1. YACHT featuring Marc Maron, “Party At The NSA”
From Rockwell’s “Somebody’s Watching Me” to Isis’ “Backlit,” songs have long dealt with the paranoia of being stalked or spied upon. But with the revelation this year of the extent of the NSA’s domestic surveillance program—thanks to whistleblower Edward Snowden—more attention than ever has fallen on the specific topic of electronic surveillance. In response to Snowden’s plight as a fugitive, not to mention the revelation that America is even less of a land of the free than anyone might have suspected, indie-dance band YACHT teamed up with comic Marc Maron for “Party At The NSA.” Upbeat yet soberingly satirical, the song makes its stance on the issue clear with the refrain, “Let that whistle blow.”
2. Nine Inch Nails, “Satellite”
Nine Inch Nails mastermind Trent Reznor has explored the subject of electronic surveillance numerous times, most extensively on 2007’s dystopian concept album Year Zero (whose song “The Great Destroyer” speaks of being watched by the government and “their shiny satellite”). But Reznor cranks up the Sputnik-phobia on “Satellite.” One of the most sinister cuts on this year’s Hesitation Marks, the song is a slithery, synth-steeped warning to “watch what you think,” because the surveillance satellites are “up there somewhere”—and they’re “everywhere, listening.” It’s a harrowing stare into the hidden eyes of those who stare at others.
3. Judas Priest, “Electric Eye”
Trent Reznor has a kindred spirit in Judas Priest’s Rob Halford. Although Priest’s 1982 “Electric Eye” was written long before Nine Inch Nails existed—and when Snowden was still in diapers—the threat of being controlled via institutionalized observation is as old as Jeremy Bentham’s 18th-century invention of the Panopticon. But the advent of 20th-century technology, plus George Orwell’s 1984, gave new life to those fears, which Halford taps into on “Electric Eye.” “Up here in space / I’m looking down on you,” he snarls, adding, “Feel my stare, always there.” Then he confirms the governmental source of said surveillance: “I’m elected electric spy.”
4. Jill Scott, “Watching Me”
R&B singer Jill Scott sounds anything but strident on “Watching Me.” In the 2000 song, a silky groove underpins her airy, supple vocals. As the song progress, Scott’s vocals quicken then curdle—and the nature and target of her outrage becomes obvious. “Satellites over my head / Transmitters in my dollars,” begins her litany of transgressions against civil liberties, which includes her righteous condemnation of “video cameras locked on me.” The fact that “Watching Me” was written only a little more than a year before 9/11—and the subsequent passage of the PATRIOT Act, which helped pave the way for the NSA’s current overreach—makes it that much more chilling.
5. The Firm, “Phone Tap”
Not all tunes about electronic surveillance are concerned with governmental tyranny. Some are all about good, old-fashioned cops-and-robbers stakeouts. On “Phone Tap,” a 1997 song by the hip-hop supergroup The Firm, the quartet of Nas, AZ, Nature, and Dr. Dre hold forth on the criminal ins and outs of dodging bullets—as well as detectives’ bugs. “We got your phone tapped / What you gonna do,” raps Dre over a deceptively laidback track, “’Cause sooner or later we’ll have your whole crew.” The game of cat-and-mouse that ensues foretells a dynamic that would be more intricately explored in the HBO series The Wire.
6. The Rolling Stones, “Fingerprint File”
In 1974, the American record-buying public was reeling from the resignation of Richard M. Nixon, whose presidency ended in August of that year following an investigation into his wiretapping of political enemies in the Watergate scandal. The same month, The Rolling Stones released “Fingerprint File.” An example of the band’s dalliance with funk, the song embodies the disillusionment and fear brought on by Nixon’s deviousness. “Listening to me / On your satellite,” Mick Jagger sings in a moment of paranoid prescience. “What a price, what a price to pay / Good night, sleep tight,” he then whispers devilishly as the song dissolves into an eerie silence.
7. Bauhaus, “The Spy In The Cab”
When the real-world issue of electronic surveillance gets too scary, leave it to Bauhaus to make it scarier—by making it unreal. The goth group’s 1980 song “The Spy In The Cab” feels like a spider crawling into one’s ear, and Peter Murphy’s vision of being watched is suitably creepy. Frozen in terror after discovering, “Hidden in the dashboard / The unseen, mechanized eye,” Murphy layers on the atmospheric dread in the face of omnipresent surveillance via the lenses of cameras in cars: “A 24-hour, unblinking watch / Installed to pry, installed to cop.”
8. Pigmeat Markham, “Your Wire’s Been Tapped”
Songs about electronic surveillance aren’t new, and neither are they always about the government tyranny or police oppression. Long before Watergate, and back when the NSA was in its infancy, the comedian, actor, and recording artist Pigmeat Markham released “Your Wire’s Been Tapped,” a cautionary tale against running around with married women—or at least against getting caught. “Now things have changed / And nothing is like it was in yesteryear,” Markham barks, lamenting the fact that a cuckolded husband might be bugging the line when you’re phoning his wife. “If you hear quick exposure like a face has been slapped / Watch it, skip it, your wires have been tapped,” he advises, then adds, “Watch out, don’t answer that phone!” Wise words then, wise words now.