By: Christopher Cerf
Award-winning Sesame Street songwriter Christopher Cerf discusses what it was like to learn that his music was used to torture U.S. detainees in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay.
An interview with Christopher Cerf
How did you feel when you found out your music was being used in this way?
It was a mixture of things. I’m certainly against anything our country does that’s openly in violation of the Geneva Convention, because it could be done back to us. So, that was my first reaction.
I don’t like torture of any kind. Obviously, interrogation can sometimes be necessary, but the idea that my music would be used ... I was furious, on one level, and, I have to say, bemused on another. It just seemed insane. And, of course, it hurt my feelings a little bit, too, that my songs were bad enough that anyone thought they’d be useful in this way.
I did see some very dark humor in the idea that having to listen to Elmo could get someone to talk. It occurred to me that a song I wrote called “Put Down the Duckie” might actually be useful in getting an Iraqi to quit the Ba’ath Party [laugh].
But the important point is the way the prisoners were treated. Obviously, they didn’t ask my permission to use my music, and I don’t like that they did. But if they used other music, the effect would be the same.
You were the subject of the documentary Songs of War, which followed you as you explored how music could be used in this way. Who did you speak to?
We spoke to lawyers, activists … We even spoke to a kid who had been a prison guard at Guantanamo. And we talked to other people whose music had been used. Drowning Pool, a heavy-metal rock group, thought it was great that their music had been used in interrogation.
I also talked to Moazzem Begg, who had been detained. That was a chilling discussion. I don’t take everything he said at face value, but there seems little question that he was mistreated, and his story – to the degree that you accept it – is shocking.
One of the most interesting parts was talking to Mike Richards, who trained U.S. soldiers to withstand torture in case they were captured. He said a lot of the techniques we taught our troops to withstand are now being used in interrogation.
His view was that that kind of interrogation doesn’t really work because it’s so unpleasant that you’ll say anything to get it to stop. At which point, what is the information you get really worth? He says interrogation works better when you – ethically or not – win the person’s cooperation somehow, in more carroty ways than stick ways.
I still feel that music might be better than physical torture, if you had to choose. But Mike actually subjected me – they actually put me in a dark cell and made me listen to my own music for a long time at a high volume. And boy, I was glad when I got out of there.
What was that like?
At first, it was very disorienting and unpleasant. I knew I could stop it, so it wasn’t the same as actually being imprisoned, but Mike was a brilliant psychological warfare guy, and he put enough doubt in my mind. You begin to lose your sanity. I was quite shaken by it, honestly. Though I couldn’t wait to go tell all my friends about it, either [laugh].
Did it make a difference what music was played?
I actually liked it better when they played Drowning Poolthan when they played my music [laugh], because it had a beat. Elmo’s voice – now, I love Elmo, so don’t quote this out of context [laugh], but he can be kind of screechy if you have to listen to him for a couple hours singing the same thing over and over again with volume that’s almost at the level of pain.
It’s so disorienting that you can’t think … and, if you feel that way after half an hour, imagine how you’d feel after hours and hours of that in a confined space or in the dark, day after day. I can see how that could be incredibly destructive.
I just don’t like the idea that our country detained people, often for years, without being sure what they were guilty of – that people were treated this way on the off chance they’d have something to say.
Does it bother you that it’s your music being used by your government in this way?
My problem is with the use of techniques like this, not with whether they used my music. In a way, I’m actually glad they used my music, because it gives me a chance to talk about this. I don’t want to see us use illegal techniques in warfare. And nobody would’ve ever asked me what I thought if this hadn’t happened.
Christopher Cerfis an author, record and TV producer, composer-lyricist, humorist, and co-founder and president of the educational media-production company Sirius Thinking, Ltd. He has won three Emmys and two Grammys for his musical contributions to Sesame Street(for which he has written over 300 songs since the show’s debut in 1970).