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Bowie and Politics Addendum 1: What I didn’t write

For most of the past several Thursdays, I have been posting chapters in a long piece titled, “Bowie and Politics.” Last week was the concluding chapter. While the topic will come up again, there are at least two addenda that I wanted to post before I declare the specific project complete. This is the first of those addenda:

When I set out on the project, I expected to be writing quite a bit about Bowie’s more overtly political albums; namely, Diamond Dogs (1974), Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) (1980), and to some extent The Next Day (2013) and the first Tin Machine album (1989). Indeed, all of these albums or songs from the albums came up in the course of this project, but not as much as I was expecting.

The specific album that got the most attention—two chapters—was Space Oddity (1969). This was unexpected, but when I sat down to write the eighth chapter (“Planet Earth Blues”) I realized that Bowie’s second album was a kind of Rosetta Stone for interpreting the political DNA in his music going forward.

So why did I deemphasize the more overtly political albums? The answer is different for each album.

Diamond Dogs is heavily influenced by George Orwell’s *1984*, with several of the songs on the album making direct reference to the book. But there’s no mystery about that. One of the songs is literally titled “1984,” and another “Big Brother.” Diamond Dogs is one of my favorite albums and speaks to the politics of today, even though it is half a century old. It also has plenty of cryptic lyrics worth exploring. But the political implications are fairly obvious and didn’t demand as much contemplation as I expected going in.

Scary Monsters is another story. My very favorite album, there’s a book’s worth of things to say about it. The problem for me is that there’s already a book—Adam Steiner’s excellent Silhouettes and Shadows (click HERE for my interview with him) covers this ground. The book influenced my thinking, and that comes through, but there was no need to duplicate what he already wrote. And, okay, he didn’t write The Political Implications of Scary Monsters, but what I would have written would have been close enough to be redundant.

The Next Day is kind of a hodgepodge album that includes several songs about matters of concern to politics. “I’d Rather Be High” and “How Does the Grass Grow?” are about war, “Valentine’s Day” is about a school shooter, and “I’ll Take You There” from The Next Day Extra is about a couple of political refugees. And that’s not all. And, sure enough, I discussed these songs and others from the album. But the album itself is less thematic than Diamond Dogs and Scary Monsters. Most of the political songs are straightforward—once we establish that “Valentine’s Day” is about a school shooter, there isn’t much more analysis to get to the point.

Tin Machine is even more overt. Some of the songs—“Under the God,” “Crack City,” “Video Crime,” and others—border on being preachy. Buried between these nearly ham-fisted issue songs is “I Can’t Read,” which, the more you hear, sounds less and less like it’s about illiteracy—I think it’s more about Bowie himself not being able to read cultural trends at that point in time. But that’s not really political, and the songs that are political again don’t demand much analysis. So, again, they come up, but there’s no separate chapter on Tin Machine.

There’s something else I was expecting to write, but it just didn’t fit in: Bowie on America. So that will be the subject of my next addendum…

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