An investigation into the mysterious system failures found that playing the music video didn’t just crash the laptop it was on, but also caused laptops nearby to fail.
The music video for Janet Jackson’s 1989 hit Rhythm Nation was a sensation in terms of its choreography and direction.
Its foggy noir-like style won it numerous accolades, including a Grammy Award for Best Long Form Music Video.
But the dystopian pop video had something else going for it too – the power to crash laptops according to Microsoft, and not just those that it was playing on.
In a blog post this week, the company’s principal software engineer, Raymond Chen, said a colleague had recently shared a story with him from the days of providing product support for Windows XP.
“A major computer manufacturer discovered that playing the music video for Janet Jackson’s ‘Rhythm Nation’ would crash certain models of laptops,” wrote Mr Chen.
It was not just this manufacturer either. The investigation found that playing the music video also caused some of their competitors’ laptops to crash.
But the weirdest discovery was yet to come.
It didn’t even have to be the laptop that the music video was playing on. Simply playing the music video on one laptop could cause another close by to crash.
“It turns out that the song contained one of the natural resonant frequencies for the model of 5400 rpm laptop hard drives that they and other manufacturers used,” explained Mr Chen.
The issue was similar to an opera singer being able to shatter a glass by singing a particular tone.
Because sounds are simply acoustic waves, there is a wavelength or frequency for each material that can create the most vibration, known as the medium’s resonant frequency.
For the affected laptops – which were shipped in approximately 2005, according to a vulnerability report filed by The Mitre Corporation – that frequency was in the Janet Jackson music video.
Mitre describes the issue as a security vulnerability which could allow an attacker to force the system to crash using the audio signal from the Rhythm Nation music video.
Thankfully laptops today won’t suffer from the same issue – Microsoft says the manufacturer added “a custom filter in the audio pipeline that detected and removed the offending frequencies during audio playback”.