You might think a multinational marketing database is an odd topic to sing about, but folk-pop singer Vienna Teng did just that. The song "Hymn of Acxiom" on her new album "Aims" sounds like a choir hymn, except that the speaker isn't a divine being — it's a database.
With lyrics like "somebody hears you" and "someone is gathering every crumb you drop," the song addresses both the pros and cons of the surveillance that, through companies like marketing-data company Acxiom, has become a regular part of life.
The Arkansas-based Acxiom collects both off-line and on-line marketing data, and collates it into profiles of individual people. Acxiom then sells that information back to the retailers through which the company had collected the data.
Those retailers, in turn, use the profiles to conduct targeted marketing, sending people offers based on their location, age, gender or sex, race, income and previous purchases.
Acxiom's data collection possibly rivals the National Security Agency's. And in response to public concern about the amount of data Acxiom has on record and the means by which it collected such data, the company created AbouttheData.com. Through this portal, users can view a subset of the information Acxiom has gathered on them — by entering their full names, email addresses and social security numbers.
The idea for "Hymn of Acxiom" came from an internship Teng did while pursuing an MBA in sustainable enterprise at the University of Michigan. A colleague working with Acxiom data was shocked at the amount of information the company knew about her and her husband — but also impressed.
"I think it was her double reaction that first created the seed of the song," Teng told Tom's Guide.
Later, Teng was experimenting with a pedal hooked up to her electronic keyboard that automatically generates vocal harmonies, thus creating a multilayered sound with only one singer.
"I started singing these lyrics that almost sounded like a hymn or a psalm, 'somebody hears you, somebody knows you,'" she said. "But I guess because I'm not religious my brain immediately went to marketing databases and surveillance."
As she completed the song in late 2012, other current events like statistician Nate Silver's correct prediction of the 2012 election convinced Teng that big data was a pertinent topic.
The kind of online surveillance and marketing data gathering done by companies like Acxiom has been a contentious topic for some time now. The information lets companies advertise on an individual level, so that people see only ads for things they're likely to want, thus saving both parties money and time.
many people find it alarming and invasive that Acxiom has extensive profiles on the online and offline purchasing habits of millions of individuals.
Teng says writing "Hymn of Acxiom" was her attempt to reconcile the two points of view.
"A lot of songwriting is... trying to translate for myself this point of view that I don't necessarily agree with or understand.. so I can get it on some level."
With its Orwellian lyrics and vaguely creepy chords, "Hymn of Acxiom" sounds like a critique of mass data collection and surveillance. But Teng says the song is meant to empathize with databases as well as excoriate them.
"I felt like there's so much [to say] about the data that's being collected on our behaviors and patterns. On the one hand, we are approving of it, in the things that we choose to buy, in the things that we consent to. But on the other hand, I think we're all a little uneasy about it, too. So I wanted to write a song that challenged both sides of that."
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Jill Scharr is a creative writer and narrative designer in the videogame industry. She's currently Project Lead Writer at the games studio Harebrained Schemes, and has also worked at Bungie. Prior to that she worked as a Staff Writer for Tom's Guide, covering video games, online security, 3D printing and tech innovation among many subjects.