Music and mass surveillance culture

Post Author: Liz Pelly

Surveillance is happening everywhere. We rarely see its microscope, can barely feel its proximity. But if you listen closely, sometimes you can hear it.

June 2015 marks two years since the inner-works of the NSA’s ongoing global surveillance programs were revealed by Edward Snowden, via troves of internal documents leaked to Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras in a hotel room in Hong Kong, informing their reports for The Guardian and The Washington Post. The public has since learned a tremendous deal about the governmental interceptions of telephone and Internet records, specifically metadata mining, elaborate programs like PRISM and XKeyscore, and the reach of “Five Eyes” a/k/a the NSA’s core group of international partners. Perhaps most importantly, our cultural understanding of surveillance has expanded; the vocabulary surrounding something quite intangible has been demystified, and surveillance has been re-articulated as a wide-reaching, everyday oppression.

What does it mean that in as much time, a good deal of music has attempted to make sense of the mass surveillance state we all live in? On a conceptual and literal level, surveillance has long been taken up by musicians. It’s been discussed by countless rappers, which makes sense, considering the way police and the FBI have spied on hip-hop communities for decades. Surveillance has also been a topic in the mainstream pop canon: see The Rolling Stones’ “Fingerprint File”; Stevie Wonder’s “Big Brother”; Judas Priests’ “Electric Eye”. Nine Inch Nails’ treatment of surveillance (which they wrote about at length on 2007’s Year Zero) was enough to convince Laura Poitras to have the band score her 2014 film Citizenfour, using selections from the album Ghosts I–IV. A recent surveillance-themed book release party I attended was soundtracked by Sting’s “Every Step You Take” on loop for hours. This list goes on.

Musicians have adapted to our new, more universally complicated relationship to surveillance, implicating its complexities into pop and underground music. In an era of widely acknowledged and understood mass surveillance, songs taking on the subject have considerably more to accomplish. There are songs that on the most direct level, simply want listeners to see and feel the realities of state spying, and as an extension, the oppressive power plays that shape surveillance. But recent surveillance music also deals in the more micro ways that surveillance culture confuses us, makes us feel helpless and alone, and affects us daily: from the scary feeling of being watched walking home at night, and the sad feelings of digital alienation, to the eerily intimate feelings we can have about our laptops and gadgets.

“Carry a telephone, which can disclose, name and location, the address of your home,”
sing Olympia trio Broken Water over a cycling, psychedelic dream-punk riff on their 2015 song “1984,” one that serves to take the intricacies of metadata mining and make them feel more human. “What are you buying on your card?” the song asks. “Are you aware you are observed?” The band even made a video for the track, comprised mostly of publicly-available surveillance footage.

It’s a fittingly eerily slow-moving song, but other punks taking up surveillance do so with more urgency: “We walk at night … and we talk at night … but my favorite thing to do … is watch you … WATCH YOU … WATCH YOU,” starts the frightening song from DC post-punk 4-piece Priests’ second tape, one that gender flips the realities of the late-night gaze, highlighting the particular creepiness of surveillance of our bodies in the dark. “WATCH YOU, WATCH YOU, WATCH YOU,” drummer Daniele Daniele repeats throughout, placing the act of interpersonal surveillance at the heart of its message.

What does music sound like in a world of mass surveillance? There are more questions to ask first. What, for example, does a world determined by imbalanced power dynamics sound like? What does economic inequality sound like? What does racial profiling sound like? What does the war on drugs sound like? The prison industrial complex? Surveillance culture is an extensions of these mechanisms. So in effect, the music of mass surveillance is the music of struggle against capitalism and patriarchy and racism, principles that surveillance culture exists to protect.

“The police are an institution that have roots in slave surveillance and still use many of the same tactics and language today,” said Victoria Ruiz of Downtown Boys in a 2014 interview, discussing the band’s song “Slumlord Sal” and offering crucial context on the history of surveillance as related to police brutality and systemic racism in the U.S. “Even with amazing community organizing done to bite away at stop and frisk policies and racial profiling; the rights of the police are the rights of terror and racism, and Downtown Boys would like to make clear our abhorrence and disapproval,” she concluded.

New York rapper Heems also specifically and seamlessly links surveillance with racial profiling and stereotyping on his 2015 track “Patriot Act,” a clear highlight from his solo record Eat Pray Thug.  “Politics make victims for income / Parlor tricks, schism from system,” the song begins. “That’s Patriot Act / That’s a privacy prison / That Pentagon / They vision is PRISM / Got what we ask for, someone to listen / Handcuffs smother our phone … Guard your home, label with stones / Government drones, cookie-cutter clones.”

“Early” by Run the Jewels, from 2014’s RTJ2, primarily connects racism with police brutality and the prison industrial complex, it’s striking video juxtaposing images of police in riot gear with stark protest illustrations. But it also specifically calls attention to the ineffectiveness of police surveillance: “Woke up in the same air you huff, early / By twelve o’clock the whole Earth felt dirty,” El-P raps near the song’s conclusion. “Street Lamps stare when you walk watch the birdie / They’ll watch you walk to the store they’re recording / But didn’t record cop when he shot, no warning / Heard it go pop, might have been two blocks.”

Meanwhile, experimental and electronic artists have used surveillance itself as a platform, incorporating surveillance into their work in order to comment on it. “I think music can have a role in helping direct conversations and impacting how people are thinking about aspects outside of music,” said California experimental composer Holly Herndon in a 2014 interview. “What does now sound like? It sounds like alway being connected to other people online, it sounds like economic uncertainty, it sounds like post-WikiLeaks…”

Herndon’s work is an apt starting point in a discussion of contemporary surveillance music. Specifically, Herndon’s work deals with sousveillance, a term that refers to self-surveillance or self-monitoring, a term that has gained new meaning in the post-Snowden, post-WikiLeaks present. In her work, like the song “Chorus”, Herndon samples the sounds of her typical online experience — the bleeps and bloops of perusing Skype and YouTube and Facebook — and uses those sounds as samples. To Herndon, the act of spying on ourselves through our digital interfaces speaks to how cultures of surveillance impact our lives on intimate levels; she considers the laptop to be a hyper-personal instrument, and music a medium for considering topics like surveillance. At live shows, she’s played in front of projections of a friend perusing social media profiles; and sometimes, by finding the event page for the show, it’s actually profiles of those in attendance.

And still, elsewhere in pop, surveillance anxiety has fueled songs about our digital lives: EMA’s song “Satellites” spoke to the 2013 NSA leaks by chance (“When I wrote it, I wasn’t thinking about it as this surveillance anthem,” she said in a 2014 interview. “I had these ideas of satellites and space being connected to the Cold War and the Space Race … It gained this new meaning post-Snowden and Russian invading Crimea.”) while St. Vincent’s “Digital Witness” deconstructs with our dependence on social media (“Digital witnesses / what’s the point of even sleeping / if I can’t show it if you can’t see me / what’s the point of doing anything?”) and also touching on how that dependence is exploited (“So I stopped sleeping yeah I stopped sleeping / won’t somebody sell me back to me?”).

In 2010, M.I.A. made a succinct statement though her song “The Message”, predicting the realities of mass digital surveillance: “Headbone connects to the neckbone Neckbone connects to the armbone Armbone connects to the handbone / Handbone connects to the internet Connected to the Google Connected to the government.” The song was critically dismissed, with Pitchfork even calling it “a bad demo with a simplistic, paranoid rap that’s as rhetorically effective as someone in a dorm room ranting about the C.I.A. inventing A.I.D.S.” and “a song that demolishes the possibility of addressing a serious issue about privacy with any degree of depth or nuance.”

In 2015, there is no room to be dismissive of artists prying open such discussions. Surveillance is a concept that must be understood if we are to understand the systems that it protects, the systems it works for; the ways we can protect ourselves, especially those who are engaging in cultures of dissent, activists, radicals, or anyone who is trying to resist passively creating value for corporations. At the same time, our experiences of surveillance have grown more personal since 2010; perhaps we’ll never fully understand the infrastructural links that M.I.A. was mapping out in “The Message”, but what artists can map out are their personal experiences with surveillance, searches for emotional response, interpretations of the spectacle, pointed moments of resistance amid such enormous, immaterial phenomena. These songs maybe don’t provide answers to the wide-open questions of surveillance, but legitimize the idea that these systems and everyday oppressions must be constantly interrogated.


PRIESTS – “WATCH YOU” (june 2013)
E.M.A. – “SATELLITES” (december 2013)
ST. VINCENT – “DIGITAL WITNESS” (january 2014)
DOWNTOWN BOYS – “SLUMLORD SAL” (february 2014)
HOLLY HERNDON – “CHORUS” (january 2014)
RUN THE JEWELS – “EARLY” (october 2014)
HEEMS – “PATRIOT ACT” (march 2015)
BROKEN WATER – “1984” (april 2015)