A subjective selection of the best tracks of 2020 contributing to a better understanding of privacy, data protection, surveillance and a great variety of related issues.
Bell Towers ‘Privacy’ [YouTube] ‘Now the club is empty. All I have is privacy’. The song that best captured 2020, even if it was quite over-optimistic. Do not miss the video, its cheap 80s effects and random 90s footage, with Rohan Bruce Bell-Towers singing gently and desperately: ‘I don’t know what to do, please tell me what to do with my privacy’.
Jasmine Guffond ‘Dotcompound‘ [YouTube] One of my highlights of 2020 was preparing the ‘Sounds of Surveillance‘ playlist for Wire with Jasmine Guffond. Our conversation around that selection was later transcribed in full, coinciding with a broadcast for the Oscillations festival, and is accessible here. This track is excellent, just like the rest of her record ‘Microphone permissions’, which the label Mego files under experimental and alternative punk, and maybe so should we.
Systemabsturz: ‘Staatstrojaner‘ [Youtube] Lively electro-pop in German about State remote access to your life. It is the only song classified in Bandcamp under ‘datenschutz-elektropunk‘. Do not miss their No-Budget-Quarantäne-Video, and also this other song on the state of the Internet and cats.
Laurel Halo‘Hyphae’ [YouTube] Beautiful first track of ‘Possessed’, Laurel Halo’s soundtrack for the 2018 experimental documentary ‘Possessed‘ by Metahaven and Rob Schröder. In case you wonder, it is not your phone that vibrates during the song, it is the song.
Protomartyr ‘Processed by the boys’ [YouTube] A tragicomic work about the subtle move from democracy to an authoritarian regime, with passages like ‘fill out the form, download the app, submit your face into the scanner‘, and an amazing video deserving repeated views.
Secret Number ‘Privacy‘ [performance video: YouTube; dance practice: YouTube] This K-pop girl group had a real hit with this number, with the official video now well beyond the million of views. Unclear whether the dance moves have a direct link with the lyrics.
Xylitol ‘I want a refund’ [Bandcamp] Energetic hardcore punk against the algorithmic police state. Very inspired and perspicuous lyrics.
Fontaines DC ‘Televised minds’ [YouTube] A song about online echo chambers by this Dublin post-punk band which is really not bad.
Gaudi ‘Secret Service Dub (with Dennis Bovell)’ [YouTube] This track comes from ‘100 Years of Theremin‘, a record celebrating – in dub mode – the 100th anniversary of the invention of the theremin by Leon Theremin. The theremin is an instrument played by moving hands in the air, without any direct contact with the instrument. Leon Theremin, the person, is probably the best historical embodiment of the nexus between sound and surveillance. He did not only invent the theremin, but also developed innovative security solutions for Lenin, sold metal detectors to Alcatraz, pioneered automated illumination of shop windows as people by walked by in New York, and created a microphone that was used for political spying during the Cold War, among a variety of other achievements.
Shanghai Restoration Project ‘Present continuous’ [Soundcloud] From the ‘Brave New World Symphony’ record, which does not hide its interest in dystopia. A very pleasing track that seems not to talk about anything in particular, until it starts mentioning ‘faces gathered on screen with a slight delay’.
Mindframe ‘Artificial Intelligence’ [Bandcamp] A punk gem. The lyrics start alright (‘I feel connected through the web’), but my favourite part is the chorus, which sounds like something like ‘AIya ya ya yay ya AIA AAA AI”.
Somaticae ‘Advanced Middle East Systems’ [Bandcamp] Protest minimal techno from France. The track comes from the album ‘Amesys’, a sort of concept record on the French company accused of selling surveillance technology to Muammar Gaddafi.
Blancmange ‘Antisocial media’ [YouTube] ‘Correct me if I am wrong’ had never sounded so unnatural as in this song which also mentions Orwellian thought police. From the record ‘Mindset’, also featuring ‘Diagram’ (‘I want transparency, I want transparency, I want transparency‘).
Wrangler ‘Machines Designed (To Eat You Up)’ [YouTube] Algorithmic fat traders (?). Deep surveillance. A network for accumulation. Spyware. Summing up: machines designed to eat us up.
Childish Gambino ‘Algorhythm‘ [YouTube] Finally officially released, this song had already been played live by Gambino, for instance here. It is about alienation and addiction to the modern (online) life, and even about sharenting (‘You sell your daughter on that data stream, dopamine make it hit now‘).
Shopping ‘Follow me’ [YouTube (Lyrics version)] A touching, melodious conversation with a CCTV camera. Shopping is of course often connected to surveillance.
Black Dresses ‘888db Cloud (100 Gecs cover)’ [YouTube] This Toronto duo disbanded in 2020 due to ‘extended invasion of privacy‘. They said goodbye to the Internet covering an explicit lyrics song about – and against – the Internet.
Saito ‘Surveillance‘ [Bandcamp] Excellent Japanese industrial-like modular improvisation, on Mille Plateaux.
Ela Minus ‘Let them have the internet’ [YouTube] This instrumental track is trying to tell us ‘let them have the internet, because we have everything else’, according to the website Genius, famous for listing lyrics of songs but apparently also explaining the meaning of instrumentals. Possibly not an accurate assessment of reality, but a nice instrumental.
drøne ‘Influence machines‘ [Bandcamp] Found sounds and field recordings from/in the machines. The track is in the fourth album of drøne, who are Mark Van Hoen (Locust) and Mike Harding.
Xynn ‘Computed man’ [Spotify] This song, about human computers and computer men, is actually from 1980 but it was reissued in 2020 in ‘Musik Music Musique – 1980: The Dawn Of Synth Pop‘, a compilation published by Cherry Red [YouTube], which explores a period in which technology and surveillance were a privileged source of inspiration for pop artists, generating nowadays revived interest. The compilation includes many other songs about automation, like ‘Galactica’ by Rockets (‘I was designed in a robotic way, I am programmed to help the human race‘), ‘European man’ by Landscape (‘Information processes are moving in’), ‘I’m a computer’ by The Goo-Q, or ‘A circuit like me’ by The Metronomes, occasionally directly touching upon privacy, like M’s ‘Official secrets’ (‘There are some things you can’t hide, all is revealed to be denied‘).
Privacy Issues ‘Privacy issues‘ [Bandcamp] The minimalist but powerful track was finally officially published this year as part of the ‘Privacy Issues’ album, and made it to the list of best punk albums of 2020 by Bandcamp.
Biznaga ‘2k20’ [YouTube] Anarcho-pop-punk from Madrid, in Spanish. They sing (in Spanish) ‘democracy is surveillance, and I am only information‘, with a rather catchy melody. They also have this other song on fake online lives.
stAllio! ‘Ok Google‘ [Bandcamp] Simple, but effective snappy electronics with simple but effective lyrics: ‘Hey Google, Hey Siri, Hey Siri, Ok, Hey Google, Hey Alexa, Hey Alexa, Ok Google, Hey Google, Hey Siri, Hey Siri, Ok’.
Cargo Cults ‘Reign of the Tech‘ [Bandcamp] ‘I got the feds in my pocket, i can pay with my watch’: the lyrics are worth a hundred conference panels, bringing together Snowden, Google, Alexa, facial recognition, Instagram, and much more.
Pleasurekraft ’Panopticon (The Patron Saint of Global Surveillance)’[YouTube] It might start like just another techno track, but it gets increasingly dark: ‘you showed me I’m nothing, a puppet you need to control’, says the song. Its ‘The Social Dilemma’-inspired video is accompanied by a reading list, referring to Cathy O’Neil, Shoshana Zuboff and others.
Fondwell ‘Privacy Policies (demo)’ [Bandcamp] Nervous rock from Argentina which includes the sentence ‘All I want and I need are privacy policies’.
Left x Krofica ‘Prediction advice‘ [Bandcamp] A song about automated recommendations on transparency by an artificial human voice who says ‘Siri my favorite souldier, Siri my favorite spy, my future governor, the friendly device’. From a compilation titled ‘Sounds From Slovenian Bedrooms III‘.
Dreamcrusher ‘Panopticon!’ [YouTube] An extended, quite noisy and occasionally aggressive dark exploration of this classic, atemporal concept.
Katie Dey ‘Data’ [Soundcloud] The definitive ode to pure data love: ‘Hold it on your servers, hold it on your drives, my data’.
Nap Eyes ‘Mark Zuckerberg‘ [Youtube] Sunny pop song on some of the many persistent open questions about Mark Zuckerberg.
Steve Moore ‘DataVision‘ [YouTube] From the compilation ‘Portals: A Kosmiche Journey through Outer Worlds and Inner Space’, exploring the connections between cosmic-sounding modular synths and 70s utopian science fiction, because retro futuristic synth music is a very real thing in 2020.
Vindit ‘Algorithm man’ [YouTube Music] Melancholic Brazilian synthpop about the algorithm man, who is ‘tying bigger knots’, as ‘not a day goes by he’s not collecting thoughts, collective dots’.
Emily Jeanne ‘Redefining privacy’ [YouTube] Belgian electronic track from the mini-album ‘Public by default’.
Ariel Sharratt & Mathias Kom‘Rise up Alexa’ [YouTube] Protest folk calling for smart assistants to unite. The video, in which Alexa is represented by a homemade cardboard robot, might soon be added to my list of favourite videos featuring robots.
Fornax Void‘Ancient data tapes’ [Bandcamp] One of the 55 charming tracks that compose the conceptual record ‘Cyberspace database’, available in different formas including a limited Executive Edition which has a printed cardboard software box, a floppy Disk with the song ‘Corporate Intranet Menu Music (Renoise File)‘, and a hand-bound User’s Guide printed on 1994 dot matrix printer, all presumably dispatched from somewhere in Switzerland. Tagged by the artist ‘semiconductorwave‘.
Kev Minney ‘God is an algorithm’ [YouTube] In which Kev tenderly explains he gave his information, and they notified him.
Monochrome Echo ‘The stalker’ [Bandcamp] It is the year 2320, the Europa Outpost has lost contact with their landing party and the captain realizes they might not be alone on the station. ‘The stalker’ echoes this indefinite surveillance on the moon. The whole ‘Moonkeeper’ record is quite good, signed by Simon Little, who is the bass player in The Divine Comedy.
Cabaret Voltaire ‘Be free’ [YouTube] It is not easy to announce and comment upon a dystopian future consistently for decades without sounding obsolete, especially if one of your points is that the dystopia is (and thus was) also here. Richard H. Kirk nevertheless keeps trying, and he came back with ‘Shadow of fear’, which includes a series of numbers like this one, not particularly innovative but reassuring predictable.
Control Room ‘Surveillance’ [Bandcamp]. If you are in a German duo called Control Room, you are bound to end up writing a song called ‘Surveillance‘. It will feature some retro synths and somebody asking you to please let him go.
Gashi ‘Paranoid’ [YouTube] Everybody should look at Gashi’s video where he walks around the city wearing a 1984 jacket, and singing ‘someone’s watching me‘.
MyLittleRobotFriend ‘Privacy pirates’ [Bandcamp] It starts with the fundamental question ‘Privacy, what does it mean?’, and then it flows into the digital present and the future of cyber-nations.
Sussy ‘Private life’ [YouTube Music] Sophisticated electronic pop about your private life, and about too much information in general.
Anti Drone Squad ‘Self-surveillance (Neinzer’s Orbital Reflix)’ [YouTube Music] Introspective dance floor electronics from Anti Drone Squad’s ‘Pax digitalis EP’ [which has a nice YouTube video].
Nitro ‘No privacy / No caption needed’ [YouTube] The Italian lyrics says iPhone, bot, drone, and unfollow, as well as ‘no privacy‘.
System Restore ‘Privacy’ [Bandcamp] A bit of skate punk straight to the point: ‘They’re watching you, they’re watching me, they record you, they record me’. The track is from a record including also a song called ‘Wash your hands’ which is apparently not about Covid-19.
Billiam ‘Privacy’ [Bandcamp] Billiam is based in Melbourne and plays ultra lo-fi synth punk. In this track he seems to sing ‘privacy protects you and me’, or something similar. He has actually published a variety of inspiring songs this year, such as ‘I don’t wanna be with you‘ or ‘I need a robot‘, as well as ‘Life On(The)Line‘ with the band Dot.com.
The Fight‘Their new aesthetic’ [Spotify] Hardcore punk from New York, with a clear warning: ‘Data mining quantifies the value of your tortured life. Vibrations tell you you must work harder. The machine sends a clear new order. You push your body until it fails. Machines prevail’.
A review of 2020 in this field would not be complete without mentioning the death of Florian Schneider, member of Kraftwerk, authors of many influential pop songs about machines and data (and who by the way had also managed to reach the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) with a copyright case, Case C-476/17). Also died this year Simeon Coxe, of the Silver Apples, whose music had been using machines to talk inter alia about machines and humans since the end of the 1960s.
A number of privacy and data protection experts who might wish to remain anonymous contributed to this list with their kind suggestions. I am extremely grateful to all of them, and also to Gary T. Marx, David Barnard-Wills, Jolien Ghyselinck, Brendan Van Alsenoy, Sebastian Golla, Loer Franck, Sarah Eskens, Niels van Dijk, Mathias Vermeulen, Jörn Reinhardt, Josep Martín, Isabel Díaz, Cristina Gallego, Justin Currie, Yolanda Gallego, Laura García, Óscar Hidalgo, Judith, and Fátima.