It surprises some of my friends that I have not written a song about Edward Snowden. I wrote a song a few years back called "Who Will Tell Us The Truth?" about Chelsea Manning, and after all, here in Snowden is arguably a much bigger whistle blower: why have I been quiet on the Snowden front?
By contrast to Manning's reveal that military operations gone wrong were being buried, Snowden effectively shined a bright light on the inner workings of the secret parts of our government that were not even visible to those running it. The all-powerful NSA. Immune to scrutiny, free from any kind of public review, the spy tactics of the past were being institutionalized and taking the role of an extended branch of the government in so many ways. Snowden's theft of classified and top secret data, as well as public reveal of tactics and procedures, I believe in the end strengthened our individual civil liberties and made us all more keenly aware that our digital infrastructure provides no protection and no privacy without using extreme measures available to only the most advanced digirati (some argue that his actions actually caused direct harm and injury as well as completely irreparable damage; I'm not impressed by these arguments but I'm always willing to listen).
In the past few years, Snowden's story was continuing to play out in a way that Manning's did not. Manning, after all, had been arrested, put in solitary for a year, waited to for her military trial for two more years, and then eventually started serving the remainder of her 35 year prison sentence. Sure, her personal struggles and the complete insanity of her sentence pops up in the news, reminding us regularly that speaking up against the government has very deep consequences. On the other hand, Snowden, vilified by the United States government leadership in a similar way, while using language that in my understanding allows for the death penalty (treason), is still this very moment a fugitive being hosted by a world rival. He's now the subject of a major motion picture, appeared via teleconference on news shows and documentaries, and he's even getting the direct support of the ACLU who would like to see Snowden pardoned or at least given a fair trial.
But there's another reason that I haven't personally written about Snowden just yet. I think it's because the story is not just his at this point. Sure, he's been an articulate mouthpiece, and took deliberate brave (and/or stupid) actions worthy of many stories and songs...but his story is complicated because it's also just as much about the partnership he's had with journalists and various websites, and both upstanding as well as nefarious individuals who bring their own shadow to the projected flashlight cave wall puppet show we call The Snowden Leaks. How can I tackle the whole story about the Snowden Effect as a narrative in song in a handful of verses much like I tackled the singular four minute Chelsea Manning's song? That's been bothering me because I'm not quite sure how to do it. Sure, I could write a Lin-Manuel Miranda Hamilton style epic that would bring more light to the narrative with my own spin, but perhaps, just maybe, there are other ways to do the story justice.
I listened to Peter Gabriel's new song, The Viel, out today, which is precisely about Snowden and some of the subject matter surrounding his revelations. The strongest points of Peter's new song in my opinion really rally around the concepts and not just a literal telling of the situation. He hits the symbolism involved. And I think that's the central technique I need to use to make a song about Edward Snowden: by completely avoiding Snowden in the song.
A literal play-by-play approach that is a literal retelling of the story...sure, I could do that, in enough verses, but that's not inspiring much result with me as a writer. In the past that approaching worked in my songs about Chelsea Manning, Trayvon Martin, Abraham Lincoln, and others. But this time, I have to dig deeper.
The consequence of his Snowden's action, or better yet, an examination of what we would have without his impact...now THAT'S where I can move from being a journalist with a guitar to a poet with a melody.
Stay tuned. I'll share it when it's ready.