The United States has a long and ear-splitting history of using audio torture on detainees and interrogation suspects. Although the use of loud music for interrogative purposes has been banned by the United Nations, the United States reportedly continued to use the technique for a number of years after 2001, claiming it didn’t qualify and only caused discomfort. That is until President Barack Obama banned the practice via executive order in 2009.
That being said, the American intelligence community has supposedly also found ways to use music that goes beyond simply pumping up the volume. These so-called CIA interrogation songs manage to cause suffering just based on their content alone.
Countless US black sites and secret prisons are rumored to be scattered across the globe, and in many of them, detainees reported experiencing aural torture without ever being charged with anything. Whether the music is played at an extreme volume, contains offensive material, or is simply annoying and played on a continuous loop, the method causes genuine psychological distress - just look at these popular torture songs for perspective.
While some may scoff at the idea of music being used for genuine torture, noting that parents often reference the phrase based on repeated plays of Barney’s theme song, the tactics reportedly used by the US government are a far cry from the annoyance caused by an earworm on loop.
Use of music as a means of getting information from an unwilling individual is effective for a number of reasons, but irony isn't usually one of them. However, it came into play in the case of Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, who found himself barricaded in an embassy in Panama City on December 25, 1989, after the Americans entered the country and sought his detainment for various offenses.
Rather than taking Noriega by force, the troops surrounded the embassy and blasted rock music - including, of course, Van Halen’s “Panama.” Failing to see the humor in the situation, Noriega gave himself up on January 3, 1990. Other songs part of the US's "Operation Just Cause" reportedly included "All I Want Is You" by U2 and "I Fought the Law" by The Clash.
The music of Britney Spears has a way of worming itself into the brain of anyone who listens to it, and the US apparently used this incessant catchiness as a way to get to its enemies between 2001 and 2004. Songs by the singer were reportedly blasted at Guantánamo Bay detainees as part of an “advanced interrogation” campaign.
Repeatedly playing Spears proved so effective that other countries borrowed the technique. In 2013, the British Navy used “Oops!... I Did It Again” and “...Baby One More Time” to scare away Somalian pirates on the east coast of Africa.
Eminem’s occasionally shrill and frequently taunting voice has annoyed plenty of people in North America, so one can only imagine the effect his music would have on those completely unfamiliar with Western culture. According to detainee Benyam Mohammad (who was later transferred to Guantánamo Bay), the CIA took this to the extreme in a secret detainment center in Kabul, Afghanistan known to inmates as the "dark prison" or "prison of darkness."
In 2004, Mohammad said Eminem's "The Real Slim Shady" was played loudly for 20 consecutive days, alongside songs by Dr. Dre, as he was "hung up" and endured other forms of physical torture. This incident was condemned by Human Rights Watch.
Music-based techniques aren't exclusively used on foreign targets. On February 28, 1993, David Koresh and his Branch Davidians holed themselves up in a Texas compound after the ATF tried to raid their ranch, warrants for Koresh and some of his top leaders in hand. What followed was a 51-day standoff between the ATF and the Branch Davidians. The ATF used an array of techniques in an attempt to get Koresh and his followers to surrender, including musical psychological operations.
One of the most prominent tunes played during this time was Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made For Walkin'."