag and killers aren’t allowed to take the joy out of certain music.

    We have to reclaim these cultural elements as our collective property lest we permit others to rationalize banning them for the cause of sensitivity.

    I think the best thing to do is for the citizens of Nashville to gather and march through their city singing, “Downtown” at the top of their voices.

    • AM
      I tend to agree with you. We can associate horrible events to anything. It is wasteful and allows the nuts to win. The one common factor in all of these events is the perpetrator wants to be remembered. If we are going to be cancelling historical figures let us start with those like McVey, Manson, and Warner. If we decide to associate the song with some horrible event then that is on us.

      • We cannot banish from our minds the most horrible of the horrible lest we want the future to fall prey to the folly of repeating history.

  3. This is only tangentially related, but I think the Warner Bros. Looney Tunes use of classical music is a good thing. I think Chuck Jones and all those guys in his shop really loved opera and classical music, but also knew they were great for lampooning but in a very affectionate way. Elmer Fudd singing “Kill the wabbit, kill the wabbit” to Wagner is just hard to beat, as is the flute solo in Rossini’s “William Tell” overture being used to demonstrate someone’s state of mind after having had an anvil or large hammer dropped on their head.

    Happy New Year everyone.

    • When I was a process engineer, I was in charge of the hydrocracker, hydrogen plants, and one of the hydrotreaters. One of the most important aspects of that job was monitoring catalyst life through a calculation called the Weight Averaged Bed Temperature or WABT (pronounced like Elmer Fudd’s wabbit). One particularly trying day, after trying to tell people that they were taking actions that would destroy the catalyst life, I left a meeting and sung to myself “kill the WABT, kill the WABT, kill the WABT till it’s dead,” to the tune you mentioned. All of the other engineers looked at me like I’d lost it and a senior engineer pulled me aside and said that when everyone risked all of our lives by ignoring him, like they’d just done to me, he went to the gym and lifted weights until he felt better. While I think that Looney Tunes saved some of the knowledge of this music, so many people that I know have never seen or at least never paid any attention to Looney Tunes.

  4. Hadn’t heard the song in it’s entirety before now; but when I learned the song was used by the Nashville bomber the first thing that popped into my head was this Seinfeld episode:

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