Basemental: Songs about Surveillance

The fight to prevent additional police operated surveillance cameras in downtown Northampton has dragged on since September — over four months, two calendar years, and even through a municipal election.

The Northampton City Council has voted 7-2 passing first a resolution and then an ordinance strongly limiting downtown cameras. But still, camera advocates insist that we must “compromise” in the spirit of “civility” and start this painstankly long process all over again to get a different outcome.

I’ve gone to several city council meetings and expressed my concerns about surveillance technology, I’ve written several pieces on the topic, and I’ve gotten to know the cohort of anti-surveillance activists who have gone to every meeting and raised important questions about the role of surveillance in a so-called democratic society.

I wanted to offer three of my favorite songs about surveillance that have made an impression on me. There is so much art about this topic covered by artists of many mediums and genres, and this is by no means representative of all that is out there, just all I could fit in my tiny column.

Fluoride by The Miami Dolphins

The Miami Dolphins from Minneapolis are still one of my favorite bands I heard for the first time last year. They have a knack for “chaotic, yet focused, punk salvos,” as I put it in my column about them back in September. The first (real) song, Fluoride, on their September record, Water Your Waiting For, takes aim at noxious government odors — chemical treatment of water and state surveillance among them. The careening song twists and turns, never quite getting comfortable, but stays on message when vocalist Beth Bambery muses “They say if you’re doing nothing wrong, then you have nothing to worry about, but I still put tape over my laptop’s camera because, I mean, you never know,” juxtaposing two dominant ways of thinking about surveillance.

1984 by Broken Water

The Olympia, Washington dream punk trio Broken Water takes on surveillance in the aptly titled song 1984, from their 2016 record, Wrought. The song’s music video that is made up almost exclusively of publicly available surveillance tape opens with cars passing on the highway at night. Huge, swelling guitars open the song making way for drummer and vocalist Kanako Pooknyw to ask calmly, almost glibly, “Who’s watching you?” as the song moves along like the cars the highway.

Camera Song by Jonah Simonak

My old bandmate Jonah just sent me a demo for a song he’s working on that I heard him play live last summer, tentatively titled “Camera Song.” Jonah has a talent for bedroom recordings (and is one of my favorite songwriters ever). This one is pretty bare — just a classical guitar, a lead track, and a little reverb. Much of the song has little to do with surveillance and more to do with concepts of personhood and dignity, at least in an abstract way. In it he sings “Mary on the beach at dusk, wiretap the ones you trust” before pivoting to a chorus that lists the various venues for surveillance cameras: “Cameras in the living room. Cameras in the bathroom. Cameras in the locker room. Cameras in the bedroom.” It’s difficult to listen to as Simonak interrogates the surveillance of private life, and thus the surrender of intimacy and dignity to whoever’s watching.

Will Meyer writes the Advocate’s bimonthly Basemental column, you can reach him at wsm10@hampshire.edu, or @willinabucket.

Will Meyer

Author: Will Meyer

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