A computer manufacturer found that playing the Rhythm Nation video would not only make a laptop crash, but would also crash other laptops around it.
The music video for the Janet Jackson song Rhythm Nation was praised for its choreography and style, earning a Grammy award in 1990. Now it has received a new recognition from Microsoft – for its power to crash laptops.
The company’s principal software engineer, Raymond Chen, revealed a story from a colleague who provided product support for Windows XP.
Chen said a “major computer manufacturer” had discovered that playing the music video for this specific song on a laptop caused the device to crash.
The manufacturer began an investigation to isolate the cause of the issue. During this investigation, it was found that the music video also crashed the laptops of its competitors.
This was not the strangest discovery of the investigation, however. It was found that playing the music video on one laptop caused a laptop sitting nearby to crash “even though that other laptop wasn’t playing the video”.
What was the cause?
Chen said the investigation found that the song contained “one of the natural resonant frequencies” for the hard drive model used by the computer manufacturer and others at the time.
Here's our first video from our new series with Raymond Chen, @ChenCravat.
We asked him to tell us about the mystery wherein some music would crash a laptop!!?? pic.twitter.com/BRgfsWEaaC
— Windows Dev Docs (@WindowsDocs) August 12, 2022
This is similar to how someone singing at the right frequency can cause glass to shatter. Sound is an acoustic wave that causes molecules to vibrate. If the acoustic frequency of a sound matches the natural frequency of an object, it can start to vibrate at a higher amplitude.
“The manufacturer worked around the problem by adding a custom filter in the audio pipeline that detected and removed the offending frequencies during audio playback,” Chen explained in a blogpost.
“I’m sure they put a digital version of a ‘Do not remove’ sticker on that audio filter.”
Chen said that in the years since this workaround was added, it is possible that “nobody remembers why it’s there”.
“Hopefully, their laptops are not still carrying this audio filter to protect against damage to a model of hard drive they are no longer using.”
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Janet Jackson on her Unbreakable Tour in 2015. Image: J Vettorino via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)