Tag Archives: censorship

Special guest MIT sociologist Gary T. Marx interrogates MUSIC & SURVEILLANCE by exploring the super-superveillance powers of distrustful singers and songwriters. 

Alittlerichard theme reflected in early rhythm and blues and rock and roll music involves the boasting of a male lover’s super-surveillance powers to discover unfaithfulness. Such songs contained an implicit threat and may be intended to deter. In contrast to songs that came later, here we see watching by an individual rather than a government or the private sector. In 1956, in ‘Slippin’ and Slidin”, Little Richard has been ‘peepin’ and hidin” to discover his baby’s jive, and as a result he ‘won’t be your fool no more‘. Bobby Vee sings that ‘the night has a thousand eyes‘ and that these eyes will see ‘if you aren’t true to me‘. If he gets ‘put down for another‘ or told lies, he warns, ‘I’ll know, believe me, I’ll know‘.

The Who more directly imply the possession of extrasensory powers when they sing ‘There’s magic in my eyes’, in their hit single ‘I Can See for Miles’. The singer knows he has been deceived because, ‘I can see for miles and miles and miles and miles and miles‘.

privateeyesHall and Oates sing about the inability to escape their ‘Private Eyes‘, which, while ‘looking for lies‘, are ‘watching you / they see your every move’. The Doors sing about, ‘a spy in the house of love‘ who ‘can see you and what you do‘ and who knows your dreams and fears, as well as ‘everywhere you go, everyone you know’. The Alan Parsons Project makes direct use of technology to discover lies and to tell the deceiving lover to ‘find another fool because ‘I am the eye in the sky looking at you I can read your mind‘.

But the classic song of this type is ‘Every Breath You Take‘, performed by The Police and written by Sting, who reports that it is about ‘the obsessiveness of ex-lovers, their maniacal possessiveness’—written after a divorce. While Sting reports that he reads Arthur Koestler who wrote about the dangers of totalitarianism, he says his song is personal, not political. The female is warned that her faked smiles and broken bonds and vows will be observed by the singer. The song is about surveillance, ownership, and jealousy (Rolling Stone, March 1, 1984). While the song does not mention technological supports for the omnipresent and omnipotent surveillance it promises, it is easy to connect it with contemporary tools. One can hear the song to suggest an encyclopedic list of the means that were coming into wider use in the 1980s:

sting memeEvery breath you take [breath analyzer]
Every move you make [motion detector]
Every bond you break [polygraph]
Every step you take [electronic monitoring]
Every single day [continuous monitoring]
Every word you say [bugs, wiretaps, mikes]
Every night you stay [light amplifier]
Every vow you break [voice stress analysis]
Every smile you fake [brain wave analysis]
Every claim you stake [computer matching]
I’ll be watching you [reference to video]

Text courtesy of Gary T. Marx, who is also the author of ‘Soul Train: the New Surveillance in Popular Music’ (published in I. Kerr, V. Steeves, C. Lucock, Lessons From the Identity Trail, Oxford, 2008), and of an extensive list of surveillance related publications partly available here.


The new MUSIC & SURVEILLANCE episode is about a record published in 1974, ‘Diamond Dogs’, which was supposed to be David Bowie’s take on George Orwell’s dystopian novel ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four‘. Bowie started working on it in 1973, but he was denied by the author’s estate the right to produce his own adaptation, and decided to produce instead a loosely conceptual record about a future post-apocalyptic society, only partially linked to Orwell.

Preceding his more critically acclaimed Berlin phase, ‘Diamond Dogs’ sees Bowie touch upon a variety of styles, from glam to funk to hard rock. It includes the relatively Orwellian songs ‘1984‘, ‘Big Brother’ and ‘Candidate’, but it became especially famous for the hit  ‘Rebel Rebel’ (with lighter lyrics: “You’re a juvenile success / because your face is a mess”). One of its most controversial features was actually the cover, by Belgian Pop Art artist Guy Peellaert, because it showed the fictional genitalia of a fictional half-dog Bowie.

In 2013, ‘Diamond Dogs’ was again in the news as San Francisco singer-songwriter John Vanderslice decided to rework the whole record, and managed to finance his project through crowdfunding. ‘Vanderslice plays Diamond Dogs’ revisits the original in a more intimate mood and incorporate some changes, notably in song titles and the lyrics (for instance, Bowie’s exclamation ‘This ain’t rock’n’roll, this is genocide!‘ has been transformed into ‘This ain’t rock’n’rol. This is suicide‘). Incidentally, Vanderslice’s discography already counted a few pieces on surveillance, security and modern society, such as his 2000 song ‘Bill Gates Must Die‘, or the whole ‘Pixel Revolt’ LP. Text by Gloria González Fuster

The 4th episode of our MUSIC & SURVEILLANCE series is the first one to review an exhibition. Held at London’s Calvert 22 Gallery until 25 August 2013, ‘Sounding the Body Electric: Experiments in Art and Music in Eastern Europe 1957-1984‘ presents proposals at the crossroads of music and visual arts, covering the intellectual effervescence in Eastern European countries in the 1960s, and the more critical views emerging in the 1970s.

Wodiczko & Esztényi, Just Transistor Radios

Wodiczko & Esztényi, Just Transistor Radios

Works notably include ‘Just Transistor Radios’, by Polish artists Krzystof Wodiczko and Szábolcs Esztényi. The piece consists of people tuning and shaking transistors, evoking censorship practices through intentional radio jamming. It was originally performed in 1969, the same year when Wodiczko invented his Personal instrument‘, a pioneering device for selective listening.

Komar & Melamid, Passport

Russian conceptual artists Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid are present with the installation ‘Music Writing: Passport’. The work recalls a performance from the mid-1970s, when Soviet authorities refused them permission to fly to the United States to attend the first international exhibition about them. To express their discontent, the duo developed a unique coding system with which it translated the visa restrictions printed within their passports into music, which was eventually played simultaneously in apartments of various countries by friends and followers.

Years later Komar and Melamid famously composed ‘The most wanted song’ and the ‘The most unwanted song‘ ever, combining musical elements determined on the basis of the scientifical analysis of knowledge on people’s musical preferences gathered through opinion polls. The songs, intended to constitute a critique of the American democratic process, can be heard here.

A double CD compilation with music from the exhibition, called ‘Sounding the Body Electric‘, has been published by Polish label Bôlt. More information and mp3 excerpts: here. For videos selected by The Wire magazine: here. Text by Gloria González Fuster