I recently came across an interesting article online that was featured in Volume 28, Issue 1, of the Journal of Popular Music Studies, which was published in February of this year. The title of the article is “The Paranoid Style and Popular Music: The Case of the Vigilant Citizen.” It’s written by Joe Stroud, an independent scholar.
What it is is basically a critical examination of the articles and rhetoric featured on VigilantCitizen.com, a popular conspiracy related news website.
It’s a very well written research essay, and I find myself agreeing with many of the points it makes. Over on Holy Hexes, more than a fair share of Vigilant Citizen articles have been shared or reposted, so I don’t think that this is a complete endorsement, but it does raise some interesting points about the way we put trust in popular conspiracy theory related websites, and can become complacent to some of the holes in their arguments.
I think this article is an excellent display of critical thinking and critical assessment, and that there are multiple ways to look at an issue like symbolism in the mass media and in the music industry. There is no one-stop-shop for analyzing agenda-driven, symbolism-saturated media. I also find that scholarly papers, for/or against conspiracy theories, are valuable and should be given their fair shake just as ‘confirmation’ or ‘reinforcement of previous ideas’ articles are. After all, isn’t skepticism, critical thinking, and attempted inquiry into theories a good, positive thing?
A little bit about the journal where this article was published:
In partnership with Wiley Periodicals, the Journal of Popular Music Studies is published by the International Association for the Study of Popular Music (U.S. Branch), part of a global organization dedicated to inter-disciplinary, scope–spanning fields such as musicology, ethnomusicology, sociology, cultural anthropology, literary studies, cultural studies, American studies and more.
Moving forward, I’m going to go ahead and provide some excerpts of this article written by Joe Stroud of the Journal of Popular Music Studies. It does deserve to be read in its entirety, because I’ve omitted many of the examples the author provides to back up his research claims. Once again, it’s titled “The Paranoid Style and Popular Music: The Case of the Vigilant Citizen.”
If you would like to listen to it being read, here is an audio recording.
“Conspiracy theories regarding popular music are not uncommon. The frequent characterization of musicians as standing up to the mainstream, as rebels against the established order, can cultivate a sense of injustice among fans when musicians die prematurely and can create a space for conspiracy theorizing, with such theories surrounding the deaths of, for example, Brian Jones, Tupac Shakur and Kurt Cobain. There is a similar casual mistrust of the corporate power behind the music industry, demonstrated by the frequent speculative stories about the manipulation of TV talent shows, specifically the retention of acts with limited musical ability that are thought to make “good television,” and a more general manipulation of voting figures to ensure that preferred acts win.
There is an even more extreme branch of conspiracist thinking which regards popular music as part of a grand conspiracy to oppress the general public. There are various views of the role of music, which is regarded as dominated by members of secretive groups or transmitting specific messages in lyrics, music videos, or the music itself. This article examines the writings of one particular conspiracy theorist, Vigilant Citizen, who focuses on mass media and, in particular, the popular music industry. Through this analysis, it becomes clear that conspiracy theorizing is not solely the preserve of the mentally imbalanced or the socially oppressed. It is also evident that popular music presents easy opportunities for generating conspiracy theories.
The term “conspiracy theory” is somewhat contested; originally a neutral descriptor for any claim of civil, criminal or political conspiracy, its popular meaning has evolved into something substantially more complex. Peter Knight states,“At the most basic level, a conspiracy theory blames the current, undesirable state of affairs on a concerted conspiracy by a secret group….However, the label “conspiracy theory” usually suggests that the interpretation offered is wrong”. Knight’s mention of secrecy is a crucial component of conspiracy theories, although the group in itself need not be secret so long as some of their activities or motives are assumed to be concealed from public view (a plethora of supposedly public bodies such as the United Nations, European Union and the World Bank frequently feature in conspiracy theories). The notion of concertedness is also crucial, with conspiracy theories suggesting a view of the world as governable and controllable, a perspective often contrasted with the view of history as “the fairly random and unpredictable interaction of countless individuals, or the predictable interplay of vast, impersonal structural forces”. Another important aspect of conspiracy theorizing is the attitude toward evidence.
Evidence which supports a theory is embraced, while a lack of evidence is not considered damaging, but is simply assumed to demonstrate the effectiveness of the conspirators in concealing their activity. This belief in the reach and power of conspirators means that “the very same thing that critics argue makes conspiracy theories unbelievable is, for conspiracy theorists, the strongest evidence in favor of their claims.” This attitude allows the theorist to interpret any evidence that would seem to invalidate a theory as proof of the meticulous care taken by the conspirator(s) to cover their tracks. The apparent irrationality of ignoring evidence that disproves the conspiracy theory is in part the reason that “conspiracy theory” is generally considered a pejorative term, demonstrated particularly by the popular culture stereotype of a “conspiracy nut” wearing a tinfoil hat to avoid having their thoughts read or their mind controlled.
The notion of conspiracism as the domain of the mentally unbalanced has even been the starting-point of some academic analyses; in his book on the subject Daniel Pipes observed that while “political paranoids need not suffer from personal paranoia … often the two go together”. While such attitudes build on Richard Hofstadter’s introduction of the paranoid into the discourse of conspiracism in his highly influential essay The Paranoid Style in American Politics—and he is also blamed for equating a conspiracist mindset with deficient mental health—Hofstadter was clear that this was not a parallel he wished to make, saying: “the idea of a paranoid style would have little contemporary relevance or historical value if it were applied only to people with profoundly disturbed minds. It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant.”
The difficulties in equating conspiracism with paranoia are demonstrated by an analysis of conspiracy belief in the United States. A 1994 survey found that 69% of respondents believed John F. Kennedy had been killed by a conspiracy, while finding considerable agreement levels between 41% and 55% for conspiracies regarding the concealment of evidence of flying saucers; FBI involvement in the assassination of Martin Luther King; a (modern) Japanese conspiracy to destroy the American economy; and the collusion of Ronald Reagan and George Bush with Iranian hostage-takers not to release the American hostages until after the 1980 US Presidential election. More recent studies have found that nearly half of African Americans believe AIDS is a man-made virus; a third of Americans believe the US government actively took part in or allowed the 9/11 terrorist attacks to justify war in the Middle East; and a quarter of Americans doubt President Barack Obama was born in the United States while a fifth believe he is a Muslim.
Clearly, when such significant proportions of the population identify with conspiracy theories, it becomes difficult to attribute conspiracism to paranoid tendencies in the individual or to marginal groups. Conspiracism as paranoia also does not allow for the fact that conspiracy theories can at times be grounded in justifiable doubts. While Knight suggests that proven conspiracies are often called something else, such as “investigative journalism, or just well-researched historical analysis”, it is difficult to theorize a distinction between conspiracy theories which have no rational basis and those which merely remain unproven. One methodology which can help to distinguish the belief in conspiracies from the sociological phenomenon of conspiracy theories has been forwarded by Jovan Byford, who considers “conspiracy theories as a tradition of explanation, characterised by a particular rhetorical style”.
Byford suggests that the publication in 1797 of two accounts, by Augustin Barruel and John Robison, of conspiratorial causes of the French Revolution—particularly the involvement of Freemasons and the Illuminati—was particularly important to the current phenomenon of conspiracy theories. Citing Geoffrey Cubitt, Byford notes certain features which particularly distinguished these writings: prior to the Revolution, theories restricted themselves to fairly specific events with tangible rewards for the conspirators; by contrast Revolutionary theories centered the plot on secretive societies whose goal was “the implementation of an evil and subversive plan,” namely the destruction of Christianity and the established social order.
The work of Barruel and Robison has been recycled and recontextualized on numerous occasions, thus contributing to what Byford perceives as “a distinct narrative structure, thematic configuration and explanatory logic” . In this view of conspiracy theories as a tradition, conspiracies are seen as the stimulating force in history: diverse global events and time periods are integrated into a grand arching conspiracy theory driven by a particular nefarious group. The characteristics of the conspirators can easily adapt to the context and politics of the time, as can the stated goals, with the result that conspiracy theorizing is an adaptable and multifunctional process. “Conspiracy-mindedness” has been classified by Benjamin McArthur into four categories: the “casual embrace”; “intrigue as a form of entertainment,” for example, in Hollywood films such as Oliver Stone’s JFK; “the conviction of socially oppressed or disadvantaged groups that they are the victims of an organized effort”; and “use of conspiracy as a political weapon”.
Furthermore, it is possible to divide conspiracy theories between Barkun’s “event” and “systemic” categories: the former only usually incorporate individual events, while the latter are concerned with the long-term plots of secretive organizations (6). As McArthur suggests, casual event conspiracy theorizing is something which most people indulge in occasionally and is generally confined to Barkun’s event category, but Byford’s conception of conspiracy theorizing as a tradition of explanation and rhetorical style is more suited to systemic theories belonging to McArthur’s third and fourth categories. A good example of the latter can be found in the writings of the Vigilant Citizen, but first it is worth taking a moment to consider some examples of the link between popular music and conspiracy theories.
Conspiracy Theories and Popular MusicFollowing the categorization of Barkun, it is possible to divide music-related conspiracies between “event” and “systemic” conspiracy theories. A prime example of event theories is provided by the rumors surrounding the deaths of various musicians, which can be further divided into the categories of suspicions over the circumstances leading to these deaths, and the belief that the deaths were staged and that the musicians are, in fact, still alive. Ambiguities surrounding the deaths of musicians are unsurprising; many involve an element of substance abuse, while some musicians—especially those caught up in the East/West Coast rap feud in the mid-1990s had links with organized crime. The itinerant life of touring musicians means that when tragedies do occur, they can be interpreted as acts of sabotage by an establishment acting against a perceived threat. The frequent characterization of musicians as standing up to the mainstream, as rebels against the established order, can also cultivate a sense of injustice and suspicion among fans regarding premature deaths. Something of an industry has arisen to cater for this appetite for conspiracy theorizing.
In the case of Kurt Cobain’s suicide, for example, a number of books and documentaries have been produced which claim to have uncovered inconsistencies in the official account that cast the whole conclusion into doubt. This encapsulates a common trend of conspiracism, namely a focus on incongruous or ambiguous details which supposedly exposes an elaborate deception.
The belief that musicians did not die—most famously represented by theories surrounding Elvis but also extant in the myths of others such as the rapper Tupac Shakur—is likely an expression of an unwillingness to let go of a cultural icon. While event conspiracies such as these are common in music, and integral to many myths surrounding it, they are more to do with the culture of celebrity than the music itself.
As such, conspiracy theories can provide the means to reconcile deeply held beliefs with contradictory evidence. Systemic theories, on the other hand, are generally based on the content of music rather than on specific individuals. The portrayal of various forms of popular music as anti-establishment has seen it characterized as a threat to the structure and norms of society in a number of moral panics (defined by Cohen as occurring when a “condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests.”
Moral panics have surrounded popular music genres for decades, from jazz in the era of Prohibition, rock ’n’ roll in the 1950s, to punk in the 1970s, rave in the late 1980s, and hip hop throughout its history. Such panics can be easily adapted into a conspiracist framework, with music supposedly promoting a range of plots including the advancement of communism and racial integration.
The controversy surrounding the Parents’ Music Resource Center’s assessment of heavy metal in the 1980s was driven particularly by metal’s use of violence, sex, and occultism in its lyrics, as well as its frequent use of Satanic imagery. This led to linked accusations of musicians presenting death as a positive alternative, supposedly leading to “epidemic” levels of adolescent suicide. In 1987, Tipper Gore, leader of the PMRC, asked “what happens when a confused, depressed adolescent picks up an album…?”. The belief that metal musicians were placing subliminal messages in their music through back masking has led to a number of high-profile cases over the years (all dismissed) involving Ozzy Osbourne, Judas Priest and Slayer for their alleged culpability in suicides and murders involving young adolescents. In cases such as this the line between moral panic and conspiracy theory is indistinct, with varying opinion regarding the intention and culpability of musicians. What is clear, however, is a firm belief in the power of music to convey hidden or multiple messages, and to influence and control the actions of individuals. It is this belief which drives the conspiracy theorizing of the Vigilant Citizen, who provides a notable example of a systemic theory drawing primarily on music and associated visual culture, particularly music videos, which does not derive from a moral panic.
The Vigilant Citizen Vigilant Citizen (VC) is the pseudonym of an anonymous blogger, who claims to be a Canadian male with a degree in Communication and Politics, and also a music producer who has worked with many “urban” artists. VC sums up his stated aims on his Web site:
“My efforts to further understand the forces governing the world lead me to study secret societies, mystery religions, esoteric sciences and ancient civilizations. I’ve spent the last seven years researching Theosophy, Freemasonry, Rosicrucianism, the Bavarian Illuminati and Western Occultism. These schools of thoughts have many things in common: they are based on Hermetic teachings (Hermes, Thoth, Enoch, Mercury), they attach EXTREME importance to symbolism and they recruit within their ranks the most prominent people of all fields of society: politics, law and public service. The natural result of this phenomenon is the display of occult symbolism in all aspects of society, especially music, movies and buildings. My goal is to bring out the meaning of these symbols in a clear, concise and entertaining way.”
As suggested by his description, the Vigilant Citizen does not concentrate solely on music—with a particular interest in films and television—but music is probably his most common topic. The blog consists of an extensive library of essays analyzing various popular culture and architectural texts, interpreting their symbolism in ways that apparently reveal the machinations (or, at the very least, controlling presence) of the Illuminati.
The Illuminati were a group of freethinkers founded in Bavaria in 1776. In its permitted eight-year lifespan, the group attracted many intellectuals and progressive politicians, counting up to 2,000 members in lodges all across Europe. The order, which preached “resistance to state authority and vowed to destroy ecclesiastical power”, was unsurprisingly viewed unfavorably by authorities. It collapsed in 1784 when the ruler of Bavaria banned all secret societies, but its spectre remained. It was widely believed that the Illuminati were behind the French Revolution, spurring the United States to pass legislation limiting the freedoms of speech and the press and establishing the power to expel foreign nationals engaged in secret machinations against the government. This marked the origins of the Illuminati conspiracy theory, which has reappeared in various forms over the years, particularly in the United States. It should be noted that the masters of the conspiracy can vary substantially depending on prejudice, intention and context, with the alleged machinations of Freemasons and Zionists particularly historically significant, but the Illuminati retain a preeminent position in the conspiracist hierarchy.
After the fall of Communism, the apparent conspiracy to create a “New World Order” rose to prominence. This plot, apparently to establish a one-world collectivist government, was firmly established when televangelist Pat Robertson published The New World Order. The book asserted that the course of history was manipulated by international financiers toward their secretive objective. Robertson’s book sold over 500,000 copies, and was top of the New York Times best-seller list for eleven weeks. The power of these beliefs was demonstrated when it became known that many thousands of Americans thought they and other patriots were under observation by mysterious black helicopters, in preparation for a United Nations invasion to establish the new order. This belief in subversive forces often results in a severe mistrust of government, while the narrative of secret cabals striving to set up a New World Order has been integrated into established theories. It is from this stance that VC grounds his critiques of popular culture.
VC’s essays, far from being the paranoid ramblings often associated with conspiracy theorists, are methodical, and at times even reveal a certain humor. His approach is also intriguing because it is not predicated on a belief in the degenerate nature of popular music as a form, setting VC apart from many other conspiracy theorists who attack the form of popular music in general.
VC’s problem, then, is not with the form, but with the symbolism tied to it. This difference is emphasized by the fact that VC does not often analyze specific features of songs, such as melody, rhythm, or lyrics, instead focusing on the symbolism and imagery of accompanying music videos. Indeed, although most of his articles claim to expose sinister messages, there are some that yield a more positive interpretation, notably the Black Eyed Peas’ video for “Meet Me Halfway.” The potential for occultist symbolists to create positive material leads VC to acknowledge that:
“Occult means “hidden,” not “bad.” Occult schools believe esoteric knowledge is too powerful for the profane to dabble with it. So it is kept hidden, the same way mothers hide knives from young kids…. According to occult schools this knowledge can lead you to two extremes and everything in between: it can liberate you from the shackles of materiality, put you in direct contact with divinity and make you nothing less than immortal… Or it can also make you deal with demons, black magic and lead you into eternal torment. “Meet Me Halfway” seemed to portray this positive side of esoteric knowledge. It is indeed quite uplifting.”
The Theories of VC
As such, the symbolism of Metropolis becomes part of a symbolic catalogue on which VC draws in his analyses; VC picks out symbolism which conforms to this catalogue whiled is regarding that which does not fit with his theories. Probably the most prominent component of this symbolic catalogue is the covering of one eye. This is pointed out regularly by the Vigilant Citizen, both in individual essays and in the recurring feature on his Web site “Symbolic Pics of the Month,” and is said to be an important symbol in Illuminati circles. The significance of the one-eye symbolism is traced back to Egyptian mythology and the Eye of Horus. VC believes the eye to be one of the most important Masonic symbols, with its appearance on the US one-dollar bill indicating how high Masonic influence reaches. What VC does not make clear, however, is just what this gesture means, other than providing evidence of the conspiracy. It is also unclear whether musicians draw attention to one eye to indicate initiation into the conspiracy, or if they have been manipulated into doing so by their “handlers.”
The latter seems more likely to be VC’s view, given that he generally sees musicians in the role of manipulated rather than manipulators. While VC is clearly concerned with the exploitative nature of modern popular music, his particular grievance with the music industry is the constant, unrelenting attention that pop stars receive, the materialistic lifestyle they promote, and the way this is portrayed as worthy of emulation:
“Watching a few hours of MTV programming is enough to understand that its contents promotes [sic] a specific set of values to the youth, notably the importance of materialism, the cult of celebrity and fame, the glorification of appearances and of the superficial, the sexualization and fetishization of everything and so forth. A young person that has not developed the ability to think critically will absorb this information, integrate it and, ultimately, live by it. However, an educated mind will realize that all of these values are artificial constructs and deceiving illusions…. Today, mass media are so omnipresent and persuasive that billions willingly fall into that trap. It takes a lot of “deprogramming” to make the average person realize: “I am not super famous, I do not have paparazzi after me, I am not on the cover of magazines, I do not have a Gucci handbag nor a BMW with Louis Vuitton seats … and so what? That is all garbage anyway!” Coming to this realization is one of the most liberating things one can experience, as a lot of unnecessary pressure magically disappears.”
Clearly, VC is antagonistic towards the materialistic culture he perceives in popular music, going on to say that the most important things in life cost nothing. The idea that the culture industries encourage consumerism is hardly controversial, nor is the idea that there is value in things that cannot be measured in market or monetary terms. However, VC is not necessarily welcoming of material that would seem to correspond with these sentiments, seeing it as deception with ulterior motives.
VC thus articulates his belief that pop music is not primarily an industry, but rather a conditioning tool , and his interpretation carries overtones of disgust with the values promoted by pop.
Overwhelmingly, VC’s use of language is absolute; his conclusions are rarely suggested or partial. Take for example, this analysis of a scene from Britney Spears’ video for “Work Bitch,” released in September 2013: “Towards the end of the video, we see blindfolded mannequins being brought into the desert. They then explode. Blindfolded mannequins represent the state of mind controlled slaves. Blowing them up into body parts represent the fragmenting of a slave’s psyche into several personas.” The interpretation here is presented in the same unequivocal language as the literal description of the images in the video; the symbolic significance of blindfolded mannequins is not diverse, but absolute.
While conspiracy theorizing does not have a positive status, this rhetoric attempts to place conspiracy theorists in a position of authority by presenting these interpretations as indisputable; a negative judgment is placed upon those who dismiss them as conspiratorial. If accepted, this authority implies power, or at least resistance by rejecting the messages presented to them, VC and his followers can avoid their own manipulation by “the System,” while the absolute nature of the language rejects any notion that this is a theory, countering the pejorative association of conspiracy theorizing with the assertion of truth. Thus, the theorist is presented as superior, in having both the ability to perceive the conspiracy and to resist it.
The theories of VC make two major assumptions about the music industry: first, musicians themselves are not in positions of power, either having their minds controlled or oblivious to the truth around them; second, the music industry is viewed as monolithic and working in complete coordination towards a common goal. In VC’s ideology, nothing is accidental: every aspect of a star’s persona, every release, every statement, is demonstrably linked to the Illuminati agenda. This is consistent with the conspiracy theorist perception of the world as ordered and governable rather than chaotic and random, and means that even events that come across as spectacular failures must have some hidden intent behind them.
As these examples indicate, the arguments of VC are heavily predicated on the use of images; at times the text of an article will consist only of a single sentence. These images allow for juxtaposition in service of VC’s arguments, in the way John Berger wrote of when he argued that reproduction and representation of images can alter the relatively fixed meaning of an original. The meaning of the reproduction, devoid of the original’s context, “becomes transmittable: that is to say it becomes information of a sort”; moreover, VC is able to manipulate this information to his own ends, particularly in the selection of certain images from music videos, and indeed the freezing of moving images. The malleability of images is shown especially in some of the more stretched comparisons that VC makes, and by the general lack of other indications of Illuminati control in VC’s arguments. Musical styles and sounds are rarely mentioned, while, on one of the few occasions that lyrics are cited, VC suggests that they “are open to interpretation, but the visuals of the video give a particular meaning to the words”. The question of why the elites would load cultural products with material interpreted as damning by “a guy who knows his symbolism” is justified by VC as a consequence of the belief in the power of symbolism:
“They [the elite] firmly believe (as did all ancient civilizations) that symbols can deeply affect the human psyche. Many occult exercises focus on meditation through symbols, which they believe leads to a higher state of consciousness. The same knowledge is applied to the masses through movies and videos, but to attain another result: to dumb down and dehumanize.”
VC has no problem in blending different groups in line with his interpretation of the symbolism; thus, in an article describing Lady Gaga as an “Illuminati Puppet,” symbolism with apparent Masonic associations is asserted as proof. The secretive controlling elite is thus depicted as homogeneous, despite going by a variety of names—particularly the Illuminati, Masons, and occultists—and perceivable via a variety of different symbols. VC is, in essence, a conspiratorial cultural critic, with a particular focus on mass media. VC believes the consolidation of the cultural industries into monolithic major corporations allows “the elite” to easily standardize the media they generate. In the same essay, VC quotes many prominent figures, including Marshall McLuhan, Carl Jung and Aldous Huxley, thus presenting himself as the inheritor of 20th century cultural theory, and in some ways he could be right; his assertion that mass media, as well as bombarding receivers with subliminal messages, appeal to base human instincts as part of the process to standardize human thought does not seem that different to the conspiratorial accusations levelled at the culture industries by critics such as Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer.
Where VC differs from the thinking of such figures is through the cited tools of manipulation, and the purpose of manipulation. Adorno and Horkheimer saw the culture industries as being in the service of organized capital; VC sees them as engaged in a programme of indoctrination. In an academic context, the work of VC is somewhat outdated in following the theories of Adorno and Horkheimer. As Raymond Williams argued, “There are in fact no masses; there are only ways of seeing people as masses”: contemporary cultural studies emphasize ways in which cultural products provide opportunities for individuals and groups to decode and recontextualize them in new and unintended ways. VC’s arguments, in contrast, are entirely dependent on seeing people as a mass, passively and uncritically accepting the products of the culture industries. It seems probable that VC’s view of the mass of the general population is colored by his belief in the manipulative capabilities of the conspirators, with the majority likely to succumb to the bombardment. The purpose of this manipulation is partially a means of ensuring economic slavery:
“The System needs us to crave and want, and to live for the crap that is sold to us. It needs us to spend our paychecks, to load our credit cards and to take on ridiculous mortgages in order for us to replicate what we see on TV. Our debts are the chains that link us to them and we willingly chain ourselves.”
In passages such as this, VC employs conspiracy theories as a means of attacking the exploitation of the masses by elites, in essence a critique of contemporary capitalism. On the other hand, VC does not see the culture industries as merely designed to part consumers from their money. Often, conspiracy theories are combined with political rhetoric, with the theories acting as justification for a particular ideology and its plan of action; perhaps the most notorious example of this being the anti-Semitic conspiracy theories used to justify Nazism, culminating in the Holocaust. The conspiracy perceived by VC has a political motivation in its attempt to debase humanity, making it easier for people to accept their exploitation by their rulers:
“Mass media is propaganda—but it is not trying to sell you on an ideology or a political view. It goes much deeper than that. It is about affecting the mind, the body, and the soul. It is about turning humanity into a debased, confused, and malleable mass of lost souls. It is about exposing and desensitizing minds to foul aberrations. It is about selling demoralization disguised as empowerment. It is about turning disgusting things such as pedophilia into something normal. It is about making you scared, insecure and unsatisfied. In short, mass media is poison. And that poison is everywhere.”
VC neither associates this conspiracy with a particular political movement nor endorses a particular ideology in order to combat this propaganda. For the latter purpose, mere recognition of the conspiracy is the first step, with resistance to manipulation—and rejection of the materialist culture promoted—sufficient to combat the conspiracy. Because VC offers no clear political programme as an alternative to the manipulation he identifies, it is difficult to establish the central purpose of his critiques. Indeed, the way his articles have been treated as humorous by mainstream media articles, cited above, suggests that VC may be a satirical exercise. However, the volume of material and the consistency of VC’s message undermines this interpretation, and even if it were satirical in intent this would arguably be irrelevant given the substantial community which is receptive and sympathetic to his ideas. Thus far VC has not attempted to direct this community towards any specific politics, preferring instead to educate others to the supposed manipulation around them. Even without a specific political programme, VC articulates and promotes a severe mistrust of those with power and influence, particularly those who are perceived as being in control of popular culture.
Popular music will continue to provide abundant material for conspiracy theorizing. The importance of stardom and celebrity, and the elevation of a few individuals to prominence, allow for the interpretation of selling-out to the industry in order to advance a career, or being used as a puppet to promote a certain message (this is particularly true since individual taste may mean that success is seen as undeserved, and thus that there must be some other explanation). Furthermore, the mass-media nature of popular music is viewed with suspicion. This music reaches a significant proportion of the population and is a prominent part of mass culture, while the processes of globalization mean that there is some standardization across national boundaries, even if local variations are still significant. The sheer reach of the form is linked together with the assumed global reach and unity of purpose of the elite. Related to this reach is the conception of the form itself: the idea that music can perform subliminal brainwashing is fundamental to many conspiracy theories. VC’s theorizing apportions this function to music videos rather than the music. Conspiracy theories are generally associated with the paranoid and the powerless, but the case of VC challenges both of these assumptions. His arguments may seem to be based on presupposition and circular reasoning at times, but by and large they display a rational thought process, albeit employed in a peculiar manner.
Moreover, the assumption that conspiracy theories are merely an explanatory tool for those low in the social hierarchy is simplistic. McArthur’s third category of conspiracy-mindedness (“the conviction of socially oppressed or disadvantaged groups that they are the victims of an organized effort”) assumes that those who perceive a conspiracy are disadvantaged members of society. VC, although details are few, seems relatively privileged: a family man in a prosperous Western country (Canada) who claims to have a higher degree and who can afford the time and money required to run an extensive Web site. VC may see himself as relatively powerless in the face of mass media, but his Web site actually demonstrates the importance of the individual receiver in cultural production: far from the uniform reaction he assumes, VC demonstrates the importance of the individual “reader” in the way he or she receives the cultural object. VC does not operate in isolation; indeed, he frequently refers to other material from the conspiracy theory industry, in the form of books, websites and films. VC quotes material which corresponds with his findings as if it is indisputable scholarship, and links to videos which purport to provide visual proof. In this way, this particular conspiracist world becomes self perpetuating, with a mounting evidence base to draw on, and VC himself is becoming an important part of this canon.
The belief in Illuminati manipulation of the music industry has gained some mainstream currency, to the extent that some artists have started to deliberately incorporate provocative symbolism into their work.
The potential of the Internet, and the niche success of VC and his peers, suggest that conspiracy theorizing about popular music will persist for the foreseeable future. Underlying conspiracy theorizing is a deep mistrust of power; the idea of an individual or a group with enough power to carry out a conspiracy is fundamental to theorizing. The fact that conspiracies are concealed is proof of their nefarious nature. Furthermore, the marginalization of believers of conspiracy theories can be taken as evidence of targeted repression. Through the dissemination of his theories and the creation of a community for likeminded individuals, VC engenders a sense of resistance to the manipulative intentions of the powerful. Indeed, VC offers paranoia as a means of avoiding this manipulation; through a suspicious mindset, an individual is more likely to identify the apparent motivation behind conspiracies and the vehicles they use, and therefore be in a better position to resist manipulation.
Finally, VC is a notable example of the flexibility of conspiracy theories. Political ideology—beyond some criticism of sexualization, materialism and consumerist culture—is not a driving factor of VC’s essays. As such, his conspiracy theories have the ability to serve a variety of purposes and ideologies and are not confined to specific areas of the political spectrum. Rather, they reveal a fundamental mistrust of the powerful that is malleable enough to be applied across a range of political ideologies. This is not a particularly new phenomenon, but the possibilities afforded by the Internet have greatly increased the potential for the proliferation and circulation of these theories, and the possibility of creating digital communities predicated on conspiracy theories. Furthermore, VC represents something of a new stage in common narratives surrounding popular music in the context of conspiracy theorizing, in that his theories do not attack the form, but the content. VC himself is sympathetic to popular music, but uses the tools of cultural and media studies to critique what he sees as underlying messages in mainstream popular culture.