From the stage of the Stop Watching Us rally. Photos by the author.
In August, my band, YACHT, wrote a song called “Party at the NSA.” It’s a send-up of the NSA’s mass surveillance policies; we wrote it in a fit of frustration following the revelations of the Edward Snowden leaks. After we finished recording, however, we asked ourselves: what does a protest song mean in 2013? In a cultural climate where recorded music is increasingly valueless—and the conversations move so quickly that thoughtful discussion is often superseded by breathless, time-sensitive reactions—can a political song still make any kind of impact?
With this question in mind, we set about making a protest song suitable for the 21st century. Instead of holding out for an album, which would calcify the message, we built a microsite (PartyAtTheNSA.com) to sell the MP3 directly in exchange for pay-what-you-want donations to the Electronic Frontier Foundation. We boosted the signal by enlisting comedian Marc Maron, who has previously partnered with the EFF to fundraise against Patent Trolls, to shred a guitar solo on the song. We tried to leverage the clickbait of a new single to raise money and awareness.
In the last few months, “Party at the NSA” has managed to raise a decent chunk of cash for the EFF, who litigate on behalf the public interest against the US government. The campaign also led to an invitation to perform “Party at the NSA” at last weekend's 'Stop Watching Us' Rally Against Mass Surveillance in Washington DC. The gathering was organized by a diverse coalition of organizations ranging from the ACLU, Free Press, the EFF, and the Center for Democracy and Technology to poltiical groups like the Libertarian and Green Parties.
It’s hard to define what, exactly, makes music political. The protest music that galvanized my parents’ generation was often coded, using poetic language to signal its stance to like-minded listeners. The dissent contained in this music is necessarily time-sensitive, designed to twig ears in a particular moment in time. Listening to it now, it’s easy to miss the message.
After the the 1960s, political music became more overt. Gone were the utopian proclamations, the flowery metaphors and poetic subterfuge of the folk generation—replaced by the brutal sentiment of punk rock, which pushed much more forcefully against the status-quo, often with self-conscious, snarling irony. The Dead Kennedys suggested a holiday in Cambodia; the Sex Pistols rolled their eyes and touted the Queen.
When I was in college, I read Chomsky and Adbusters and listened to Riot Grrrl bands that tore at the patriarchy, pillorying unrealistic beauty standards and sexism. In the Bush years, there seemed to be a moment of literalism in protest art: none of the hippies’ gentility, none of the cynicism of punk. Taking a cue from our parents’ generation, my friends and I protested the Iraq War in the streets. But as we grew older, the war machine trundled on unabated and consumer culture continued its long strange trip. I became disillusioned with both the music, and the practice, of earnest protest.
This feels somewhat systemic among my peers. I think we all got distracted by the Internet, for better or worse. New demands were placed on our time, among them the arbitrary, but endlessly compelling, task of maintaining front-facing digital selves. On one hand, I’m genuinely surprised at the lack of active political or even ideological stances in the indie music world. On the other, I get it. I don’t mean this with any contempt, but it seems we might be so concerned with maintaining our personal brands—those aspects of our identities which translate to pop-cultural, and ultimately commercial, viability—that we’ve lost sight of the bigger picture.
But dystopian times call for desperate measures. We’re all citizens of the Internet, after all; many young Americans feel a greater emotional allegiance to this digital space than the geopolitical nation. YouTube comments notwithstanding, the Internet doesn’t marginalize people, and it doesn’t actively work to worsen the economic and social disparities that so damage culture. Knowing, for certain, that this safe space is being observed by the largest and most obscure of US Government agencies—to know that the NSA are spying on our personal communications without any meaningful oversight—was enough to jump-kick my own apathy. And, judging from my experience at the Rally Against Mass Surveillance, the apathy of many others.
From the vantage of the small stage at the foot of the Capitol reflecting pool, the crowd gathered for the Stop Watching Us Rally Against Mass Surveillance had the front-loaded, smartphone-wielding bulk and the dissipate edges of any outdoor festival. There were kooks—an older fellow in a trench-coat handed me some MK ULTRA propaganda before politely asking, “do you have any literature for me?”—elaborate drone sculptures, and snarky placards (“United We Scan!”).
There were organizers with clipboards, news vans, and people clearly pulling double-duty on their police-state Halloween costumes. The lineup of speakers included former NSA executive and whistleblower Thomas Drake, an 11-year-old child reading a verbose Orwell quote from a piece of cardboard, and both your requisite spoken-word and djembe freestyle situations. Dennis Kucinich was there, and Naomi Wolf, and Jesselyn Radack, a director with the Government Accountability Project, who read a statement from Edward Snowden to a reverent crowd.
When we made “Party at the NSA,” we had to reconsider what, exactly, protest music represents in the 21st century. The same questions must be asked now about protests themselves. The Rally Against Mass Surveillance drew a few thousand people; despite its zeal and political diversity—as one of the speakers said, “it’s not about Right and Left but Right and Wrong”—from the vantage of the White House itself, it can’t have looked that intimidating. But politicians and media would be wrong to dismiss Saturday’s rally as a small happening. Like so many things these days, its reach was vaster than its physical footprint. Only a few hours after we played, we got on a plane to fly home to Los Angeles. At the airport, television monitors tuned to CNN showed clips of the rally. The cameras shooting straight into the fray, it looked huge. Honestly, isn’t that all that matters?
The rally attendees felt less like traditional protesters than biological telepresence agents, each representing the nebulous thousands of people in their extended social networks. Some ten thousand people watched the livestream of the rally online. It seemed everyone around me was employing the #StopWatchingUs hashtag with vigor. No hand was without a camera, and a small army of tech guys manned cascading Tweetdecks from behind the stage.
The social media brand was on lock, too. Organizers handed out banners emblazoned with Stop Watching Us’ eyeball logo, the net result being a sea of tasteful cyan and a cohesive visual identity. The whole thing was web-savvy as hell. In fact, being at the rally gave me the same dislocated feeling I get from watching big tech keynotes, with their seas of open computers in the audience, each broadcasting the special, in-person secrets of the event to millions outside of its doors.
This is a particularly modern way of experiencing something: with one foot stamped down on the grass lawn of the Capitol Mall, the other treading the Cloud. It also makes total sense, the issue at hand being what it is. I am incentivized into giving a shit because the Internet matters to me, because I understand its power to transform lives and amplify voices. So, of course, a rally organized by (and for) the diverse group of people for whom this issue is significant will exist in the world on two levels—on lawn and in Cloud, if you will.
Only concentrated pockets of the crowd danced, fist-pumped, yelled, or did much of anything physical while we played our songs Saturday. Instead, like fleshy avatars of the thousands of people watching online, they captured images and inundated us with tweets. I would even argue that the Rally Against Mass Surveillance wasn’t even really a physical thing. It was more like a living hashtag, an elaborate performance to justify an indefinably vast web-based presence that lurks, like an iceberg, beneath all the banners and Guy Fawkes masks. Before we took the stage, to get pumped, we watched a YouTube video of Fugazi playing a Gulf War protest on the Mall in 1992—on our phones. Everything is mediated now, even dissent.
The technologies which balloon the scope and ambition of a 21st century protest beyond its own boundaries—to say nothing of enabling my little band to move swiftly from idea to full-fledged campaign and a spot on the Stop Watching Us stage—are the very same technologies being threatened by the mass surveillance tactics of the NSA and the corporations which collude with it. That’s the space being infringed upon. That’s the precedent being set. It’s a Catch-22 of particularly Orwellian proportions: we are fighting to maintain the very same thing which allows us to fight.