Alex receiving his dose of Beethoven.
Brendan O’Neill describes how in today’s Britain one of the dystopian predictions of Anthony Burgess has already become reality: Classical music used as a tool of social control.
Britain might not make steel anymore, or cars, or pop music worth listening to, but, boy, are we world-beaters when it comes to tyranny. And now classical music, which was once taught to young people as a way of elevating their minds and tingling their souls, is being mined for its potential as a deterrent against bad behavior.
In January it was revealed that West Park School, in Derby in the midlands of England, was â€œsubjectingâ€ (its words) badly behaved children to Mozart and others. In â€œspecial detentions,â€ the children are forced to endure two hours of classical music both as a relaxant (the headmaster claims it calms them down) and as a deterrent against future bad behavior (apparently the number of disruptive pupils has fallen by 60 per cent since the detentions were introduced.)
One news report says some of the children who have endured this Mozart authoritarianism now find classical music unbearable. As one critical commentator said, they will probably â€œgo into adulthood associating great musicâ€”the most bewitchingly lovely sounds on Earthâ€”with a punitive slap on the chops.â€ This is what passes for education in Britain today: teaching kids to think â€œDanger!â€ whenever they hear Mozartâ€™s Requiem or some other piece of musical genius.
The classical music detentions at West Park School are only the latest experiment in using and abusing some of humanityâ€™s greatest cultural achievements to reprimand youth.
Across the UK, local councils and other public institutions now play recorded classical music through speakers at bus-stops, in parking lots, outside department stores, and elsewhere. No, not because they think the public will appreciate these sweet sounds (they think we are uncultured grunts), but because they hope it will make naughty youngsters flee.
Tyne and Wear in the north of England was one of the first parts of the UK to weaponize classical music. In the early 2000s, the local railway company decided to do something about the â€œproblemâ€ of â€œyouths hanging aroundâ€ its train stations. The young people were â€œnot getting up to criminal activities,â€ admitted Tyne and Wear Metro, but they were â€œswearing, smoking at stations and harassing passengers.â€ So the railway company unleashed â€œblasts of Mozart and Vivaldi.â€
Apparently it was a roaring success. The youth fled. â€œThey seem to loathe [the music],â€ said the proud railway guy. â€œItâ€™s pretty uncool to be seen hanging around somewhere when Mozart is playing.â€ He said the most successful deterrent music included the Pastoral Symphony by Beethoven, Symphony No. 2 by Rachmaninov, and Piano Concerto No. 2 by Shostakovich. (That last one I can kind of understand.)
In Yorkshire in the north of England, the local council has started playing classical music through vandal-proof speakers at â€œtroublesome bus-stopsâ€ between 7:30 PM and 11:30 PM. Shops in Worcester, Bristol, and North Wales have also taken to â€œfiring outâ€ bursts of classical music to ward of feckless youngsters.
In Holywood (in County Down in Northern Ireland, not to be confused with Hollywood in California), local businesspeople encouraged the council to pipe classical music as a way of getting rid of youngsters who were spitting in the street and doing graffiti. And apparently classical music defeats street art: The graffiti levels fell.
Anthony Burgessâ€™s nightmare vision of an elite using high culture as a â€œpunitive slap on the chopsâ€ for low youth has come true. In Burgessâ€™s 1962 dystopian novel A Clockwork Orange, famously filmed by Stanley Kubrick in 1971, the unruly youngster Alex is subjected to â€œthe Ludovico Techniqueâ€ by the crazed authorities. Forced to take drugs that induce nausea and to watch graphically violent movies for two weeks, while simultaneously listening to Beethoven, Alex is slowly rewired and re-moulded. But he rebels, especially against the use of classical music as punishment.
Pleading with his therapists to turn the music off, he tells them that â€œLudwig vanâ€ did nothing wrong, he â€œonly made music.â€ He tells the doctors itâ€™s a sin to turn him against Beethoven and take away his love of music. But they ignore him. At the end of it all, Alex is no longer able to listen to his favorite music without feeling distressed. A bit like that schoolboy in Derby who now sticks his fingers in his ears when he hears Mozart.
The weaponization of classical music speaks volumes about the British eliteâ€™s authoritarianism and cultural backwardness. Theyâ€™re so desperate to control youthâ€”but from a distance, without actually having to engage with themâ€”that they will film their every move, fire high-pitched noises in their ears, shine lights in their eyes, and bombard them with Mozart. And they have so little faith in young peopleâ€™s intellectual abilities, in their capacity and their willingness to engage with humanityâ€™s highest forms of art, that they imagine Beethoven and Mozart and others will be repugnant to young ears. Of course, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Hat tip to Karen L. Myers.