Backmasking

Another stroll down memory lane courtesy Atlas Obscura (although the article appeared some time ago now):

The Fight to Save America From Satan’s Subliminal Rock Messages

On April 27, 1982, members of the California Assembly’s Consumer Protection and Toxics Committee gathered in Sacramento to hear Robert Plant endorse Satan. This was not a straightforward testimonial. For one thing, the Led Zeppelin frontman wasn’t actually in attendance. Also, his pro-devil paeans could only be heard when you played “Stairway to Heaven” backwards.

After circulating pamphlets with the “backward masked” declarations spelled out, that’s precisely what Assemblyman Phillip Wyman and panel witness William H. Yarroll II did. The relevant portion of the eight-minute classic was first played forward for committee members and then reversed. Here’s what Wyman claimed could be heard: “I sing because I live with Satan. The Lord turns me off. There’s no escaping it. Here’s to my sweet Satan.” Yarroll, who identified himself as a “neuroscientist,” noted that a teenager need only listen to “Stairway to Heaven” three times before these backward messages were “stored as truth.”

It wasn’t just Plant reverse-singing Satan’s praises, either. According to Yarroll, bands ranging from Styx to the Beatles also had secret backmasked messages hidden in their music—messages that, in the words of legislative proposal A.B. 3741, had the power to “manipulate our behavior without our knowledge or consent and turn us into disciples of the Antichrist.”

As the bill’s sponsor, Wyman wanted mandatory warning labels on all rock albums containing these morally dubious backward messages. “Suppose young people have heard ‘Stairway to Heaven’ two or three hundred times and there has been implanted in their subconscious mind pro satanic messages or incantations?” he told Terry Drinkwater the following day on a CBS Evening News segment. Indeed, this was the truly insidious part of backmasking. Even though you had to play records in reverse to decipher the occultic messages, they could still subliminally imprint themselves upon young teen minds when played in the standard direction.

During the same news segment, Yarroll described how the brain unscrambles a backward masked message: “We have it stored in the unconscious as a truth image,” he said, “and as the creative unconscious side of the brain does, it goes through scanning the unconscious brain to go about and bring those truth images to the surface and make them reality for us.”

After calling the issue “exciting and interesting,” committee chairman Sally Tanner (D-El Monte) delayed an official vote until the music industry and band members could weigh in on the matter. That day never came. But the national panic surrounding subliminal satanic messages in rock music was about to reach fever pitch.

In the early ’70s, backmasking—or the practice of recording vocals and instruments backwards and then reinserting them into the forward mix of a song—was something a music savvy (and possibly stoned) Beatles fan might bring up. A decade later, it had become a cause célèbre for conservative religious leaders, school teachers, parents, and even politicians. Whether it was the reversed voice of Freddie Mercury declaring “it’s fun to smoke marijuana” on “Another One Bites the Dust” or Styx imploring Satan to “move through our voices” on “Snowblind,” there seemed to be mounting evidence that rock music was literally becoming a mouthpiece for the devil.

Believers held record-smashing parties, appeared on popular TV talk shows, wrote books, formed watchdog groups, and, perhaps most importantly, called their government representatives to warn them.

By 1982, state and federal legislation was being introduced at a steady clip to combat rock and roll’s hidden satanic agenda. Two weeks after the California Assembly hearing in Sacramento, California congressman Robert Dornan introduced H.R. 6363 to the House. Also known as the “Phonograph Record Backward Masking Labeling Act,” the bill aimed to do the same thing as Wyman’s A.B. 3741, only on a national level. 

While it would ultimately be shuffled off to the Subcommittee on Commerce, Transportation and Tourism to die, other bills—including one in Arkansas a year later—were passed unanimously by both house and senate members (then-Governor Bill Clinton ultimately vetoed that one).

For its own part, the music industry responded with a bemused skepticism. Styx’s James Young called the whole idea of satanic backmasking a hoax perpetrated by religious zealots, and refused to attend any meeting or hearing where the topic was discussed. Then there was Bob Garcia of A&M Records, who declared, “it must be the devil putting these messages on the records because no one here knows how to do it.” A spokesman for Led Zeppelin’s record label, Swan Song Records, issued just one statement in response to the “Stairway to Heaven” satanic allegations: “Our turntables only rotate in one direction.”

Taken as a whole, these reactions only stoked the righteous (and possibly entrepreneurial) fires of religious leaders like pastor Gary Greenwald, who started holding backmasking seminars all over the country. Soon, books like Backward Masking UnmaskedDancing With Demonsand The Devil’s Disciples: The Truth About Rock, were exposing “the sinister nature of rock and roll music,” while watchdog organizations like Parents Against Subliminal Seduction (P.A.S.S.) tried to block rock concerts at various venues.

The problem, as you may have already guessed, was that the whole thing was a bunch of diabolical tihsllub.

Canada and the United States have different traditions regarding the separation of church and state. The divide between French and English Canada was, historically, religious as well as linguistic, with French Canadians clinging tenaciously to their Catholicism, and English Canadians fervently Protestant (for instance, at one point one needed to be a member of the Orange Order to get anywhere in Toronto politics). Canada West (the future province of Ontario) did disestablish the Anglican Church in the 1840s, but still recognized religion in a way that is forbidden in the United States. Thus, in the negotiations leading up to Confederation in 1867, Canada West agreed to fund Roman Catholic education, as a concession to Quebec. So to this day Ontario actually runs two parallel school systems, the public school system and the “separate” (RC) school system. I suppose the idea was that the public schools would in fact be “Protestant” schools in contrast to the separate schools, and I recall a certain amount of religious content from my days as a public school student in Port Hope, Ontario, including:

• the Lord’s Prayer (and occasionally Bible readings and hymns) as part of the day’s opening exercises

• Christmas and Easter pageants, with religious content (carols, prayers, nativity scenes, etc.)

• a representative of the Gideons coming in and handing out bibles to us, with the principal giving a short speech beforehand, not about how “you don’t need to believe this if you don’t want to,” but about how it was a special occasion, since we were now old enough to be entrusted with holy scripture

In middle school, we had a half-hour of religious instruction per week from one of the ministers of one of the churches in town. You could be excused from this if your parents felt strongly enough about it, and the ministers weren’t allowed to proselytize as such – instead, their remit was to teach about the “Judeo-Christian tradition.” But the Pentecostal minister that our class got put the fear of God in us in other ways. It was from him that I learned about the supercomputer in Brussels nicknamed The Beast, with everyone’s name in it, that will track all buying and selling, with the aid of invisible tattoos on the right hand or forehead – just like the prophesied Beast of Revelation 13! (This urban legend, I have discovered, actually has a discernible origin in a novel by author Joe Musser.) The year was 1983, so of course he also solemnly warned us about backmasking, that is, backwards messages in the music that we listened to, but which your brain had the ability to pick up and understand beneath conscious notice. These messages instructed you to kill yourself, take drugs, etc., and the scary thing is that the bands weren’t putting these messages on themselves, but “some force” was doing it! That force had to be Satan, because before his fall Satan was a master of music in heaven, and that “inversion” (hanging crosses upside-down, saying the Lord’s Prayer backwards) was a feature of current satanic ritual. Pastor’s message, though, did not have much of an effect on my musical listening habits, if only because a lot of what he played for us didn’t seem to say much at all. Was it really “worship Satan,” or just “zhoop zhip stanna”?

I was pleased to read this section of the article, about the origins of the notion of “subliminal persuasion.” I remember this one too:

A drive-in movie theater in Fort Lee, New Jersey just happened to provide a perfect junk science laboratory. Over the course of six weeks in 1957, unsuspecting filmgoers were the subjects of a grand marketing experiment. Using a special high-speed projector, researcher and social psychologist James Vicary inserted the words “drink Coke” and “eat popcorn” into movies that summer. Invisible to the human eye, each message lasted for 1/3,000th of a second and was repeated in five-second intervals during films on alternating nights.

By the end of the six weeks, Vicary claimed 45,699 people had been subjected to his subliminal inducements. He also claimed that popcorn and Coke sales went up 57.5 and 18.1 percent, respectively. At a press conference held later that same year, Vicary described the results of this now infamous study to help boost interest in his new “Subliminal Projection Company,” an attempt to commercialize what he called a major breakthrough in subliminal advertising. The public and press went bonkers, and not in a good way.

The first sentence of an influential op-ed responding to the press conference by journalist Norman Cousins read: “Welcome to 1984.” He, like many others, wondered what such a technology could mean not just for advertisers who wanted to sell us stuff, but also for governments seeking to steer public sentiment.

For its own part, the FCC almost immediately threatened to suspend the broadcast license of any company that dared use Vicary’s machine. In the years following the experiment, the CIA started looking into the “operational potential of subliminal perception” (they found it “exceedingly limited”), and authors like Wilson Bryan Key began cranking out books such as Subliminal Seduction, which claimed that sexual images (and the actual word “sex”) were being hidden in hundreds of ads.  

But when the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation tried to replicate Vicary’s claims by subliminally flashing the message “Call now” during a popular Sunday night program, there was no increase in phone calls. The station later told viewers they had inserted a message and asked them to guess what it might have been. Almost half of the roughly 500 viewers claimed to have been made hungry or thirsty during the show, which aired during dinner time.

Vicary’s study was clearly on the public’s mind, which was problematic because it was completely made up. From the beginning, Vicary refused to release key details about his study. Not only was there never any independent evidence to support his claims about the effectiveness of subliminal advertising, years later, Vicary admitted he had done only enough research to file a patent for his machine, and actually had collected barely any data. Even worse, his machine didn’t seem to work half the time once people did try to test it.

Of course, none of that mattered by the late ’70s and early ’80s. Subliminal messaging was being used in self-help tapes, in department store Muzak to ward off shoplifters, and, if you believed Key, to sell the American public lots and lots of booze and cigarettes.

It’s amazing what social science research gets out into the public consciousness and causes concern, although I suppose that “you’re being manipulated and you don’t even know it!” might be especially alarming to people. But I’m not surprised, after all these years, to read that the experiment wasn’t replicable – this is the fate of a lot of psychological research, unfortunately. And as far as “hidden persuasion” goes, why not focus on what actually is out there in plain sight? Advertisers use all sorts of non-subliminal techniques to get you to behave in certain ways. Learning about those, so as to realize what’s going on, is always useful – much more than trying to discern any secret hidden messages. Backmasking seems even less plausible – does the mind really have the ability to turn words around subconsciously, and then to obey what you’ve “heard”? Again, why not focus on the actual lyrics and image that rock bands project? Some 1980s heavy metal bands flirted openly with Satanic imagery, and I didn’t like that, but even at the time it seemed to be mostly an act, calculated to offend the squares. 

2 thoughts on “Backmasking

  1. Wow! I hadn’t heard that bit about the Pentecostal preacher’s fruit loops
    spiel before. We let these nut bars loose in our Public Schools??
    This is Judaic-Christian culture?? Where was the regular teacher – off in the staff room recalculating the earliest possible day for her/his
    retirement??

  2. Yeah, I don’t recall our homeroom teacher offering any commentary on pastor’s talks. I can’t remember if she stayed in the room or left (she may have been the one to supervise all the students who were excused from religious instruction). I highly doubt that the practice continues, though – the public schools now being conceived of as “secular” and not “Protestant.” (As early as 1992 opening exercises featured a moment of silence “in which you may say a prayer”.)

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