Conspiracy theories are well-worn highways in popular culture. They serve to fill in the blanks in our gaps of knowledge so that we feel like we have complete and interesting world-views. Can’t understand how a man can become as successful as Jay-Z? He must be part of the Illuminati! Don’t understand the actions of some politicians or think that such high positions are out of reach for ordinary people? They must be lizard people! No, really! My cousin Jesse showed me on Facebook! Wake up, sheeple!
Sadly though, with the country reeling from the effects of a conspiracy gone too far — namely through Q-Anon lore — that resulted in a reported five deaths near the Capitol in Washington D.C., it’s increasingly evident that these particular conspiracy theorists don’t partake in the general, giant blob of misinformation that has always coexisted with factual news, but, instead, are a symptom of a purely American disease consisting of overreliance on excerpts over experts and partisan convenience over truth.
Musicians and artists have been the subject of popular conspiracies for years with urban legends placing Marilyn Manson in the cast of The Wonder Years or the belief he had his ribs removed in order to fellate himself. They’ve also written plenty about conspiracy theories: “Stuart” by the Dead Milkmen analyzes how boredom and hate are a gateway to conspiracies, while “Elvis is Everywhere” by Mojo Nixon is about the actual fake conspiracy theory that Elvis is alive and well and living inside of all of us with the exception of Michael J. Fox, the anti-Elvis. It is in each theory’s crux where conspiracies fall apart ... the one ridiculous big lie that we have to believe in order to believe the rest.
North Texas musician Astro James recalls the conspiracies in music over the past hundred years or so that come quickest to his mind: "Robert Johnson’s deal with the devil, obviously. Paul McCartney died in the ‘60s, and Billy Shears replaced him. Jay-Z and Beyoncé are in the Illuminati. Avril Lavigne died after her first album and was replaced with a look-alike,” he says, before pausing to take a breath. “... Lorde is actually about 10 years older than she claims. Oh, and Stevie Wonder isn’t actually blind.”
This connection between music and conspiracy lives on in the modern music scene as well.
Justin Cashion, who is releasing his first album Paranoid Narrative in March, explains that his “concept record” explores “anything under the umbrella of paranoia, anything from loose ideas to legitimate conspiracies.” One of his first singles on the album, “They’re Here,” focuses on the conspiracy that many high-powered politicians are now replaced by aliens.
Cashion, who grew up around a lot of conspiracy talk, explains that conspiracy theorists are such fervent believers that they don’t realize they’ve already jumped off a cliff and are steadily falling. “'They’re Here' definitely falls under the category of 'Get Help' in the conspiracy triangle,” he says.
"As a society, we need a reason to find some comfort out of all the chaos in this world which leads a lot of people to act out," Casion continues, "Elvis is alive. Paul McCartney is dead.”
BLACKBONE, a hip-hop collective that we caught up with last month, also approaches the theme of conspiracy in a tongue-in-cheek way, but without negating its seriousness. In the music video for their song “Cold Reign” off their first album 5G, they call to mind a modern conspiracy that 5G cell service is contributing to cancer and coronavirus.
Dallas band Ottoman Turks were primed and ready to release a new song, “Conspiracy Freak,” but are now delaying on account of the conspiracy theorists that attacked the Capitol, bandmember Nathan Wells says.
“So, we have been wrestling with the idea of putting 'Conspiracy Freak' out as a single after the events last week, and after talking with each other and some trusted friends, we've decided we won't be releasing it [yet]," Wells says.
While the song isn't new, the timing for a release didn't suit the band.
"I initially wrote the song several years ago," Wells says. "I'd always been a fan of reading about conspiracy theories, aliens, hollow earth, pretty much all of it. Never subscribed to any of it, really, although there's elements of truth being stranger than fiction here and there, like with the MKUltra project." (MKUltra was the name of a CIA program that performed mind control experiments, sometimes on unwitting subjects.)
“When I write songs, I usually find it easiest to delve into off-kilter or difficult subjects through satire, becoming that character and trying to see things from their perspective," he continues. "Turks is the perfect band to embody that. Half of what we do, we're doing with a wink."
The song by the Turks tackles the idea of conspiracies that grow into core pieces of ideology.
“What was clear even then was that believing only in the counterculture narrative is a pretty isolating thing, cutting you off from most people around you, so the chorus of the song became, ‘Can’t trust the government, can’t trust the people / Can’t trust the media, the market, or the steeple.’ Do it for yourself or don’t do it at all."
Wells says that in the years since the band wrote the song conspiracy theories that were previously “fringe” have “become increasingly mainstream.”
“And we've watched as our funny little dark satire song became more and more relevant,” he says. “We were excited to lampoon that a bit, even doing an Alex Jones-style talk show host impression on the intro and breaks ... But in a world where fake news is the norm, we also want to be extremely wary of adding to the noise.”
The themes of the satirical song, are now too worrisome, he says.
“After very real people died last week as a direct result of conspiracy theories, as a result of people diving so deep into the isolationist mindset, the last thing we want is to make that seem trivial.”
The breadth of conspiracies abounding — and their increasing severity — can almost be headache-inducing. Good thing Tylenol was probably just made up by the government to turn us all in to fish.