Music: Jefferson Airplane: After Bathing at Baxters (1968)
I’ve wrapped up a draft of the vocalic projection essay. Here is the remaining part and the conclusion; there is much work to do. There’s really no “ta-da” to the ending, but I’m writing this in mind of the chapter that comes before it (a chapter on John Edward the psychic) and the chapter that comes after it (a chapter on Nine-eleven emergency phone calls). This is the last chapter of the book—the fourth one—before it gets pretty somber.
Repression in Reverse
Just five minutes from the protagonist’s first contact with his wife’s voice in White Noise, the dead voices get nasty. Presumably days later in the diagesis, a disconcerting harmony arrives during River’s second visit to Price’s home. Price claims that he has discovered a new communiqué from Anna, which he amplifies and runs through a sound-filtering program on a computer:
RIVERS: So, will I get to see her this time [on a television tuned to static]?
PRICE: Uh, no, no, this will just be sound [again, the primacy of speech over image is underscored]. You have to be a little patient, that’s all. Trust me John, this is just the beginning. Sit, here, now [pushes button]. If you want to hear it again just press that key. I’ll be back in a moment [leaves room]
VOICE OF ANNA: Johna-[unrecognizable]
UNCOGNIZEABLE VOICE: [female scream of agony]
CHORUS OF ANGRY VOICES: Bastard! Bastard! [unrecognizable but angry voices, some obviously backwards]
PRICE: [abruptly returns to room, taps computer keys]
RIVERS: Who was that?
PRICE: Eh, it’ ok, ok. Ah, we have some very bad people out there. But um, you just have to press that [hits key], and they’re all gone. . . . they can’t all be nice. They can’t all be Anna.
Quickly the good voice yields to a bad, threatening voice and Rivers is confused. His certainty about hearing Anna is unsettled, as speech gives way to the disturbing excess of something in the voice more than the voice, something we experience as mystical or religious or, as seems more frequently these days, untrustworthy and demonic. As Nass and Brave’s work on brain research suggests, it is this need to fix an identity to this something more in voice that White Noise’s filmmakers exploit to create a sense of the uncanny.
Of course, the differential basis meaning would suggest that there is no good voice without a bad one. There is controlled speech-the speech of control-and then there is voice that comes up from one’s lungs, throat, and mouth uncontrollably: hiccups; laughter; sneezes; cries of pain; or the alternately silly and disturbing bleating of orgasmic release. As the psychoanalytic theorist Mladen Dolar has argued, voice is thus fundamentally ambivalent and much less stable than we tend to assume:
for psychoanalysis the auto-affective voice of self-presence and self-mastery [is] constantly opposed by its reverse side, the intractable voice of the other, the voice one could not control. If we try to bring the two together, we could tentatively say that at the very core of narcissism lies an alien kernel which narcissistic satisfaction may well attempt to disguise, but which continually threatens to undermine it from the inside. (41)
The “good voice,” rooted in maternal sonority, can give way to the bad voice, that which undermines the taken-for-granted self-transparency of the subject.
For Steven Conner, one can locate the source of the unsettling or “bad” voice in the need and helpless displeasure signified in the cry of the infant:
The baby is hungry and cries; hunger fro young humans is inseparable from crying. No hunger for humans without crying. The cry is the response to the hunger and the means employed to defeat it. . . . The voice is the means-the sole means-that the baby has to escape from so much suffering, and reach and fetch to it the comfort and sustenance. But the voice is also the voice of the infant’s suffering and need. When the cry does not bring instant relief, it becomes the symbol of unsatisfied desire, even the agency of the frustration of this desire. (30-31)
Thus the “bad voice” is initially not so much from the scolding or “no!” from without, but from one’s own mouth in infancy. As the child ages and matures, she “comes to recognize [her] own voice as the good voice,” as a elementary (and necessary) form of narcissism, and she begins to project the bad voice onto outside sources (32). The “bad voice” is always coming from someone else, and, at least in part, this is why many people detest hearing recordings of their own voices: such recordings betray aspects of self, memories, and feelings that we would rather keep repressed (Conner 7).
In the recorded voices of popular culture, the repressed often seeks return through reversal. In everyday life the repressed returns involuntarily in slips of the tongue, but in more extraordinary practices like EVP experimentation, sometimes the repressed returns in unsettling messages from Hitler-in some sense the opposite of mother (or at the very least closer to Mommy Dearest). Although mother always comes through first, Raudive reports that of the many famous dead statespersons with whom he intercoursed, “the German dictator Adolf Hitler manifests most frequently . . . . ” Raudive continues:
one gains the impression that even in the transcendental dimension he now inhabits, he shows exactly the same traits that characterized him on earth: self-glorification (megalomania), persistence in pushing himself forward and a certain spiritual depravity-all sharply rejected by other voice-entitles. To illustrate the situation, two examples: [offset] “Hitler Pack te.” (Germ., Latv.: “Here Hitler is [of the] rabble.”) “Kosti, te Hitler baigs.” (Latv.: “Kosti, here is Hitler uncanny”). . . . Utterances from Hitler or about him could fill a separate book. (88)
Shortly after the publication of Raudive’s Breakthrough, a controversy broke-out in the UK on the pages of Psychic News, a low-circulation newsletter read by paranormalists, psychics, and Spiritualists (Bander 77-87). For some Spiritualists, Hitler’s visits to Raudive’s tape recorder were simply too much to take; a number of them denounced EVP wholesale. “The Raudive voices stem from discarnate entities living in a lower astral hell,” some argued, and thus should be shunned (Bander 83). In May of 1971, Gordon Turner wrote in the Psychic News that “there is a direct link between fascism, black magic and contact with impersonating earthbound entities who deliberately pervert others. . . . If,” he continues, “the Raudive voices are stemming from a paranormal source, then I would regard some of the references to Hitler as significant and dangerous” (Bander 83-84). After the controversy with the Spiritualists, EVP enthusiasts did not like to discuss “bad voices,” only the good ones. Many regretted Raudive ever mentioned them, and much like the Price character in White Noise, they sought to mute them or explain them away.
From the publication of Breakthrough to present day, however, the “good voices” of EVP have found their most constant counterpoint in backmasking, a term that refers to both the practice of encoding secret messages in music as well as figuring out ways of decoding them. Laura A. Brannon and Timothy C. Brock summarize the practice for a college textbook on persuasion:
Messages embedded in rock songs are supposed to be evident when the music is played backwards. When the recordings are played normally (forward), critics claim that the messages are heard subliminally (backmasking). The typical criticism is that youthful listeners of rock music are unknowingly “led down a path of loose morality and behavioral aberration. Belief in the effects of backmasking is so strong that Arkansas and California have passed bills demanding that records and tapes with backmasking have prominent warning labels. Indeed, the state of Texas and the Canadian parliament have funded investigations of backmasking (par. 16)
Most histories of backmasking locate its origin in the rumor panic that began with the Beatle’s 1966 Revolver album: Stoned out of his mind, John Lenon accidentally played some tracks the band had laid down for the album backwards. He liked the sound, and with the encouragement of producer George Martin, convinced the band to use some backwards elements on the album. The song “Rain” features the backward lyric, “sunshine/rain/when the rain comes, they run and hide their heads” (Stevens 149-156). The conspicuous, strange sound inspired fans to play subsequent records backwards on their turntables, and consequently, the hunt for secret messages on record albums commenced. (In fact, music fans and artists have become so comfortable with the unusual timbre of backwards sound that, today, “scratching” has become its own musical technique and is ubiquitous in certain strains of hip-hop and dance music.)
Unlike the miraculous voices emphasized by EVP enthusiasts, however, the voices found by backspinning DJs were understood not so much as coming from the dead as they were understood as deadly. Michigan radio personality Russ Gibb helped to ignite an urban legend when a listener phoned to request that he play the Beatles’ song “Revoluion 9” backwards. He did, the message “turn me on dead man” was heard, and many fans were consequently led to believe in the rumor that Paul McCartney had died and there was some sort of conspiratorial cover-up (Searcey A1). Gibb’s stunt also fed into a growing evangelical Christian, “anti-rock” movement, which was further exacerbated by Lennon’s claim that the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus” and that “Christianity will go” (Sullivan 313). In the span of a decade, concerned parents and fearful young people were being told by groups like the Parents Music Resource Center and the Majority for Musical Morality that they should ban albums like Styx’s Kilroy was Here (1983) because they contained “secret backwards messages” encouraging drug-use, suicide, and the sacrifice of household pets to Satan (Holden par. 1).
In the deep south, especially, scenes from my own personal past were common in church youth groups across the country. When I was twelve years old, an itinerant preacher showed up at Rockbridge Baptist Church in Centerville, Georgia, where I had taken by my grandmother ever since I can remember, to give a series of presentations on the harmful influence of rock music (if readers were wondering about the personal motives of this essay, here they come, straight outta a childhood trauma). He argued that, like Plato and numerous revered thinkers after him, Satan understood the powerful effects of music and designed the beat of rock specifically to pound sinful messages into the heads of unsuspecting, hormone riddled teens. I remember that, for me, the chilling highlight of these sermons came on the second of night of a series of presentations. On the alter at the front of the sanctuary the preacher had assembled a turntable and placed a microphone up against its built-in speaker. After a brief sermon about the Satanic beliefs of Jimmy Page, his obsession with the infamous occultist Aliester Crowley, and the sexual debauchery of Robert Plant, the preacher placed a copy of Led Zeppelin IV on the turntable and played the song “Stairway to Heaven,” creating a memorable scene that echoes Erik Davis’ reportage of the backmasking craze on television:
Some evangelical TV broadcasts from the early 80s even include top-down shots of the minister’s DJ decks so that viewers can admire the technique of squeezing sense from sound. However, while rap and all the sampled music that follows it treats the vinyl LP as an open form capable of multiple meanings and uses, Christian turntablists remained literalists, convinced that they were revealing a single “fundamental” message intentionally implanted in the grooves by a diabolical author. (127-128)
Although these “DJs for Jesus could not agree on the exact wording,” most of them focused on the devil (128). After the song had continued for over four minutes or so, just after Bonham’s drums kick in, Plant sings
If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow
Don’t be alarmed now
It’s just a spring clean for the May Queen
Yes there are two paths you can go by
but in the long run
There’s still time to change the road you’re on
The preacher applied pressure with his forefinger to the center of the record and the turntable sloweeeeed toooooooo aaaaaaaaaaaaaa stoooooppppppppppppppppppp. Then he began to reverse the music with his finger and played the record back toward the beginning drum-crash. There was a rhythmic swooping of pure gibberish. He played the verse again foward, and stopped at the proverbial choice of roads, but this time right before he played the record backwards, the preacher told us what we should hear: “Satan . . . my sweet Satan . . . six six six.” Sure enough, we heard it. All of us. At eight years of age I was terrified, crying, surrounded by a congregation full of preteens and their parents in the back pews. It was on the basis of these presentations that I was eventually “born again” at the age of thirteen, haunted and ashamed by my secret love of Black Sabbath and Duran Duran. Obviously the technique so typical of EVP “proof,” in which the auditor is told what she is going to hear before she hears, was also at work in backmasking. Vocalic projection requires a priming pedagogy for hearing angels and demons; once one is told what to hear, the spirit or demon appears, seemingly clear as a bell . . . and sometimes straight outta hell!
Despite the fact that in controlled research settings there is “no evidence that listeners [are] influenced, consciously or unconsciously, by the content of backwards messages” (Moore 1236), and despite a flood of firm denials from the accused, a full-blown Satanic rumor-panic in the 1980s and early 1990s helped to sustain a widespread belief that rock musicians were channeling demonic forces through secret backwards messages on record albums (see Gunn; Vokey and Read). One of the more famous media events involved the heavy metal band Judas Priest, who were taken to a Nevada court in 1990 for the suicide attempts of two young men by their parents (both of whom died, one instantly, the other later from complications). The parents alleged that the song “Better By You, Better Than Me” contained the subliminal encouragement “Do It,” which caused the young men to pull the trigger (Moore). Numerous experts for the defense explained how vocalic projection works-mostly from a cognitive perspective-and the case was eventually dismissed for lack of merit. The Judas Priest trial came at the time when the compact disk was becoming the dominant musical medium. Cassette tapes, like the eight track tape, helped to shrink the vinyl market-but it was the CD that finally put record albums to rest. Consequently the hyped dismissal of the trial effectively squashed the rumor panic surrounding backmasking, and it virtually disappeared from the popular imagination in the 1990s. The bad, reversed voices of backward living, just like Raudive’s maternal broadcasts from Beyond, were silenced.
Backmasking and other forms of vocalic projection have recently reappeared in popular culture in part because of a nostalgic resurgence of vinyl production among “alternative music” fans and artists, a nostalgia that is motivated by the archival impulse to both return to and escape from the sonorous womb/grave. With compact disks, many audiophiles have lamented the loss of “the warmth and richness once common to stereophonic sound” (Furchgott 1). Certainly the term one sees repeated over and over in connection to the vinyl LP, “warmth,” refers to an empirically verifiable sound, yet as a libidinal topos and a term in close figural proximity to fetishization (signaled by the substantially higher price and LP-only tracks), warmth is code for projection as well; although it is not the case with the tinny, flat sound of an MP3 file, with a decent amplifier, only the audiophillic music snob could tell the difference between the chill of Compact Disk and the heat of vinyl.
Cheaper computing technologies have also cultivated a new interest in different forms of vocalic projection. The wider availability of sound manipulation software, for example, has encouraged a “reverse speech” movement to flourish on the Internet. Originally inspired by the backmasking panic, David John Oates developed a strain of psychotherapy that encourages the analyst to examine the speech of clients in reverse in search of backwards messages from the unconscious (Oates). The film White Noise also stimulated renewed interest in EVP phenomena in the popular media, and its DVD release features a number of how-to segments that updates techniques for the digital age. Popular Internet web sites, such as Jeff Milner’s Backmasking Site, or BackmaskOnline.com-whose tagline is “more backmasking clips than you can shake a stick at”-has also succumbed to archive fever, transforming the once-terrifying voices of reverse speech into the comfort of amusement. To the classic, gloomy examples from the albums of the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and the Electric Light Orchestra are stored more cheerful and inspiring messages. Teenage pop princess Britney Spears sings, “with you I lose my mind, give me a sign,” but backwards, Jeff Milner reveals, she issues a delightful invitation: “sleep with me, I’m not too young.” In the final instance and example, the audio archive remains both a grave and a womb.
An Uncanny Refrain
The good voice and the bad voice, heavenly music and demonic growls, are simply alternate ways of reckoning with the ambivalence we have toward the human voice as such. Recording technologies amplify this ambivalence by plugging into what Derrida has described as an archival impulse. In this essay I have attempted to describe how our profound ambivalence about the voice is rooted in infantile experience. I have also suggested it is demonstrable in Raudive’s Breakthrough and the EVP movement it inspired, as well as the counterpoint practice of backmasking and the “anti-rock” movement obsessed with reserved speech. Although these examples of vocalic projection are among the most conspicuous, the longing for immortality and fear of death that inspire them are also easy to locate in other speech-based recordings, especially in the news media. After Nine-eleven, the release of the voice recordings of emergency personnel were top stories (Gunn, Mourning); for over five years The New York Times battled with the city government of New York to release their archive of 9-11 calls about the terrorist attacks to the public (they eventually won; see Dwyer B1-B5). Every time an airplane crashes tragically, the release of its fateful “black box” recordings becomes a media event. Unlike Jimmy Page in reverse or Raudive’s discovery of an errant shortwave signal, these traumatic voices are real and sensible. There is increasingly less of a need to hear voices of the dead as voice recordings of the dying continue to heap-up at the feet of contemporary Angel of History. Like voices of the dead, the speech of the dying are objects of archival affection and projection, but not simply for the catholic ear.