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Party at the NSA: Surveillance Culture and Music

A playlist for two years in the post-Snowden world

/ December 9, 2015

This article was originally printed by our partners at IMPOSE.

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 marked 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.

“WATCH YOU” music in a culture of mass surveillance from lizpelly on 8tracks Radio.

“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.”

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