Scandalous Conspiracies: Making Sense of Popular Scandal Through Conspiracy

Curator's Note

After a night of drinking and drug use intermixed with the music of heavy metal band Judas Priest, James Vance and Raymond Belknap went to a playground in a nearby church park and shot themselves. While Belknap did not survive his wound, Vance did. Shortly after, the Vance family blamed the incident on the influence exerted by Judas Priest. Accusing the band of placing subliminal messages on their records, Vance’s traumatic experience became a national scandal.  Latched onto by the media for its sensational aspects, this tragedy was quickly picked up by national news media. A civil trial ensued and several conspiracy theories attributing Judas Priest with all sorts of nefarious motives began to circulate. The effects of the scandal and the conspiracy theories spread to other areas of the heavy metal music scene.

Occupying the space between public and private life, the Judas Priest scandal ruptured the fabric of daily life. Scandals are events that undermine the stability of the social order, tearing through the lives of individuals and leaving them grasping for a handle with which to make sense of the events happening around them. Weather originating in the public sphere or in private spaces, as with the actions of Belknap and Vance, scandal disturbs the division between public and private spheres of social interaction. Conspiracy theories often flourish in the wake of these disturbances. In the case of the Judas Priest scandal, conspiracy theories blaming evil forces beyond the borders of Reno provided a source of stability for those grappling with the horror of this event. Similar to the way the Fredrick Jameson talks about conspiracy narratives as a type of mapping mechanism, these conspiracy theories developed as a way to smooth out the resulting uncertainty from this scandal.

Scandal and conspiracy theory can be thought of as kissing cousins. What is left for us is to determine is where these two categories overlap and diverge. What seems to be at the core of these two phenomena is the panic of agency created by the shifting boundaries of public and private life. If John Thompson is correct when he insists that the development of new communication technology has altered understandings about the functioning of the private/public divide, then how could the dynamic changes in media lead to anything besides a rapid proliferation of conspiracy theories -- and how can we theorize the relationship to scandal?


Dear Jason, thanks for a great post and a great clip (which, coincidentally, features some of my favorite music)! I really like your connection of conspiracy theory and scandalous media events, because it seems to point us to the moment where conspiratorial thought moves beyond the confines of a somewhat sub- or countercultural practice and becomes available to a broader media public. Of course, conspiracy theorists don't need a scandal to offer conspiratorial explanations for puzzling events -- following Jameson, the "ultimately unrepresentable...enormous global realities" of the capitalist world system alone are complex and intransparent enough, seemingly removed from personal experience and yet determining enough of it that anxieties about hidden influences and loss of personal agency do not seem to be too far-fetched. Media events such as the Judas Priest trial (or the upsurge of publicly expressed conspiratorial explanations for 9/11) for me seem to be the moments where such a way of explaining the world becomes (more) public and available to a broader audience. Aside from that, I think your clip also illustrates another aspect of the relationship between media (or rather, media technologies) and the practices and proliferation of conspiratorial thought. Namely the latter's (usually not thematized) indebtedness to a media-technological infrastructure which makes it possible to decipher, decrypt, take apart and rearrange media texts of all sorts (in this case, Judas Priest records) in order to read them as evidence for the existence of hidden, nefarious influences. Without the technical infrastructure to play records backwards, and to edit them in a manner that seemingly makes hidden subliminal messages transparent, it would be much harder to make the argument for heavy metal's satanic influence here (and in the clip Rob Halford nicely demonstrates how to use the same technologies to turn such an argument on its head). This points us to another of Jameson's points: unmediated perception of the complexities of the social totality is impossible, since all we have to access it are narrativized texts of different media whose grasp on the world must always be limited by their formal and material properties.

Hi Jason, What a provocative post! And what insightful commentary, Felix. I am curious about the aside about "Americans" as daft, conspiratorial people in the video. It seems as if civilizational Others are as often accused of being conspiracy-theory prone as they are of conspiring. Second, upon watching the video, I felt a strong craving for peppermint. I was wondering whether there are any connections between Jason and the peppermint industrial complex.

Hello Jason, Thank you for this very interesting post to start of the conspiracy week. You'll find out tomorrow that we are both talking about responses to major record label recording artists, especially in their relation to young people. Censorship discourse especially seems to deal with the agency (or supposed lack thereof) of young people and their reaction to messages, subliminal or otherwise, in music. Though situations like the Belknap and Vance trial avoid the term, the accusation that the prosecution makes is one of mind control. While scandal disturbs the division between public and private, mind control profoundly violates it, as media power fully controls the actions of individuals. In my post I make connections between tabloids and celebrity conspiracy theories. I wonder what connection we can find between accusations of media supposedly violating the space of the individual mind, and the pleasure media consumers derive from experiencing private content about celebrities in tabloids.

Thanks for the lively opening post and clip, Jason. A blast from the past for me, as I was a teen when this panic was spreading (sadly, R.E.M. and the Replacements never got this kind of attention). It also seems to relate to what Timothy Melley calls "agency panic"--all those anxieties around loss of autonomy and projection onto a Big Other. Instead of hidden star chambers, here we have closed teen bedrooms. Parental agency, stunted by who knows what (over-investment in discipline? increase in time spent at work rather than with kids? listening to religious leaders?), is revitalized and empowered by law and hermeneutics. We can't read our kids or our own role in their alienation, so we'll excessively decipher external influences (as Felix notes). On another research note, I wonder how many people who spun records backwards as a lark enjoyed the tactility so much they went on to become DJs.

JD, Thanks for the post - sorry I'm late to the party. I very much like your connection of scandal and conspiracy. It is an interesting angle to think from (the pre-conspiracy). I've been writing a lot about conspiracy and fear appeals, focusing on the effects of Nixon's anti-communist conspiracy rhetoric. Using Michael Pfau's work on fear as either 1. dichotomous or 2. civic, I find Nixon sometimes used anti-communist conspiracy rhetoric to unite factions through civic fear (e.g. convicting Gerhart Eisler of contempt of congress in Nixon's "Maiden Speech") whereas at other times Nixon uses dichotomous fear to divide the USA from the USSR (e.g. his 1960 campaign pamphlet "the meaning of communism"). I'm inclined to agree w/ you that a scandal ruptures the quotidian and allows for conspiracy theories/rhetoric, and possibly I would argue the ongoing fear that inhabits that rupture (whether civic or dichotomous) perpetuates the circulation of the conspiracy theories.

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