The city of Anchorage is looking for ways to keep shiftless teenagers and other nogoodniks from having sex and smoking synthetic marijuana in a prominent public park. One of the potential solutions: setting up speakers and blasting Bach and Beethoven at all hours of the day. The beautiful-music-as-teen-repellent strategy is familiar, if a bit offensive. (The critic Norman Lebrecht has criticized the tactic as “culturally reckless, profoundly demeaning to one of the greater glories of civilization.”) How did classical music become a weapon against juvenile delinquency? And do teenagers actually hate classical music as much as authorities think they do?
In her fascinating book Music in American Crime Prevention and Punishment, Lily E. Hirsch notes that we have Canada to thank for the orchestral-assault technique. In 1985, 7-Eleven managers in British Columbia pioneered the aggressive use of classical music as a way to deter Canadian teenagers from loitering in their stores’ parking lots. The strategy worked—the teenagers chose to take their loitering elsewhere—and cities around the world began to follow suit. After transit officials began piping classical music through the London underground, robberies dropped by 33 percent. In 2001, cops in West Palm Beach, Fla., started blaring Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart at a notoriously crime-ridden intersection. “The troubled corner showed marked improvement with the launch of programmed classical music there,” reports Hirsch, “despite a brief pause of three weeks after vandals removed speaker wires and destroyed the building’s electrical meter.”
Which composers are best-suited for crowd-control purposes? In a 2005 piece, Los Angeles Times writer Scott Timberg noted that “despite a few assertive, late-Romantic exceptions like Mussorgsky and Rachmaninoff, the music used to scatter hoodlums is pre-Romantic, by Baroque or Classical-era composers such as Vivaldi or Mozart.” A symphony official quoted in Hirsch’s book maintains that Baroque composers like Bach are best, because their use of counterpoint and polyphony is challenging and inaccessible.
But the strategy isn’t limited to classical music. In 1989 and early 1990, the U.S. Army played heavy metal music to try and force Manuel Noriega to emerge from the Vatican embassy in Panama. In 2006, a suburb of Sydney, Australia deployed the music of Barry Manilow to discourage teenage loitering. (Manilow, adorably, responded to the news by saying, “But have they thought that these hoodlums might like my music? … What if this actually attracts more hoodlums? What if it puts smiles on their faces?”) Sometimes, the sonic deterrents aren’t even musical in nature. In 2010, the owners of Washington, D.C.’s Gallery Place shopping complex briefly installed The Mosquito, an anti-loitering device that emitted “a very high-pitched, dull but annoying series of beeps” that could only be heard by people under 30. The device was removed after a local youth rights group filed an age-discrimination complaint with the D.C. Office of Human Rights.
In the aforementioned Los Angeles Times article, a composer wondered why unfamiliar music had such a negative effect on the nation’s youth. “Is the content of the music so unpleasant that they don’t want to be there?” he asked. “Or does the music create an environment that they would be embarrassed to be part of, because it’s not ‘cool’?” Both of those things are probably true to a certain extent, but it’s probably not that classical music is especially alienating. It’s that that any loud music that’s foreign to your cultural context can be alienating—play a Riff Raff album for your grandparents sometime if you don’t believe me. Also, there are plenty of potential loitering spots in any given town, and there’s no real reason to stick with the Bach parking lot if there are other viable options. That’s an important point, and one that officials in Anchorage would do well to note: These musical tactics don’t stop crime and loitering so much as shift it around.