At the age of thirteen, I also discovered rock and roll. (Busy year, I know.)
I met a girl who was as obsessed with The Lord of the Rings as I was (we watched the Bakshi film over and over. That’s right. The Bakshi film.) She was also really into The Beatles. We met because I liked the music she was playing at this end of the year picnic thing.
This was the tail end of the disco years, and mainstream popular music had been pretty horrible for a while. Because of this I had concluded that I just didn’t like modern music.
(I refer you to the top hits of 1978 for reference. I was particularly tortured by Hot Child in the City which seemed to be a favorite of my 7th grade cohort. That song still makes me want to punch it in the face.)
When I heard her Beatles tapes, I recognized a lot of the songs, but had not previously known they were all the same band. Hearing them all together like that, I kind of fell in love. It was like finally getting a vitamin that I’d been deficient in my whole life. So first I fell in love with The Beatles, and then I fell in love with 60s music in general, and then I started to hear some of the modern alternative trends, like punk and new wave, and fell in love with that.
Music became almost as important to me as books, which, until that time, were pretty much the only thing standing in between me and the bottomless black pit of despair.
(I find it interesting to note that my religion, in spite of its promises, was never the thing standing between me and the black pit.)
So, a couple of years later, I was thoroughly attached to, and fairly familiar with, modern secular rock music when Lake Sawyer started to go through a stage of trying to convince me that it was evil.
It seemed tied to the overall wave of Satanic paranoia that was beginning to swell at the time. In Sunday school we had what I think of as an "anti-rock unit" where there were several weeks in a row of discussions and handouts. I didn’t keep any of these — I sent them to a penpal and punk rock supplier who lived in Los Angeles. I kind of wish I’d taken two copies and kept one. Sometimes you don’t know the things you’ll want to revisit twenty years later.
In a church that already had a tendency to believe crazy things, the anti-rock propaganda was the craziest. The handouts had that bizarre, jumbled-up quality that I sometimes think of as "why, no, I haven’t taken my meds today, why do you ask?" The internal logic was all screwy, where the exact same handout would try to claim that images of light meant Satan (because Lucifer was the light-bringer!) and also meant Jesus (because Jesus was the light of the world!). And this was supposed to be an argument that would convince people.
(You know, convince them of something other than the fact that the handout-maker needed professional help. I refer you to a pitch-perfect parody of the general tone and content of these: It’s so perfect that I had to go to the website before I was one hundred percent sure it was a parody.)
Rock was evil for so many reasons! Rock was evil because of the hypnotic jungle beat that hypnotized teenagers into having sex. Rock was evil because the lyrics were about sex and drugs and despair and politics and non-Christian religious beliefs and other ungodly things. Rock was evil because rock musicians sometimes did stupid things like die of a drug overdose. But, most of all, rock was evil because rock musicians were all members of a Satanic cult, and not only were their lyrics and album covers full of crypto-Satanic references, but their records actually contained secret backwards messages that would magically turn you into a Satanist!
After several years of accumulating stupid, this was the final frontier of stupid. It was a whole new level of stupid. It was stupid like people who doubt the germ theory of disease, or people who think the world is flat and the moon landing was a fake.
And the cherry of stupid right up on top of the giant whipped cream mound of stupid which topped the ice cream of stupid covered with stupid sauce, was backmasking.
To believe in the power of backmasking you have to believe a whole cascade of absurdities.
First, you have to believe the evidence for it even exists. You have to believe there is, in fact, an anomaly that needs to be explained.
As a Beatles fan, I can tell you that I did my share of horrible damage to my record and my turntable by spinning Revolution Nine backward to see if it says "turn me on dead man." And it sounds really creepy. Because noises that go backward sound creepy, you see. They sound wrong. Also, if your turntable works like mine, you could get it to spin backward only by turning the motor off and spinning it with your finger, so the playing speed varies, making everything sound warped as well as backward. Music played backward sounds kind of evil. It’s true. Any music played backward would sound creepy and evil.
But does it sound like "turn me on dead man"? No. It sounds like the power of suggestion imposed on random noise.
Then, you have to believe that the typical human brain is capable of automatically perceiving what something would sound like backward, and responding to this on a subliminal level. So, think about that — it would mean that we go through our entire day being subliminally aware of what everything we hear sounds like backward. It seems to me that if human perception really worked like that, there would be some kind of, you know, evidence?
And then, assuming that we could subliminally perceive these secret messages by automatically playing things in our heads backwards, to be concerned about the effect of backmasking — to worry that it’s going to do something bad to your precious teenagers — you have to believe that subliminal messages have an incredibly profound effect, more powerful than the effect of things we perceive consciously. As in, "I read the Bible every day and go to church all the time, but I just listened to Stairway to Heaven and now I have the urge to worship Satan for some reason."
Then, you have to believe that rock musicians are spending their time carefully constructing lyrics that have the amazing property of sounding like more or less normal English words when sung forward, but happen to sound like something else when played backward. Which, I guess, if you also believe they are all possessed by Satan, maybe you can believe Satan himself told them what lyrics to write down or something, and Satan has magic powers, so he would know what lyrics to tell them to sing, right?
Then you also have to believe that all these musicians are members of some secret Satanists club, which is like the Masons, only way more secret, because the musicians themselves don’t seem to know they are members. And guess what! The only people who know about this Satanic cult are certain "in-the-know" Christians who will tell you the truth! Because there is no physical evidence for the existence of this cult! There is no historical evidence for the existence of this cult! But this one woman remembers it, anyway! So it happened! Because she is a Christian and you can believe everything Christians tell you!
(more reading, for the interested:
And yet even my own family kind of got caught up in this nonsense. For years afterward my mother would sometimes ask me (nervously) if things were "Satanic." Responses included: "No, it’s Catholic," (of a saint-related item) "No, it’s Disney," (of a Jack Skellington cookie jar, and honestly, I still can’t believe somebody in my own family failed to recognize a Disney character) and "Since I’m not a Satanist, I really couldn’t tell ya."
I want to say this is the thing that broke my faith in the church, because it makes for a nice dramatic narrative, but that’s not quite it. My faith had been crumbling for a while, it didn’t break clean. The anti-rock stuff was the final blow to that lingering childhood worry that other people were certain of their religious beliefs because they knew something I didn’t know.
The evidence, right there in front of me, was that other people were certain of their religious beliefs because they were gullible rubes who would believe any crazy thing as long as they heard it in church.
This was profound, for me. A major growing-up experience. I realized that nobody out there knew anything I couldn’t know. They might know things I didn’t know, because they had studied it. But I could study it too, and then I would know it. Other people did not have some special pipeline to the essential truth of the universe that I didn’t have.
So, in a way, I did receive that religious certainty I had been looking forward to as a gift of adulthood.
I was certain — for a while, anyway, with the bracing clarity of the angry teenager — that it was bunk.