You couldn’t turn on the radio this summer without hearing the track “Dangerous,” the melodic electronic-pop tune by the self-described “paranoid electronic music project” Big Data, which quickly made it to the No.1 spot on Billboard’s Alternative Charts. But if you asked most Americans about the meaning behind the dance song, they probably wouldn’t know it’s actually about how we’re tracked and watched on the Internet.
You could say Big Data’s mission is to facilitate a conversation about Internet privacy in an age where there might not be any privacy left. They’ve done concepts like create an interactive video called “Facehawk”, which, if given permission, connects to the viewer’s Facebook profile and turns their timeline into a video. They even have an “evil computer” (possibly a larger metaphor for the NSA) control its concerts.
Ahead of a fall tour and a festival spot at CRSSD in San Diego, Playboy talked with Big Data about the news stories that inspired their tracks on their album “2.0”, the upcoming election and how they develop their thoughtful music videos.
I know you just put out the “2.0” studio album — what are some of the messages and themes you wanted to elaborate from the news in it?
When I started putting the project together, I wanted to pick a specific issue for each song or some story that I had read about in the news that had to do with technology, and try to get these vocalists’ take on it. Each singer is kind of coming from their own background and experience, so that was a really fun project. Some of the things that we wrote about, like the song “Business of Emotion,” was inspired by a Facebook mood experiment. Which in 2013, Facebook kind of secretly did these experiments on 700,000 users. They basically showed half of them, for a week or more, positive stuff in their newsfeed, so if you were in that group you would see more stories that had positive keywords like “congratulations on your new baby or your new job”, or “I won an award for..blah blah blah.” And then the other half they showed more negative keywords like “I hate my boss,” or “RIP” and then they monitored these people for the following week to see if they were then more likely to post more positive or negative things on their own posting feed. So it was really like a mood manipulation experiment and the kicker is that by signing up for Facebook and agreeing to the terms and service, you’re technically giving your consent to participate in stuff like that.
Whoah, that’s crazy. I never heard about that.
It’s horrible and shocking at the same time. So really, when I was putting the album together, I was keeping an eye out for stories that struck me or rubbed me the wrong way. I wrote another song about “The Internet of Things,” where connectivity is sort of automatic when it comes to connected devices. It’s stuff that’s used automatically to connect to the Internet and run on its own, so something like a Fitbit. There’s also one song that’s about Snowden, through the perspective of the NSA. If you don’t look to closely, you might read [these songs] as pop songs or as a love song, but I like to leave little clues that it’s about something completely different.
It’s interesting that you bring up Snowden — we actually just did an interview with Joseph Gordon-Levitt about his upcoming role in a biopic about him.
My friend from college is actually working on that script. I’m hoping that Big Data makes its way into the film somehow.
Did these events also inspire you to start this project? And what are your thoughts on the NSA?
I started the project in the summer of 2012, and that was a good six months or so before anything like that started showing up. The reason that I had started [the project] and the reason that I came up with the name, as I started recording and I didn’t have a concept yet. I was looking for a name for whatever this project was going to be, and I was at my friend’s wedding and he’s actually like a “big data” expert, so he was telling me all about his career and he kept talking about big data and it just seemed like the next thing that was going to be really important. And I just got a feeling that I think we’re going to be hearing a lot about big data more and more, and low and behold within a year it became a total issue and was everywhere. A couple months after I had the name and was already starting to write the lyrics to “Dangerous,” I remembered the PRISM story and Edward Snowden on the news, confirming what my gut feelings were at this point that yeah — this was really important. It was kind of crazy to watch it unfold, and made me feel like I was apart of something bigger than I realized at first.
What are your thoughts on the upcoming election? Are there any candidates you think get it when it comes to Internet privacy or are there any that you’re weary of?
I think I have to do a little more digging on everyone’s privacy stance. I am a democrat, so I tend to lean toward whoever is on the democratic ticket. I don’t want to get too political, but that being said I think I find Bernie Sanders to be a total anomaly and I love everything that he’s doing. Every time I hear more [about him], I keep getting more inspired and see the crowd getting bigger. It feels like the first time I’ve seen a politician just be honest and tell it how it is about what we need to fix, and it’s been very exciting to hear. I did feel that same way when Obama was running.
He’s resonating really well with millennials, which you wouldn’t think at first that he would.
Everything about him sort of doesn’t make sense, but you hear him speak and it’s sort of unbelievable.
I know you love incorporating some interesting things into your shows. What’s the weirdest thing Big Data does performance wise for someone who hasn’t been to a show yet?
I begin with the misdirection and manipulating of the viewer. I like to treat the show like it’s a simulation of a show, and it’s operated by an evil computer or a “big data” computer. I really don’t speak in the the shows, and all the sort of ceremony of it is handled by an evil machine and it tells the audience for example when to take a selfie. It tells the audience to do things and tells them the next part of the show. So it’s sort of bizarre to have a little robot up there…
Going back to the “Business of Emotion” track, I was watching the video the other day and I love all of the concepts for your videos. How do you develop these videos?
I definitely put a lot of work into the videos, they’re never really directly about what the songs are about, but they’re just kind of related. I think the biggest thing I try to think about is almost the way a magician would work and the way of direction. I always like to set up a certain kind of expectation and then pull the rug out from under the audience. And I do that in my songs too — I like art that makes you go “wait a second, that’s not suppose to be there.” That’s pretty much the fuel for a lot of the videos. The original “Dangerous” video I did I worked with directors called Ghost + Cow Films, and they’re really close friends of mine and they’re really talented and really weird. So, I would have a general concept and the three of us would sit down together many times and talk it through and argue over the part and reduce it to nothing and build it back up and see what we might have. It’s usually in my head and then the three of us turned it into a real story.
I know that you’re about to go on a tour with RAC, can you tell me more about it?
It’s called the Going Your Own Way Tour. There’s RAC, and then the support acts are Filous and then Pink Feathers and a guy named Karl Kling, who also plays in RAC. I’ve been a big fan of RAC for a long time and we started doing remixes around the same time, way before they made it, but he had a much more successful career naturally but it was kinda funny we both got started around the same time. They put on a a really damn good show and it’s pretty fun. Our show is pretty damn weird and we just complement each other.
Nicole Theodore is an editorial assistant at Playboy. Follow her on Twitter.