Surveillance in song

Holly Herndon in Metahaven's video for 'Home'
Holly Herndon in Metahaven’s video for ‘Home’

Art is not a mirror to reflect the world, but a hammer with which to shape it. This statement is variously attributed to Bertolt Brecht, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Leon Trotsky and Karl Marx, and is probably apocryphal in all cases. The extent to which it resonates depends on your perspective on the world and what you think about art’s other responsibilities. Those who expect art to provide pleasure may find themselves more on the side of the first clause; those who think the world is in need of re-shaping on the side of the second.

In music, where the corporate world works very hard indeed to ensure that pleasure and only pleasure is the product’s payload, mirrors are rarely tolerated and hammers are banned. Even culture-jammers who, jokingly, crunch music’s big data to determine beyond reasonable doubt that all contemporary popular music essentially sounds the same will ultimately see their findings re-appropriated by the music industry’s unstoppable assembly line, to help design more desirable consumer music.

We think of popular music as having a ‘long and proud’ history of delivering social commentary and criticism (folk music, music in the heyday of the civil rights movement, Nina Simone, Miles Davis, Dylan, Lennon, Springsteen, Billy Bragg, We are the World, Rage Against the Machine, etc.), and of musicians as some of the world’s most visible and effective spokespeople for causes. But it’s equally true that their music itself is, with so few exceptions, deeply conservative, pandering to tonal, structural and lyric archetypes without which commercial success would be elusive. Ignoring these archetypes would remove the wind from beneath their activist wings.

Yet every so often, music pops up that genuinely tries something different, offering a new perspective where all aspects of composition and performance are on the table and can be put to use as mirror and/or hammer.

Holly Herndon’s ‘Home’ is such a piece. Herndon is an experimental electronic musician whose roots are in the dance scene but whose work is as a serious composer of what can only be classified as art music (she’s a PhD student at Stanford’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics). The experimentation in her work takes different forms depending on what’s being explored, exposed or examined. Sometimes, she works with body sounds (her own or by partnering with dancers, for example) as the starting point to create (or generate) computationally transformed music that can be both unexpected and pleasurable. At other times, lyrics and singing are involved, not perhaps in any sort of traditional ‘pop song’ sense, but to deliberately create a sense of comfortable connection with the listener by exploiting the tropes of ‘vocalist’ and ‘song.’ In these pieces, I am strongly reminded of Laurie Anderson’s best work which is incredibly weird and deeply seductive at the same time, shamelessly pulling the listener in only to deliver an unexpected message, a kind of viral load right in the middle of the prettiness. Herndon calls this using pop music as a “carrier signal.” This is not a new idea (it goes back to Brecht and beyond), but for Herndon it seems to have found particular resonance in her work with Metahaven, a Dutch political design studio with whom she partnered for the production of the video for ‘Home,’ embedded below:

‘Home’ is about our current state of ubiquitous surveillance, about how our subjectivity is impacted by the constant threat of being monitored by invisible agents or agencies. Herndon notes that ‘Home’ (both the song and the Metahaven video production) were quite far outside of her typical comfort zone as it features near-conventional song-like vocals (comparatively untreated, at least in comparison to the rest of her work), and herself as the main performer/actor in the video. (Her thoughts on this and many other topics can be heard in an almost 2-hour video interview which I highly recommend. It’s billed as a ‘lecture’ but is really a conversation.) The point of ‘Home,’ in essence, is to examine the love-hate relationship one might develop with someone who is (suspected of) watching or listening. Here’s a reproduction of some of the lyrics (transcribed to the best of my ability, all copyrights obviously Herndon’s):

I can feel you in my room.
Why was I assigned to you?
I feel like I’m home on my own.
And it feels like you see me.

I know that you’ve been around.
Still I want, I want you to show your face.
You know that I’ve been around, still I want.
I know that you will be still.
I don’t know which me to be.

I know that you know me better than I know me.

The subject is, on the one hand, calling out those who are monitoring her. On the other, there is a relationship of desire between these parties: the agent knows her very well, better in fact than she knows herself, and there’s a certain pleasurable surrender implied by these lyrics. Perhaps the knowledge that someone invisible knows us better than we know ourselves helps combat our loneliness (surveillance as therapy); perhaps we believe that we could connect with those who are watching us as equals, that we might enter into a relationship of mutual knowledge if only we could open the missing second channel between us and them. (One cannot escape the obvious parallels to religious faith here: this desire to strike up a relationship with an invisible other that knows our deepest thoughts and observes our every move seems like an all-too-familiar pattern.)

Metahaven’s video is the hammer to Herndon’s (one-way) mirror. Their use of the NSA’s unbelievably creepy (and, at the same time, deeply banal) surveillance program logos as a waterfall of multi-coloured candy behind which we can barely see and hear Herndon, is outstanding. So are the straight-up images of Herndon’s serious and anxious gaze, straight at the camera, unsettling and touching at the same time. It will be hard to think about the subjective impact of the surveillance state again without somehow referencing these sounds and these images.

The strongest idea in ‘Home’ is its exploration of how being surveilled can be desirable or even pleasurable. It is, after all, a state of affairs we have chosen. (Less optimistically, we could say ‘brought on ourselves’ but that wouldn’t capture the essence of it: our democratic inactions, our paranoia about the world ‘out there’ constitute a collective choice.) Surveillance is not just what the ‘state’ does to us, ostensibly on our own behalf and to keep us safe from harm; it plays in many far more voluntary ways, too: in the ease with which we surrender our data to Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram etc.; in our willingness to carry yet another retail affinity card offering worthless points in exchange for our purchasing patterns and preferences; and so on. Surveillance is everywhere; it has now become a fundamental structuring principle of the commons, of the economy, of our public and private lives.

Vienna Teng is another musician who has thought deeply about the questions raised by surveillance. Teng is a singer-songwriter who has been releasing music since the early 2000s. She’s a gifted, intelligent songwriter with a natural ability to tell stories and assume a variety of narrative voices, and I have been following her work for years. There’s an entirely coincidental (though interesting) connection to Holly Herndon in that Vienna Teng — who studied computer science at Stanford — recorded her early songs at the facilities of Stanford’s CCRMA, according to Wikipedia. Teng maintains a ‘work life’ outside of her music career, first having worked as a software developer at Cisco immediately after her computer science degree, and later entering a graduate program in sustainable enterprise in Michigan which ultimately resulted in employment as a consultant at McKinsey in Detroit where she works today.

This dual perspective (working artist and management consultant) may account for some of Teng’s approaches and insights in this piece, the ‘Hymn of Acxiom’ (if biography can ever be said to be directly reflected in art):

leave your life open. you don’t have to hide.
someone is gathering every crumb you drop, these
(mindless decisions and) moments you long forgot.
keep them all.

let our formulas find your soul.
we’ll divine your artesian source (in your mind),
marshal feed and force (our machines will)
to design you a perfect love—
or (better still) a perfect lust.
o how glorious, glorious: a brand new need is born.

(Complete lyrics here.)

The ‘Hymn of Acxiom’ takes a slightly different perspective on surveillance by looking at how corporations collect and mine our personal information to manufacture new desires. It also articulates clearly how these desires (are constructed to) address deep needs in ourselves: again, the promise is that someone/something will know us more deeply than we can know ourselves, and that this will help us find fulfillment. Teng’s musical means are very different to Herndon’s, although they are also electronic: she uses a vocoder to change her voice, multi-tracking it into a choir of sorts, and the harmonies are reminiscient of contemporary American choral composers like Morten Lauridsen (a compositional debt which, I believe, Teng acknowledged somewhere when the Hymn first came out but I’m failing to dig up the reference at the moment). Striking, again, is the prettiness of the work, the strange collective voice of this choir earnestly and sweetly articulating the corporate world’s entirely innocent intention to discover our souls.

The experience of listening to this performance is simultaneously touching and disorienting: these voices appear to declare their intentions so transparently, so helpfully, seemingly offering such vast improvements to the drabness of our modern existence. As the work progresses, we realize the menace, that we are being asked for everything in return for less than nothing at all.

This dialectic between paying the (necessary) price to participate in the social world, much of which is online now, and the certain knowledge that in every moment our data is being exploited in order to sell someone something — perhaps even to sell us something that will seem like it understands us, like we’ve been waiting for it — has offered much food for thought lately. I am unsure about what our response should be, let alone where to look for remedies. The typical response I observe in my circle is to try and ‘leave’ the most visible hotspots of data collection and surveillance (Facebook) and return to some sort of pre-social-media state. I think this falls into the ‘nostalgia trap’ that so much activism seems to rely on in order to articulate its own archetypes. If we are being honest with ourselves, nobody actually wants to return to a world without smartphones because they are terribly useful. Their usefulness creates a kind of vacuum that can be filled with all manner of goings-on that we would reject if we were asked whether we wanted them. We will tolerate this vacuum for as long as possible because the technology’s usefulness (or desirability, or the pleasure it provides… this argument can be made along several different vectors) is so pronounced and seemingly meets so many of our needs so accurately.

At the beginning of the interview I mentioned above, Holly Herndon talks about how she tries to make music that is entirely contemporary, that avoids falling into nostalgia or escapism and that facilitates conversations about current issues. These two songs about surveillance are very effective conversation-starters, helping us understand more clearly why the debate about surveillance is anything but simple.

4 thoughts on “Surveillance in song”

  1. Johann, could you give me the names of some of the German experimentalists? Particularly those with the ’68 political bent? Thanks, John

  2. Great post man, my first exposure to the artistic expression of ‘surveillance’ through music. What are your opinions on Astro Noise ? If any.

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