What does art mean?
That is the million dollar question, isn’t it?
Who decides what a piece of art means? The artist? The art-critic? The culture in which the piece lives? The viewer?
Perhaps the best answer is at once the most and least satisfying option: all of the above.
Which leaves us with a wide open field of interpretation. Everyone gets to have their own, and we get to explore the commonalities and divergences.
And yet – every now and then – something peculiar happens. Something an artist doesn’t expect, and largely can’t control. Something that can spread like wildfire – and in some cases can seem almost as destructive.
Sometimes – the art and meaning get a conspiracy remix.
The heck does that mean?
It means that someone – or multiple people simultaneously, or a group of people together – reconstruct or reorganize a work in some way that purports to ‘uncover’ a hidden or deeper meaning. The new ‘remixed’ work gains momentous popularity, and suddenly the original piece of art is redefined and recontextualized in profound ways – whether the artist likes it, or not.
Let’s look at some examples.
Paul is dead.
This is perhaps the most famous and persistent individual example of a conspiracy remix. Though over 40 years old, it still has its adherents.
The supposition? Paul McCartney died in a car crash in early 1967. After his death, the Beatles continued with a fake-Paul lookalike, but dropped veiled clues in their subsequent albums. At the time the rumors sprang up in 1969, those ‘subsequent albums’ were Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Beatles (aka The White Album), Yellow Submarine, and Abbey Road.Some of the most popular hints pointing to Paul’s prior demise?
- The elaborate album artwork in Sgt. Pepper shows a funeral (Paul’s) on the front; on the back, Ringo, John, and George facing the camera – while Paul is conspicuously turned around with his back to the camera.
- The lyrics ”A Day in the Life” describe the car crash that killed Paul: “I read the news today oh, boy//About a lucky man who made the grade//And though the news was rather sad//Well, I just had to laugh//I saw the photograph//He blew his mind out in a car//He didn’t notice that the lights had changed//A crowd of people stood and stared//They’d seen his face before//Nobody was really sure if he was from the house of lords.”
- At the end of “Strawberry Fields Forever,” you can allegedly hear John yell “I buried Paul.”
- On the cover of Abbey Road, John is dressed like a priest, Ringo like a mourner, George like a gravedigger, and Paul – the only one out of step with the others – like a corpse.
Although an interview with Life magazine soon after the rumors began raging largely quelled suspicions, the conspiracy continued to live – and shape how the Beatles and their music were perceived.
The gift of complexity.
Tool is a progressive metal rock band, known for imbuing their songs with complexity far deeper than the average rock band and penning lyrics steeped in symbolism, speaking to an evolution of consciousness.
One of their most popular albums, Lateralus, was hailed by critics as a particularly intricate and complex album – described in Spin magazine as a “monolithic puzzlebox.”
And some fans couldn’t help tinkering with that puzzlebox, to see what would come out of it.
Taking their cue from the title track, whose lyrics and metrical pattern reflect and derive from the spiral-prone Fibonacci sequence, those fans reasoned that a deeper meaning to the album could be found by ‘spiraling‘ the track order. The album contains 13 tracks, and so the tracks were reordered to ‘spiral‘ in towards and out from the ostensible 13th track.
Such reordering produced the following track order (using the original track numbers):
6, 7, 5, 8, 4, 9, 13, 1, 12, 2, 11, 3, 10
Reordering thusly and removing the silent buffers between tracks, songs flow and connect in new and – according to proponents – more harmonious or meaningful ways. A sizable portion of Tool’s dedicated fanbase takes the reordering to be an intentionally hidden secret of the album, and the most fruitful way of listening to it.
The ‘new‘ album has come to be called the “Holy Gift.”
The Devil’s in the details.
In this example, we diverge from the others a bit – the remixed meaning found here was discovered not by fans, but by some very vocal critics.
In the 1980s, allegations began to circulate that popular rock songs had hidden Satanic messages, aimed at corrupting youth. These devilish messages were purportedly hidden through backward masking – clearly recognizable only when played backward, but supposedly subconsciously influential even when played forward.
One of the most popular allegations was centered on the Led Zeppelin hit, “Stairway to Heaven” – if you’re going to accuse rock music, you of course have to hit the most popular rock song ever.
The initial claim was made about a section in the middle of the song – lines beginning (forward) with, “If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow…” Played backward, the section supposedly proclaims: “Oh here’s to my sweet Satan//The one whose little path would make me sad, whose power is Satan//He will give those with him 666//There was a little tool shed where he made us suffer, sad Satan.”
Dark side of the rainbow.
And finally, we have the reigning favorite of college dorm-room conspiracy remixes: the hidden synchronicity between Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon and The Wizard of Oz.
The idea here is that if one watches The Wizard of Oz with The Dark Side of the Moon playing, there are a slew of moments in which the two ‘line up’ and speak to each other in a particular way. Such moments include lyrical alignment (like when Roger Waters sings “Balanced on the biggest wave, you race towards an early grave” and Dorothy is balancing on a fence then falling into the pig-pen) and general thematic alignment (the music is tense when the movie is tense, as when Dorothy is running away from home).
A favorite example occurs as Dorothy leaves her house upon landing in Oz – the moment the black-and-white movie becomes technicolor. Just when she steps out, the song “Money” starts playing. This supposedly gestures towards huge costs of the new color production. The iconic album art of The Dark Side of the Moon apparently also points to this – the prism reflecting the transformation from black-and-white into color film.
Though the band and audio engineers who worked on the album have long maintained any synchronicity is pure coincidence, the legend lives strong as a mainstay of Pink Floyd mythology.
Then again, maybe the fans are close but just a little off: Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason, asked about the connection, replied with a smile: “It’s absolute nonsense. It has nothing to do with The Wizard of Oz. It was all based on The Sound of Music.”
“Con-spire” – from con-, ‘together,’ and spirare, ‘to breathe’
Conspiracies are a funny thing.
On the one hand, they can easily seem cynical or foolish or misguided. Are folks really even appreciating the music (or movie) when enjoying a Dark Side of the Rainbow viewing? Was the whole ‘Paul is dead’ fiasco anything more than the tragedy-hungry ravings of a rampant celebrity culture?
And yet – there’s something more at play.
Conspiracies are born and thrive because we have a deep longing to find connection and meaning in the world. We want, desperately, for there to be structure and purpose and organized intent in the world. Mystery instead of chaos.
And really, isn’t that the heart of art also? A relentless, irrational, irrepressible creation of meaning from the void?
Perhaps it’s fitting for conspiracies to bloom in the world of art.
And one can’t help wondering, silly though it may seem – are conspiracy theories themselves a form of art?
What do you think?
Are conspiracy theories ‘art’ in any way?
Have you experienced or explored any of the ‘conspiracy remixes’ we’ve looked at here?
Do you have any other favorites?
Join the discussion in the comments, and share your thoughts!
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