I have A LOT of spare time. Pretty much all the hours of the day outside the half I spend on jobs.guardian.co.uk are spare. That's quite a bit of time to fill, especially given that Countdown is only on for what, like 35 minutes? This usually means that like a latter-day David Livingstone, on a very different and Mac-based kind of Safari, I have explored many of the dark recesses of the deep web.
My latest discovery came by accident. While waiting for the adverts to pass on YouTube, I braved a scroll down to the comments section. Aside from the usual homophobia/xenophobia/attacks on Beliebers, were quite a few mentions of the Illuminati. I followed the link in one of these comments and landed at a number of conspiracy theory blogs, such as this one, which is devoted to uncovering the "esoteric meaning" of music videos. Every now and then, a newly released song (usually by "Illuminati Princess" Rihanna or "mind-controlled pawn" Nicki Minaj) is taken and screenshots and lyrics are neurotically dissected to (inevitably) find some evidence of the New World Order. Some of the 'analysis' is really quite amazing - you'd be hard pushed to find a better example of paranoia outside of a Thomas Pynchon novel. The basic line of argument goes:
- 1. There are a lot of pyramids/all-seeing eyes/butterflies/scary graffiti in this video.
- 2. These are 'Masonic' symbols, so the artist must have made some Faustian pact with the 'elite', and is involved in bringing about a New World Order.
Obviously this is a load of claptrap and I feel almost embarrassed talking about it (semi-) seriously. The mysterious 'They' are presumed to exist because of the symbols, rather than the symbols existing because of them. What is more, the whole thing is very light on facts as to who the illuminati are and why they would want to make their 'secret' symbols so brazenly ubiquitous in high-budget music videos. The answer is that the illuminati is simply the marketing department, and the symbols are used as inflammatory devices to incite chatter and buzz about the product.
There is no such thing as bad publicity, and that adage has never been more true than in this instance. Every time a member of the tinfoil hat brigade clicks on and comments on an 'Illuminati' music video; every time it is shared, replicated and discussed, there is a distant clink of cold hard cash in the coffers of the record industry. The 'Illuminati' aesthetic is just another example of the controversy = publicity equation that has proved so successful before for artists such as Eminem and the Sex Pistols. Conspiracy theories sell, just ask Dan Brown.
Indeed, the really insidious thing about this branding is that it distracts people from what is really Orwellian about chart music. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell described the prevalence of "sentimental songs which were composed entirely by mechanical means... sang so tunefully as to turn... dreadful rubbish into an almost pleasant sound". Could anyone imagine a more apt description of auto-tuned songs?
The illuminati thing adds a layer of complexity and intrigue to songs that are otherwise mostly product placement. Take, for instance, Rihanna's "Cheers (Drink to That)". The song is mostly an advertisement for whiskey, almost a jingle for Jameson and an ode to the inevitability of consuption. And, really, what could be more perfectly and cynically capitalist than to have people not only spontaneously sing an endorsement of your brand, but volunteer their wages to listen to it? Product placement has reached parodic heights recently in music - you need only look to the bizarre collaboration between Example and Elastoplast for affirmation of this fact. So, enough about the Illuminati. They aren't after your soul, they're just after your wallet.