On Musical Meaning as Messages; or, why Ace of Base probably aren’t Nazis

[TW: racism, anti-Semitism, suicide]

How powerfully can music affect us? This week I was linked to an article, now a couple of years old, that argues the Swedish dance pop group Ace of Base were responsible for tricking millions of Americans into supporting Nazist beliefs. Okay, Cracked isn’t known for especially reliable and coherent writing, but it’s a devilishly sensationalist and gripping claim, so I read the article. I’m pretty sure it’s written in good faith, although it may just be failing Poe’s law – it’d make an effective Onion or Daily Mash post. Satire or not, I’m sure a few readers of the article have read it as genuine and consequently been convinced about the ability of Ace of Base to inject their listeners with Nazist ideology. What’s most interesting for me is the model of meaning that the writer adopts – one I’ve critiqued in my doctoral thesis on how music can empower us. I reject pretty quickly the idea that music can affect us subliminally, or with coded messages, or that any authorial intent manifests in the effects of music on listeners (but perhaps that’s an article for another day). However, when a thinkpiece accuses a pop group of helping, in no small part, to form the votebase that allowed Donald Trump to become President of the US, it’s clearly worth a closer look.

The gist of the article is this: Donald Trump (in October 2015) is basing his presidential campaign on the Nazis’ rise to power. The American public has fallen for Nazi ideology before, in the ‘90s, by listening to Ace of Base’s hit singles. Then comes the nuggets of evidence, which I’ve crunched down to ten and enumerated:

  1. Ace of Base keys player and singer Ulf Ekberg was in a skinhead punk group as a teenager, as demonstrated by a quotation of some violently racist lyrics; this gives the band “ties to the neo-Nazi movement”, as well as beliefs that they develop upon in Ace of Base’s material
  2. The band name itself is a spoonerism of the Nazis’ most powerful U-boat, nicknamed the ‘base of aces’ (the article spends 700 words on this)
  3. The album name Happy Nation – cor, that’s a bit nationalist
  4. In the eponymous track on that album, there’s a “chant kind of thing” mixing Latin and Hebrew, which can be translated to some God-fuelled genocidal text
  5. The lyrics ‘travelling in time’ are pertinent because Hitler often comes up in debates about time travel…?
  6. Origin of Species is projected onto a performer’s face
  7. ‘All That She Wants’ has some misogynistic lyrics about a woman purportedly leeching off society by wanting a baby, which coincides with a person holding a Star of David necklace in the music video
  8. ‘Living In Danger’ has some lyrics that appears distrustful of strangers
  9. The album Happy Nation was renamed The Sign in the States, surely an admission of neo-Nazi guilt; and if we go far enough up the chain of record label executives who could have been in charge of this decision, we find Rupert Murdoch, who is a villainous media mogul
  10. Grunge, supposedly the radio music of the ‘90s, made people too depressed about their societal realities, whereas Ace of Base offered a danceable alternative based upon racial hatred.

So, let’s sum up: Ace of Base are accused of having a neo-Nazi past, a referential band name, some unsettling lyrical readings, and of featuring Origin of Species and a Star of David in their music videos. The piece stops before making any argument of how exactly 9 million Americans become Nazis as a consequence of this evidence, but the implication is maintained that through symbolism, or references, or given messages, listeners’ attitudes can be altered. It is an argument that can be usefully compared to the legal attacks on heavy metal – particularly the Judas Priest backmasking case – and the Simpsons’ exceptional satire, ‘Yvan Eht Nioj’, but I’ll dig into those two later.

Let’s look at Ulf Ekberg’s neo-Nazi past first. This seems a fairly legitimate claim, only because he acknowledges it in 1997 Ace of Base documentary Our Story. I’m rather skeptical of the things artists say at the best of times, but I don’t see how playing in a neo-Nazi band as a teenager would be a useful fiction for a compelling or marketable artist persona narrative. So it seems reasonable to take as truth this element of the keyboardist’s messy past, and I can see why the article jumps off from this rather blatant example of neo-Nazi writing to push the argument that such Nazi ideology persists in all his work. That said, I also feel rather sorry for Ulf: I’m not for a moment excusing Nazist racism, but it does appear the main charge he stands accused of is playing in a band with someone who wrote some repulsive lyrics when he was 15 years old. In the documentary linked above, Ulf’s band members speak of him ‘falling into bad gangs’, and I do think it’s worth a degree of open-mindedness or forgiveness for not immediately divorcing himself from the band and the discriminatory lyrics he played some part in performing. It feels rather unfair to reinterpret his error as the basis for further malicious and knowing dissemination of Nazi ideas in Ace of Base.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the AoB interpretations. How about the Latin/Hebrew chant in the track ‘Happy Nation’? The article provides the translation, “On the wings of the eagle, with God’s help, I was there before everyone, in the meantime I will kill you, I was there before everyone”. Even if this is a faithful translation, isn’t this performed and heard in Latin/Hebrew? It seems preposterous to me that the lyric ‘wings of an eagle’, heard in a different language, qualifies as ‘blatant Nazi symbolism’. It is difficult to demonstrate that this would truly register as Nazi ideology for AoB’s listeners, and it can’t be blatant if it isn’t even in a language the listeners understand. Of course, if we’re just lyric digging, there’s “no man’s fit to rule the world alone” – yet this passage is taken as proof of “a love song to Adolf Hitler” – and a whole verse based around “come through and I will dance with you”. But the most striking weakness of this argument is that the translation is entirely fabricated. My Latin isn’t particularly strong any more, but even Google Translate gives something like: “Sing all nations sing, magnify the ages, and sing the soul, magnify the ages”. There’s not a hint of Hebrew here, just a borrowing of quasi-religious or spiritual vernacular set to an Enya-like, ‘90s dance jam.

The track name does lend itself to more nationalist sentiment, of course, although the video doesn’t afford this perhaps as much as the author stresses. Maybe the ‘happy nation’ is an Aryan utopia, but isn’t the video more likely to be received as a testament to inclusion and religious diversity? Yes, there’s Origin of Species – the article spells out the full book title to be sure the hints of Nazist social Darwinism gain more impact, even though it’s not displayed in the video – but there are also visuals of a lit candle, a peace sign, Buddha, zodiac signs, yin yang, Jesus, and various hieroglyphics. So much for mixed messages. One YouTube comment on the ‘Happy Nation’ video, apparently responding to this article or similar claims, calls this kind of thinking Reductio ad Hitlerum – I love that. I think if a band truly desired to spread Nazist sentiment, there would be far better ways to do so! This is to say nothing of the track’s bubbly world-pop musical environment, which appropriates diverse sounds and timbres: 808 hi-hats, organ synth timbres, and dead electro kicks with a prominent reggae skank. Even hearing this inclusivity as a kind of colonial exoticism seems to contradict a hermetic nationalism. However, the article provides no discussion of the music of this musical act. The complete erasure of music and sound in discussions of popular music is widespread, to be sure: many writers and readers are more confident dealing with the interpretation of words rather than sounds. Even so, this article is content to invent lyrics to make its case. We’re in especially messy territory when discussing electronic dance music, though, and I’m left wondering how much attention fans are truly paying to the lyrics.

I’m afraid we’re past the strongest arguments. The ‘All That She Wants’ lyric the author spotlights – “all that she wants is another baby” – seems far more likely to be heard as ‘she seeks another sexual partner’ rather than ‘…another child’. It was the ‘90s, y’all! This is compounded by these lyrics, which the article omits: “she’s the hunter, you’re the fox”; “it is a night for passion”; “beware of what is flashing in her eyes”. Vocalist Linn Berggren slides and somersaults over the beat (again with the overwhelming bounce of a reggae/dub riddim), wandering modally as the verse proceeds. This might afford the listener a sense of fun freedom, curiosity, uncertainty, or danger: there’s little of stern or judgemental tone, for me at least. I feel that, if any, the danger that the track warns about is female sexuality and promiscuity (god forbid!), not women leeching off the state using childcare payments. Plus, we’re some way from anti-Semitism here. I’m not convinced that the necklace the woman holds in the video will be universally recognised as a Star of David: it’s a six pointed star, ideal for the argument, but the metal is filled in, not outlined as two overlapping triangles. Bear in mind that this is a music video for a club-oriented dance track. The primary audience for the song, one would think, comprises younger people getting down on the dancefloor. If this track was intended as a smear campaign against Jewish women, wouldn’t we expect to find even a hint of anti-Semitism in the musical experience itself? 

Let’s grant for a moment that the Star of David-like necklace was chosen (by someone involved in the production of the video; it is unlikely the band members had this degree of creative control) to attack Jewish women in particular. How radically do individuals form or reform their political perspectives based on a few seconds of this music video? Forget that you’ve read an article on how AoB are Nazi demagogues before viewing: there’s an extremely convoluted link to make from seeing a woman hold a Star of David necklace, interpreting the lyrics to target women applying for childcare, then personally disdaining individuals’ debauchery in terms of insufficient labour contributions to society, and combining these into shifting or confirming extant beliefs about Jewish mothers. We could just as well claim the track oversexualises Jewish women if a listener identifies the necklace as a Star of David but makes a more straightforward lyrical interpretation regarding predatory female sexuality. This too may be a dehumanising move, but a viewing freed of the preconditioned Nazi association makes this interpretation obscure indeed.

All of this is a testament to the author’s rhetoric. For some readers, the weight of the article’s evidence could be stacking up by this point, and anything which vaguely contributes to claims of Nazi propaganda appears like further undeniable proof. The artist is thus characterised as an evil crypto-fascist mastermind, smirking behind-the-scenes as they embark upon their knowing mission to incite racial hatred. This is a compelling image, but it could be applied to so many artists, and there are certainly better targets for accusations of neo-Nazi projection than Ace of Base. Why might it be so successful? Allan Moore (2003: 7) has written that “listeners everywhere are encouraged to conceptualize the invention of music as a branch of magic, to believe that musical actions and gestures cannot be subject to any level of explanation, and hence understanding, beyond the trivially biographical”. Indeed, the same uncertainty appears to lie behind the legal case against Judas Priest (now there’s a band name which lends itself easily to listeners’ moral corruption!). This has been addressed by many scholars, and I’ll quote Rob Walser’s (1993: 145–6) account at length:

“The most celebrated public controversy over heavy metal to date revolved around a lawsuit against Judas Priest, tried in 1990. Five years earlier, two young men from Reno, Nevada—Ray Belknap, eighteen, and Jay Vance, twenty—had consummated a suicide pact by taking turns with a shotgun […] Both men had been avid Judas Priest fans, and the suit alleged that subliminal messages embedded in the band’s 1978 release, Stained Class, had created a compulsion that led to their deaths. According to the plaintiffs, one song contained commands of “do it” that were audible only subconsciously, and other songs, when played backward, exhorted “try suicide,” “suicide is in,” and “sing my evil spirit.” As with previous accusations of “backward masking” in rock music, the suit depended on the premise that such hidden messages can be decoded without conscious awareness and on the idea that they affect listeners more powerfully than overt communication.

The strategy of the defense was simple: they argued that the lives of Vance and Belknap had been such that no mysterious compulsion was required to account for their suicides […] Vance’s violent behavior long predated his involvement with heavy metal […] Ray Belknap’s background was just as bad. […] Defense lawyers argued that in such circumstances, there was little need to postulate secret musical compulsions in order to account for suicidal thoughts. The prosecution replied that many people have bad home lives yet do not kill themselves—a risky line of reasoning, one would think, since their case depended on overlooking the millions of people who listen to heavy metal yet do not kill themselves.

The Judas Priest case hinged, though, on the question of the impact of subliminal commands, allegedly masked but made no less effective by being placed on the album backward. As part of the substantial media attention given the case, “Newsline New York” interviewed an “expert,” Wilson Bryan Key, who claimed that such messages in heavy metal music lead to violence. (The host of the show neglected to mention that Key has in the past claimed to have found satanic or sexual messages on Ritz crackers, $5 bills, and Howard Johnson’s placemats.) Yet studies by psychologists have repeatedly shown that while intelligible messages can be found in virtually anything played backward, there is no evidence that listeners perceive or are affected by backward messages. “Even when messages are there, all they do is add a little noise to the music,” says one researcher. “There is absolutely no effect from content.”.

Lead singer Rob Halford may have tipped the scales of justice when he appeared for the last day of testimony with a tape containing backward messages he had found on the Stained Class album. Reversing the fragment “strategic force / they will not” from “Invader” yielded an intelligible, if cryptic, “It’s so fishy, personally I’ll owe it.” Halford reversed “They won’t take our love away,” from the same song, and had the courtroom howling when they heard “Hey look, Ma, my chair’s broken.” Finally, he played his last discovery: “Stand by for exciter / Salvation is his task” came out backward as “I–I–I as–asked her for a peppermint–t–t / I–I–I asked for her to get one.””

What I find fascinating is the conviction of the young men’s parents in pursuing the case against CBS Records and Judas Priest (they lost on all charges). I can barely fathom the tragedy of losing a child as they did, but directing their pain into this charge against music’s ability to affect us reveals how powerfully this belief can be held. The evil artist who masterminds their music as malicious propaganda is so compelling an image, especially for an easy target like Ace of Base, where a band member’s foolish teenage years can be dug up as incontrovertible evidence. In the AoB case, the motive emerges through Ulf’s earlier encounters with neo-Nazi ideology. Judas Priest’s lawyer had to point out that the band members would not benefit from telling their loyal fans – the audience who enables their careers – to kill themselves, even if they had the power to do so.

Here’s the thing: they don’t. Music can share and inculcate ideology, of course. But it cannot both hide it from the passing ear while simultaneously twisting people’s minds. This point is parodied wonderfully in The Simpsons episode ‘New Kids on the Blecch’. In it, Bart’s boyband find great success through a music video, which features the apparently gibberish hook, ‘Yvan Eht Nioj’. Lisa, suspicious of her brother’s new-found success, reverses the video to discover a message subliminally encouraging navy recruitment: of course, the boys are singing “Join the Navy” backwards. After making this discovery, Lisa sees stoner-cum-bus-driver Otto boarding a truck towards the naval base:

Lisa: “Otto, what are you doing?”

Otto: “I don’t know! I just got an urge to join the navy!”

Lisa: “You’re being brainwashed!”

Otto: “Yeah, probably. <waving goodbye> Yvan eht nioj!”

(The Simpsons’ Otto is well known as a heavy metal fan, too, and so doubles as the perfect target for manipulation).

Of course, this comedy touches upon some great fears. It is a scary thought to be unknowingly manipulated, and difficult acknowledging that we have little control over the stimuli which affect us day-to-day. Because we do not have good explanations for how music affects us, but it is obvious that it does, it may as well be able to recruit us to the Navy without our conscious awareness, just as it may be able to compel us into a suicide pact. And in the Ace of Base article, it may be able to make us become Nazis and vote for Donald Trump. 

The article provides no indication of who made up AoB’s audience, however. I can only assume that the titular 9 million Nazis refers to the RIAA sales count for the band’s debut album. Moreover, AoB are somewhat condemned to the Eurodance label now, a genre categorisation which binds the group temporally and geographically to ‘90s Europe. This kind of archiving flies in the face of the recentness of Trump’s political ascension, even if, as Justin Burton (2017: ix) puts it, it’s not that “Trump broke the system. [It’s that] a broken system created someone like Trump”. And so we get to the bizarre point that grunge was too downbeat for downtrodden US listeners, enabling a more upbeat alternative in the form of AoB’s dance pop (an argument the article executes in under 200 words). There’s little evidence that grunge actually dominated the radio-waves in the ‘90s, and if the article’s other evidence from music video stills are meant to count for anything, it isn’t clear why radio play would be important. After all, you can’t see the sort-of Star of David when AoB kick out the jams between Nirvana and Hole, even if you do already harbour anti-Semitic prejudices. Nor do you hear the unrecorded lyrics of the keyboardist’s teenage neo-Nazist band. You also (unless you are quite the committed listener) do not know that, if you try to translate Latin lyrics in Hebrew, there’s something about eagles and killing.

Even if we accept the article’s view of musical meaning as message, the claim of AoB’s influence upon Donald Trump’s votebase 25 years later is rather muddled: Trump’s campaign emphasised racist immigration based on colour rather than religion. Contemporary US conservatism has strong links to neo-Zionism. If the article found anti-Mexican or anti-Muslim sentiment in AoB’s media, perhaps we’d have more to talk about. But I still feel that this way of talking about musical meaning is misguided, and it only becomes more flawed when we take as given that whatever the artist sets out to do is exactly what the listener ends up experiencing. Perhaps more on that on another day.

Instead I’ll end by considering why the author might hold to music as message (or at least employ it rhetorically in the article): where might this specific belief, combining musical subliminal messaging with crypto-fascism, emerge? Yes, AoB are an unusual target, and yes, the headline’s particularly sensationalist, but the telling sign appears to be fear in the age of Trumpism. The Trump campaign only comes up briefly at the start and near the end of the article, but it seems that getting to grips with why Americans are voting for Trump is harder than scapegoating popular music. Perhaps the greatest failure of the American political Left was understanding Trump’s votebase during his rise to the presidency. It’s as if no historians of Nazi Germany ever studied how so many Germans’ minds were swayed toward fascism. This article rearticulates progressives’ angst and ignorance about Middle America and the belief systems which enabled the wave of populism Trump rode all the way to the White House. Mirroring the pain of a parent who loses a child to suicide and thereafter places all blame on the malevolent mission of some media personnel, the article shows a Democrat, who is stunned and appalled by Trumpism, making the same move. Neither the parent nor this author reflect on their own misunderstandings or mistakes, but demonise the easiest target to hand. Others’ political beliefs simply seem so outlandish that these people (suicidal teenagers, American neo-Nazis) must be victims of brainwashing and forms of psychological manipulation. The article dismisses the possibility that these people have formed ideas about their social environments based on their own experiences and the institutional power structures which condition and constrain everyday life. Popular music is an important part of this, but it is not Swedish dance pop from the ’90s which makes American people neo-Nazis: it is American neo-Nazism.


I have an alternative ending to this piece – one I’d like to believe less, but which is worth bringing to light. 

The Cracked article itself can be reasonably accused of promoting Nazism. It certainly doesn’t come down hard on neo-Nazi ideology, and there’s hints of an uncomfortable, elbow-nudging ‘yeah, so, um, we all think Nazism is bad, right?’ running throughout. The advert which follows the AoB essay reads, “Nazism in America isn’t the most palatable thought. However, there are some compelling cases to be made for why it could happen…”. Compelling? That’s an odd choice of word. It’s almost as if he wants it to happen, despite the language seemingly signalling the opposite. “And if [it] doesn’t happen in America, then don’t count out Hitler-crazed Asia”. Why are we trying to find Nazism in places so badly? Finally, we have “How Not To Go Back In Time To Kill Hitler”. In the context of the article, you’d probably interpret this as a cautionary tale about doing so the wrong way, but you can also read it as ‘hey, don’t do this’. 

The author is oddly explicit about distancing himself from apparently passionate writing on the Nazis’ defence of the Keroman Submarine Base: “If it reads like I was glowing with pride while writing all that, it’s because I want you to understand that this is exactly the kind of thing a closet Nazi would name his band after if he was trying to be clever”. I propose: if it reads like you were glowing with pride while writing all that, it’s because that is exactly the kind of thing a closet Nazi would claim he was not feeling when he was. Let’s not forget that the author is the first, as far as I am aware, to interpret a woman holding a Star of David to Nazi propaganda-like accusations of Jewish women as state-scroungers: that in itself is rather telling, no matter how obvious the reading is claimed to be.

The AoB article acts as guidance, too: here’s how a neo-Nazi band can get caught by laying on the ideology too thick – other bands, avoid these mistakes. It draws from the language of American progressive ideals (hateful messages, militaristic, Nazi symbolism, right-wing fringe types) to pretend to critique and thereby promote Nazi ideology. It explores Nazist subliminal messaging to subliminally message Nazi ideology.


This is my first blog/thinkpiece/article straddling light academic critique and wider readership, so I’d love to know what you think. Do send me any feedback, and thanks for reading!

References:

Burton, J. A. (2017) Posthuman Rap. New York: Oxford University Press.

Moore, A. F. (ed.) (2003) Analyzing Popular Music. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Walser, R. (1993) Running with the Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal Music. Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press.