The Sound of Surveillance: How Jean-Michel Jarre Made Edward Snowden an Unlikely Techno Star

The story behind the NSA whistleblower's unlikely collaboration with an electronic music legend.

by Jemayel Khawaja
27 May 2016, 9:12am

Read more of our privacy and security coverage, and be sure to tune into HBO Friday at 11 PM EST as VICE founder Shane Smith meets the man who started the conversation about government surveillance, Edward Snowden.

Edward Snowden has been called many names over the last couple of years: hero, traitor, patriot, dissident, genius, coward. United States Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter even dubbed him the "cyber Pearl Harbor" after the infamous NSA whistleblower leaked documents exposing US government agencies' surveillance practices at home and around the globe. Now, thanks to perhaps one of the unlikeliest of collaborations to ever hit a dancefloor, Edward Snowden can add one more notch to his litany of titles: techno partystarter.

Electronic music deity Jean-Michel Jarre just released Electronica 2: The Heart of Noise, the second in a series of collaboration-heavy LPs featuring production and vocal help from the likes of Detroit techno forefather Jeff Mills, Pet Shop Boys, composer Hans Zimmer, Peaches, and The Orb––all marquee names in their respective musical niches. Add to that list Mr. Snowden, who, to the surprise of many of Jarre's fans, had jumped on a tune called "Exit" for a monologue. A computer nerd with a soft spot for free speech and no musical background whatsoever may seem a strange placement, but Jarre has made a career of turning electronic music into an international talking point, and as he explained to THUMP during a recent phone call, Snowden's fascinations mirrored the overall project of Electronica.

"One of the recurrent themes of Electronica is the relationship we have with technology," says Jarre. "With Laurie Anderson, I did a love song between a smartphone and a human being. The track I did with Massive Attack was inspired by CCTVs. With Cyndi Lauper, I wrote 'Swipe to the Right,' about love in the time of Tinder."

Jarre first learned of Snowden's exploits in 2013, just as the latter's revelations began to pour from the pages of The Guardian. "I was really moved by what he was saying," the musician remembers. "Edward is a person who dedicated his life to serving his country, but when the power in place is generating ideals or actions that harm our fellow citizens, people should stand up against it, and he did. He risked prison for life, even being killed, to expose the truth. He knew it was dangerous, but he did it to improve his country—to improve the NSA—not to harm his country."

If Jarre sounds impassioned on the subject, it's because the issue hits close to home. "Edward's situation reminded me of my mother," he says. "She was a great figure in the French Resistance [against the Nazis] In 1941, at the real beginning of the war. But in those days, the majority in France considered the resistance troublemakers—traitors, even. The line between a traitor and a hero is defined by time and history. Whenever we have social progress––the abolition of slavery, the abolition of prohibition, the right for women to vote––it's always been done against the law of power in place."

Although the United States government has thus far been unable to pry Snowden out of Moscow, Jarre found his way into Edward's inbox. Through The Guardian, Jarre arranged a Skype conversation with Snowden, who was not only familiar with his work, but down to join forces. "At an early age, with his engineer's mind, he discovered all the early Atari [and] Commodore sounds with their 8-bit music," Jarre explains, referencing the proto-glitch soundscapes of the synthesizers associated with early computing. "I found him to be a very nice man," Jarre continues. "And on top of this, he's fond of electronic music!"

The two put their heads together and hatched a plan: a techno tune that would match the frenetic energy and claustrophobia induced by our relationship with information and surveillance, atop of which Snowden would state his motives and beliefs. Galloping synths compete with arching arpeggios at a rollicking tempo. Right in the middle sits Snowden's monologue, recorded after that long Skype conversation but before the pair had met in person, told matter-of-factly: "Saying that you don't care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is like saying you don't care about freedom of speech because you have nothing to say." The track and its accompanying video—visually somewhere between The Matrix and a dystopian PSA—combine a song, a multimedia art project, and a cultural essay. It jars, it surprises, and at some point, you realize that you're dancing to politics.

More utopian types would say the dancefloor is no place for such matters, that it is a hallowed ground that must exist aside the issues that drive us apart. Jarre doesn't agree. "Electronic music always has two sides: the hedonist side, with the dancefloor and the club, people dancing, having fun," he says. "But electronic music has also historically been linked to a social context. When I started in Europe. We were rebelling, as musicians, against the establishments of classical music and of rock. Techno in Detroit, Jeff Mills' Underground Resistance, was a response to the economic conditions of the crash of the car industry. Techno in Berlin started just after the fall of the Berlin wall."

In a seeming tribute to electronic music's political roots, when Jean-Michel embarks on a world tour next month, the performance of "Exit" will feature a massive projection of the head of Edward Snowden, reading his monologue on screen. Don't worry, though, there will still be lasers. "I don't think that the role of an artist is to transform the stage into a political platform," says Jarre. "To say, 'Save the penguins,' or 'Save the rainforest' in between songs—that's not our job. But if through our music, through our songs, we can share some convictions or some ideas in a fun way—not in some dogmatic way, just in the way of sharing emotions and your ideas, then it's worthwhile and absolutely possible."

While "Exit" may not be for everyone, Jarre isn't too fazed: "People will like it, people will hate it. It's not my problem anymore," he quips. "I'm happy and proud to play this track during my concerts, and I hope that it will bring something positive to the people who listen to it. It's as simple as that."

Jarre has a question for Snowden upon their next interaction, prompted by THUMP's own curiosity: "I promise next time I talk to him I will ask him if he's been to a rave," he says, laughing. "But I think not. He did grow up as a wizkid with electronics and computers, but as with a lot of super geeks like him, his social life has not been very active apart from his work." For Snowden, a taciturn guy who has admitted to "living on the internet" in a state of limbo as he waits out the political impasse that has posed him as a pariah on Capitol Hill, this collaboration seems the rare chance to actually be the life of the party for once, even if only for a breakdown.