LEWISTON — Picture a young woman driven to paroxysms of joy and sensuality by the music of the Beatles playing on stage. Her mouth is stretched wide in a shriek of delight. Her hands are pressed to her teary face, and any minute now, she’s going to collapse from this onslaught of emotion once known as “the vapors.”
Do you blame the music when she drops to the floor in a heap?
Sure you do. Ever since the first note was issued from a caveside bone flute, the impact of music on pathology has been debated. Just ask author James Kennaway, who was at the Olin Arts Center on Wednesday afternoon to break down the strange (and often hilarious) history of musical castigation.
“There was this idea,” the Durham University professor told his audience, “that music is all about the nerves. It was common to think that music literally vibrated the nerves.”
Hence, “Bad Vibrations,” the title of Kennaway’s talk and of his book, details generations of music and its consequences, dating back to the time of 19th-century composer Richard Wagner, whose sensual music was blamed for everything from nymphomania to infidelity and excessive menstruation in women.
“There was this creepy preoccupation,” Kennaway said, “of the effects of music on a woman’s nerves, and therefore on her reproductive health.”
But Kennaway doesn’t have to go back 200 years to find instances of moral panic based on the music of the day. His talk recounts the role of music in the more recent past: the persecution of musicians in Nazi Germany, CIA experiments in brainwashing in the 1950s and the culture wars of the ’60s.
More recently still, Kennaway said, there was the Satanic Panic of the 1970s, when some believed that heavy-metal musicians were hiding devil worship in music that could only be heard if played backwards.
The public paranoia about the potential for musical evil led to a number of lawsuits and legal challenges involving the likes of Ozzie Osbourne, frontman for Black Sabbath, who was accused of driving teens to suicide and madness.
“It spread like wildfire,” Kennaway said of allegations backmasking had the ability to corrupt young minds. “I think half of America probably still thinks this is true.”
Fast forward to present day, where some parents, teachers and others have expressed concerns about i-Dosing, a newer pastime in which young people attempt to get high by listening to specialized audio tracks through headphones.
YouTube is jampacked with videos of young people getting wild with their headphones on. Parents have been warned about this use of so-called digital drugs. New rules have been put into place — and just in the nick of time, right?
“First of all,” Kennaway said, “it doesn’t get you high. That’s nonsense. There’s no evidence it’s bad for you. But let’s have us a panic, anyway.”
Kennaway’s book further delves into the use of music in wartime torture — the term “musical waterboarding” alone caused a collective grimace among those who turned out for the talk.
Mostly, Kennaway presents music as a benign force and simply outlays the history of imaginary dangers attributed to the art.
According to his bio, “James Kennaway is a historian of medicine with a joint appointment in the Department of Philosophy and the School of Medicine and Health at Durham University in northeast England. He specializes in the relationship between music, aesthetics and the body, with broad research interests in the history of physical and mental illness.”