When CIA operatives spoke to ABC News in November 2005, as part of a ground-breaking report into the use of waterboarding and other torture techniques on “high-value detainees” held in secret prisons, they reported that, when prisoners were forced to listen to Eminem’s Slim Shady album, “The music was so foreign to them it made them frantic.” And in May 2003, when the story first broke that music was being used by US PsyOps teams in Iraq, Sgt. Mark Hadsell, whose favored songs were said to be “Bodies” by Drowning Pool and “Enter the Sandman” by Metallica, told Newsweek, “These people haven’t heard heavy metal. They can’t take it.” (Worthington)The listeners' brains can tell that there are structures to comprehend, but they have no cultural context to help out. Add to this looking "through a glass darkly", the music used is played at unbearable volumes, and usually includes very heavy bass sounds. Studies have shown how intense low frequencies will disrupt the physical processes of the body, causing nausea and breathing problems. This physical distress, accompanied by pain in the ears and the mental stress of being interrogated in the first place, is indeed very torturous.
What about using music to convey a message the composer or performer never intended? Benjamin Britten was a well-known pacifist who wrote his War Requiem to portray the horrors of war. He dedicated it to friends who died during or because of WW II. James Horner appropriated the Sanctus of this requiem to accompany the Trojans marching to war in the movie Troy, a movie that celebrates war rather than lamenting it. Janis Joplin wrote "Mercedes Benz" in 1970 as a commentary on the consumerism of society. She holds up the desire for goods as a ridiculous thing to pray for, with fancy cars and TVs as shallow means of happiness. And then in 1995 Mercedes-Benz used it to get consumers to buy their car. Various musicians have asked politicians to stop using their music for campaigns.
Then there is the flip side, musicians who write music as propaganda. The Nazis employed musicians to compose anthems for their cause. Toby Keith wrote "The Taliban" to support the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. This is a trickier matter than the others, since the musician could be completely sincere in supporting that cause. It takes more objectivity to determine if the cause itself is unjust, which is clear in the case of Nazis but cloudy with the "War on Terror."
The horror of using music in an unjust way is the way music directly touches our souls. We can't listen away from music, like we can look away from a visual work of art. Music entrains our physical bodies with visceral responses to its rhythms and harmonies, even as the emotional content pushes at our psyches.