What Kind of Music Would You Consider Torture?

What Kind of Music Would You Consider Torture? December 17, 2014

We’ve known for quite some time that the CIA used music to torture detainees but this website claims to have the playlist they used. Some of these songs I actually like. Others are terrible. Skinny Puppy actually sent the CIA a bill for $666,000 in royalties, but they’re not on this list:

Deicide: Fuck Your God

Dope: Die MF Die, Take Your Best Shot

Eminem: White America, Kim

Barney & Friends: theme song

Drowning Pool: Bodies

Metallica: Enter Sandman

Meow Mix: commercial jingle

Janeane Garofalo/Ben Stiller: chapter from the Feel This Audiobook

Sesame Street: theme song

David Gray: Babylon

AC/DC: Shoot to Thrill, Hell’s Bells

Bee Gees: Stayin’ Alive

Tupac: All Eyez On Me

Christina Aguilera: Dirrty

Neil Diamond: America

Rage Against the Machine: unspecified songs

Don McLean: American Pie

Saliva: Click Click Boom

Matchbox Twenty: Cold

(hed)pe: Swan Dive

Prince: Raspberry Beret

How in the world is Celine Dion not on that list? Or the Eagles? Or REO Speedwagon? You strap me down and force me to listen to My Heart Will Go On and I’ll admit to the Kennedy assassination four years before I was born.

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  • John Pieret

    Barney & Friends??? Not Barney … it’s inhuman! Open my skull and eat my brain with a spoon … anything but BBBAAAAAAANRRRNNEEEYYY!!!!!!!!!!!

  • eric

    By the time late December rolls around, I am pretty much ready to put any song referencing Santa on the torture list. Some things are best in small doses.

  • troll

    I assume the music was used primarily for sleep deprivation, yes? In which case, the Eagles would be counterproductive.

  • Trebuchet

    I noticed a tweet yesterday by Ken White of Popehat suggesting “Dolly Parton’s cover of I will always love you“.

    Ken, unfortunately, got it wrong. Dolly’s version is the original — she wrote it. And made millions from Whitney Houston’s cover. Otherwise, not a bad idea.

  • I’ve been putting up with the American Pie torture for 40-some years.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Skinny Puppy actually sent the CIA a bill for $666,000 in royalties…

    Ha ha. I get it.

  • cjcolucci

    So that’s how Mariano Rivera did it for so long. His entrance music tortured the batters.

  • Loqi

    Post 9/11 country. I always assumed that after the attack, Nashville decided to take an already declining genre and actually weaponize it for precisely this kind of application.

  • neonsequitur

    Would somebody explain to me how there’s not one single country song on the so-called torture play-list?

    Memo to the CIA: there’s an obvious reason your torture program didn’t work….

  • Right now, I’d say the most torture-full music are christmas carols. Any of them.

  • Loqi


    To be fair, Dolly has said that even she considers it a Whitney Houston song now.

  • Any xmas music except “Grandma got run over by a reindeer.” Love that one.

  • Nick Gotts

    I agree with PZ@10. Apart from those, fifties crooners always make me feel there’s a lot to be said for a swift quietus.

  • Proud to be an American.

  • illdoittomorrow


    Actually, you want to avoid trying to use that shit on me- I might just get all Hulk-smashy and reduce my captors to either viscid smears on the walls, if they’re lucky, or permanent babbling pants-shitting terror if they’re not.

  • Hercules Grytpype-Thynne

    As the parent of a mentally disabled son who likes watching the same videos over and over and over, I will heartily concur with the nomination of the Barney Song.

    And for the record I’ll disagree with PZ. Although pretty much any song would seriously pall if played repeatedly, many Christmas carols, taking the term strictly, are perfectly lovely. Christmas pop songs are a different matter. There is no humane dosage of the Jackson 5 version of “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town”, for example.

  • D. C. Sessions

    I don’t see any Barry Manilow on the list.

  • blf

    The only thing worse that French Rap is having to listen to it.

  • PZ don’t be so generic! There are some great late mediæval English carols: as a random example, the macaronic ‘Nowel sing we both al and som’ is fun to sing, let alone listen to.

    Also carols are naughty!!!


  • Anything by Coldplay.

  • caseloweraz

    Barney and Friends theme song. Now that’s torture.

    Harking back to the tune from which it (arguably) derives, I made up this parody in self defense:

    I love you, yes indeed;

    You’re a tasty family.

    With a chomp chomp chomp I munch you skin and bones,

    Then this dinosaur goes home.

  • MartyM

    I used to play Enter Sandman in a cover band years ago. It would be absolute and complete torture to me now. It pretty much was then too.

  • thompjs

    Michael Jackson esp anything from Thriller

  • tbrandt

    Rage Against the Machine? Another irony meter bites the dust.

  • caseloweraz

    I guess it was the Disney company that stopped them from including It’s a Small, Small World.

    And whatever happened to the unbearable music segment that NPR used to run every six months or so?

  • Rage Against the Machine: unspecified songs

    Now that’s funny. They didn’t even bother picking one song. Any would do.

  • thompjs “Michael Jackson esp anything from Thriller”

    I (and, indeed, society at large and civilization in its entirety) would unfriend you, but there’s no button for that.

  • flyv65

    “We play both kinds of (torture) music: country AND western”!

  • Michael Heath

    Ed’s blog post title:

    What Kind of Music Would You Consider Torture?

    My first reaction was that my ‘most played’ playlist would be torture if I had to relentlessly listen to it against my will. Especially when it’s used for sleep deprivation purposes or sensory overload.

    I don’t see any humor in revealing torture tactics that were actually used against humans. Interesting yes; but funny? Not to me it isn’t.

  • lldayo

    I’ve got three kids. I can sing the theme songs to many children’s cartoons as well as know the lyrics to a lot of the most popular songs out from numerous boy bands and bubble gum princesses. I’m also a fan of everything from Sinatra to Beethoven to Pantera and work at a public building in the middle of a large city which would cover many rap and latino songs due to the diversity. My family and relatives also listened to country, Elvis and Neil Diamond when I was growing up. Music torture just wouldn’t work on me. I’ve built up a tolerance.

  • Ah, music elitism. “I listen only to the good stuff. The stuff I don’t like is shit. Why do people listen to shit?”

  • I dare say just about any music could be used for torture, although some might be unsuitable for, say, inducing sleep deprivation.

    I mean, I really like a few Rammstein songs, but after a couple of days without sleep, being forced into “stress positions”, waterboarding, and the like I’m sure they’d be a torture to listen to, too.

  • zmidponk

    I used to work in a branch of a music retailer. That list would actually be a step up from what I used to have to endure.

  • beezlebubby

    Any torture playlist lacking the complete works of Yoko Ono is substandard at best.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Rod Stewart: Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?

  • Sastra

    In one of Jon Ronson’s books he interviews someone who had been held for suspected terrorism in a secret CIA facility. The former inmate said that his cell was mostly silent — except that every now and then they would pipe in a coverband playing Fleetwood Mac songs. It wasn’t loud, it wasn’t intrusive, it wasn’t played over and over. It was fairly pleasant. Ronson and the former inmate were stumped. Maybe an attempt at subliminal messages? Who knows?

    As for me and my worst music candidate, my brother once got into a band (?) called “Happy Flowers.” He gave me a tape for Christmas.

    You can listen to it here. Or here. All the songs are similar.

    I dare you to listen to both — or either. All the way. I defy the rest of the contenders, and laugh in your faces. You don’t know bad music. I win all such contests (as long as it’s reluctantly granted that it’s music, and yes, it was played on at least one FM station in Chicago.)

  • hunter

    Nickelback, he says tongue-in-cheek. (I happen to like Nickelback.*)

    Any word on what volume this playlist was played at?

    * I also like Brahms, Linkin Park, Terry Riley, Beethoven, Hedningarna, and Philip Glass — although early Glass (The Photographer, Music in Twelve Parts) would make excellent torture music.

  • Sastra

    … my brother once got into a band (?) called “Happy Flowers.”

    Ok, that’s unclear: he became a fan, he wasn’t actually in the band. As far as I know I’m unrelated to either Mr. Anus or Horribly Charred Infant.

  • Doug Little

    Anything from mainstream country would have me singing like a canary. I like that Deicide is on the list, would have been moshing to that one as well as Bodies, another great mosh pit song.

  • Doug Little


    Yeah thanks for that. I really think the dude wants to watch cartoons. But is it music? Actually it’s starting to grow on me.

  • Any thing “disco” would do me in.

    Children singing slightly off key is something that I can’t ever find “adorable.” More “deplorable.” Yoko Ono is in that group, too.

  • The traditional answer is “William Shatner’s spoken word album”, but I haven’t listened to it.

  • thebookofdave

    I can almost imagine Dick Cheney grumbling: “if they didn’t get rickrolled, it isn’t torture.”

  • Armored Scrum Object

    I love Tim Minchin, but I’m pretty sure extended listening of “F Sharp” would cause some kind of damage to the sympathetic nervous system from all that skin-crawling.

  • wildbill

    What, Metal Machine Music isn’t on the list??? Amateurs!

  • leni

    I feel kinda bad saying this because I know Ed is a fan, but for me it would be Bob. Motherfucking. Segar.

    That old time Rock and Roll? If I were a less lazy person I would devise a method now for making tiny spears out of my own dried feces. Just in case.

  • donkensler

    “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas”

    “Little Drummer Boy”

    Shatner’s rendition of “Mr Tambourine Man”

    Jack Webb doing (hard to call it singing) “Try a Little Tenderness”

    “Macarthur Park”

    I’ll second the vote for “American Pie”. That one was torture when it was on heavy Top 40 radio rotation 43 years ago. At the time I only had an AM radio in my car, and had a choice of 3 stations (WFIL and WIBG in Philly and WABC from NYC), and had lightning reflexes for hitting the preset buttons as soon as I heard the opening notes. One time they trapped me, because it was playing on all three stations at the same time.

  • lorn

    The Barney theme song.

    Any time I start to think about, perhaps, just maybe, I might, one day, want to have kids I walk down to my neighbor’s house and sit in their living room. The woman has four kids and runs an informal day care center out of her house. I just sit and absorb the atmosphere. The screaming and whining, the smells, the chaos, the general stickiness, and the ever present sound of Barney singing his song. After a few minutes, after the thought of having kids has been ripped out root and limb, and burned, I leave. That insipid song stays with me for a day or two cauterizing any remaining brain cells favoring children. Any longer and it would be permanent brain damage.

  • Michael Heath

    leni writes:

    I feel kinda bad saying this because I know Ed is a fan, but for me it would be Bob. Motherfucking. Segar.

    That old time Rock and Roll? If I were a less lazy person I would devise a method now for making tiny spears out of my own dried feces. Just in case.

    His last name is spelled Seger, not Segar.

    As a devoted fan going back 40 years now, one can love both Bob Seger and his music yet still despise ‘Old Time Rock & Roll’.

  • leni

    His last name is spelled Seger, not Segar.

    I wondered, but I didn’t want to have to google to check.

    As a devoted fan going back 40 years now, one can love both Bob Seger and his music yet still despise ‘Old Time Rock & Roll’.

    I like a lot of music that would make it onto other people torture lists too, including a fair amount of disco. It happens to the best of us. But that song is unforgivable!

  • Michael Heath

    “I Love Rock & Roll” brings to mind the Eric Clapton cover of “Cocaine”. I love Eric Clapton, but I would gladly pay to skip that song.

    Both songs remain fixtures at wedding receptions I’ve attended recently; the latter oddly enough even at two recent fundie wedding receptions I’ve been to, which also played YMCA. I’m fairly certain the old bigots were clueless regarding background of that song, though it’s hard to be oblivious to the meaning of “Cocaine. So maybe both gets the Tea Baggers all giddy feeling all liberal.

  • Sastra

    lorn #48 wrote:

    After a few minutes, after the thought of having kids has been ripped out root and limb, and burned, I leave.

    You don’t think my link to “I Said I Wanna Watch Cartoons” at #36 wouldn’t be quicker?

    Oh, c’mon you guys. Christmas Carols? The Barney Theme Song? “American Pie?” “Old Time Rock & Roll?” William Shatner?

    Yeah, right. Until you take my dare that shrieking noise is me leavin’ the rest of you in the dust with Happy Flowers. Both links. All the way through. The internet is mine.

  • leni

    Lol Sastra, I did. (I’m playing a video game right now so I just killed things to it, it was fun! Reminded me of Ween!)

    I’ve also seen FM Einheit live. Willingly. I think I could deal with Happy Flowers. But Old Time Rock n Roll would reduce me to shell of a person willing to stab her own ears out with dried poop spears in a matter of days.

  • Sastra


    I’m impressed. But it did fuel your blood lust. And if we’re going to talk about “a matter of days” …

  • leni

    Well, I was being generous to the song when I said “matter of days”. I’m not sure I could last that long.

    Honestly, they would have me in seconds with little more than an an implied threat and a brandished tweezer.

    I am only resilient when it comes to terrible music.

  • leni

    PS also the poop would need time to dry.

  • magistramarla

    The Barney theme song is definitely torture. We raised five kids and had a couple of grandkids live with us, and we managed to never, ever have that show playing in our home. As parents, our children have continued that embargo.

    Personally, I would consider most rap songs and most country & western songs to be torture. Little miss whiny Taylor Swift would drive me totally crazy.

  • bones

    I had my thoughts. Bee Gees, sure, Starland Vocal Band, anything country…. but when I read Bob Seger above, it went straight to the top of my list. Can never get to the radio fast enough to change stations when the first notes of a Bob Seger song invade my car. I’d pick the rat cage on my head over hearing ‘Old Time Rock & Roll’.

  • fwtbc
  • jasmyn

    ICP. How did they not make the torture list?

  • magistramarla “Little miss whiny Taylor Swift would drive me totally crazy.”

    It would. The new album is ridiculously catchy. It’s no Taylor Swift Goat, but still.

  • subbie

    Just in case this comes back at me at a later time, the one song that would be most effective torture to me is John Cage’s 4’33”.

  • sumdum

    The songs don’t matter, if they’re played loud enough and used to sleep deprive you it doesn’t matter. I think joking around about what songs we consider torture sort of trivializes the whole thing.

  • doublereed

    I believe the idea is that you play a mashup of two or more songs that don’t align properly tempo-wise and so it disorients you. So they pick songs that are without rubato and simple tonally.

  • doublereed

    I believe that many of the composers and songwriters are absolutely shocked and enraged that their music is being used in such a sick way.

  • Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden

    @Loqi, #11:


    To be fair, Dolly has said that even she considers it a Whitney Houston song now.

    The way that Hurt is a johnny cash song.

    Except I like that song.

  • Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden

    @Magistramarla, #57:

    Little miss whiny Taylor Swift would drive me totally crazy.

    Which is why the navy torturers advocated for her inclusion. Convinced they could get better intel using Taylor Swift, they went so far as to form Taylor Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

    Of course, they didn’t uncover any truth, but they did cause quite a few people to listen to quite a lot of offensive crap for way too long.

  • Donnie

    What about KISS! Especially their late pop crap…..

    What about Zamphir and his magic flute?

    What about showing the video of Leonard Nimoy signing “The Hobbit” song….that is pure, unmitigated, 70s acid trip stuff.

  • Rick Pikul

    My choice for musical torture comes from listening to CBC radio late at night, when they play shows from various international services. Some years back, Radio Moscow had a bit where they would play a folk song and it’s those segments that I would use. It’s not that I have an issue with Russian folk music but the segment seems to have been done by having a crew go to a random small town, stick a mike in the face of the first person they came across, and have them (badly) sing a (half remembered) folk song from their region.

  • lorn

    A lot of it comes down to repetition. Even bad songs are marginally okay if I only have to hear it once. Kid’s songs, like the Barney theme, tend to get played over, and over, and over, until your ears bleed and your brains threatens to flee out your ass. Kids live predictability and the same thing over, and over, and over. Even the best music ever written can’t survive endless repetition.

    The Barney song is really bad simply because every show started and ended with the song. A DVD with a dozen shows has something like two dozen copies of the Barney song. No wonder adults can’t stand that barney and friends DVD.

    Out of high school Molly Hatchet was big. It was okay, nothing special, but because it was overplayed, I, to this day, can’t stand them. For a while Free Bird was the big thing. A week later I couldn’t stand it. After a decade of not hearing it I can countenance it as long as I don’t have to hear it more than once a year.

  • During my SERE training, the music was played backwards. So I have no idea what the songs actually were. Just a loud series of annoying sounds fed into my isolation chamber.

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