Turn me on, dead media: A backward look at the re-enchantment of an old medium

Jacob Smith*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


In an era of CD-Rs and MP3 sound files, the vinyl phonograph record has attained iconic status as the quintessential old analog media form. An analysis of the theory and practice of "backmasking" reveals how a discourse of the occult "re-newed" the old medium of recorded sound one hundred years after its invention. Little scholarly attention has been paid to debates in the 1980s about the alleged presence of backmasking: the term given to the process whereby messages were thought to be placed in popular phonograph records such that their full meaning could be discovered only when the record was played in reverse. The backmasking controversy provides an example of the re-enchantment of an old medium, not through the work of avant-garde artists but conservative Christian preachers, anticult lecturers, and high school teachers, whose antimedia discourse was culturally productive far beyond their local origins or narrow intentions. To appreciate the multiple sources and unintended results of the backmasking panic, this article makes use of scholarly work on new media, the sociology of religion, the history of occult discourses surrounding the electronic media, debates about subliminal advertising, and the cultural history of recorded sound. By thus placing backmasking within these various historical and cultural frames, we are better able to understand how vernacular media theory and the grassroots public performances of traveling showmen constructed a sense of astonishment often associated with media technologies only when they are new.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)531-551
Number of pages21
JournalTelevision and New Media
Issue number6
StatePublished - Nov 2011


  • advertising
  • audience
  • consumer culture
  • new media
  • occult
  • sound

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cultural Studies
  • Visual Arts and Performing Arts


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