skip to Main Content

“Afraid” Updated (originally Day 174, July 5, 2016)

Heathen is widely regarded as one of Bowie’s best later albums. I have certainly long felt this way, however for whatever reason I haven’t listened to it as much since his death than during the prior years. This is possibly because there have been so many posthumous live albums and compilations, and possibly because, as great as Heathen is, Blackstar is even better. I might, in the back of my mind, think of it as being of a group that culminates with Blackstar. In any case, I still think highly of the whole album.

“Afraid” is one of the songs that make up the core of the album— somber, slow moving songs that capture the anxiety of the turn of the century and perhaps the anxiety of a man firmly settled in middle age. Though there are a couple of lighter songs on Heathen, (“I Took a Trip on a Gemini Spaceship;” “Everyone Says Hi”), “Afraid is more typical.

As is often the case, the song’s lyric is defy literal interpretation. Surely, Bowie repeats that he’s (or, more accurately, the song’s narrator) repeated that he’s “still so afraid,” and later he establishes that he “won’t be afraid.” But why? The narrator laments on some of his beliefs — “we’re not alone,” “Beatles,” his grown “little soul.” These certainly seem self-referential. “We’re not alone” seems to evoke Bowie’s association with aliens. The Beatles make their second appearance in a Bowie song — earlier it was his older brother who was at home with his Beatles and Stones, suggesting, in “All the Young Dudes,” that the Beatles were the favorite of a slightly older generation. As for his growing soul, the imagery I think of is from Station to Station but really spiritual development was a feature of Bowie’s music throughout.

“Afraid” then pivots, though, from the declaration of beliefs to reflections on a wonderful life contrasting against bad feelings, before some cryptic reflections on what the narrator used to be able to to (wake up the ocean and walk on clouds). at this point, while somewhat disjointed, the song’s lyrics have followed something of a path, but then Bowie iterates a number of conditions that would lead him to not being afraid, but what in the world is he talking about? “If I can smile a crooked smile?” “If I can walk an empty mile?”

Here’s my best guess: Bowie’s narrator is similar to Bowie himself, someone who has enough of a past life to be able to reflect upon it but is anxious about what’s next. He doesn’t really identify anything concrete to fear but fears the unknown, so he sets nonsensical conditions for himself to overcome. What’s the song about? Its about aging.

Here’s what I originally posted July 5, 2016:
This is a song I have listened to many times over the past 14 years since the album was released but never really thought much about until now. I think it is about how anxiety is often nonsensical. Bowie sings about his desires and concerns about such trivial things as height and the ability to talk on television…a bunch of seemingly random conditions…but they are all joined together by his fear. The flip side, overcoming fear, is as nonsensical a fear itself. He can overcome fear by smiling the right way or via his faith in Beatles (this live version features Bowie throwing in a Beatles-esque “wooo” after that line). I think the overall point is that fear and overcoming fear is all psychological. At least I think that’s what this is about. One other note: there’s a line, “I put my face in tomorrow,” which for a long time I heard as, “I put my faith in tomorrow.” Leave it to Bowie come up with a line that sounds quasi-sensible but distort it into nonsense. Album: Heathen

Back To Top