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Bowie and Politics Addendum 2: Bowie and the United States

This is America

America and American places, especially New York City (but also other places, like Detroit), appear in many Bowie songs and songs he covered. Taken together, they paint a picture of a gritty and challenging place. But Bowie seems to find something admirable, if not beautiful, or at least compelling about the grit. Bowie often draws attention to America’s underbelly, but it would be a mistake to conclude that was condemnatory on his part. Bowie was drawn especially to New York, where he began working early in his stardom, recorded or partially recorded many records, appeared in the Broadway production of The Elephant Man and lived most of his last twenty years.

What follows is a brief and incomplete rundown of Bowie songs that mention America and New York City. I imagined I would be writing more about this topic in the main body of my Bowie and Politics series, but it just didn’t fit and what I have to say doesn’t really conform to the style of the main pieces:

Songs that Mention the United States

“America” (2001). Bowie covered this Simon and Garfunkel song at the Concert for New York in 2001. It is beautiful and well-timed. But while others at the concert leaned into jingoism, Bowie chose a song about two lost travelers, one of whom confesses to his sleeping companion, “I’m lost…I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why.”

“Young Americans” (1975). While upbeat and seemingly happy, this song paints a picture of an America populated by pimps and hookers, uncertain newlyweds, vagabonds, survivors and memories of Richard Nixon. Somehow none of this is depressing, though Bowie asks, “would you carry a razor in case, just in case of depression?”

“I’m Afraid of Americans” (1995). If the dispossessed and outcasts of “Young Americans” are somehow sympathetic, the stereotypical American “Johnny” of this song is as threatening as he is shallow. Wanting only “pussy and cars,” Johnny’s America is a place where “No-one needs anyone, they don’t even just pretend.” But Bowie’s video of the song has him running from a phantom, suggesting that his fear is based on paranoia.

“Day In Day Out” (1987) This time, the day-to day struggle to survive somewhere in America leads to the brink of an act of violence. I always associate this song with Los Angeles, probably because of the video, but that’s never made clear in the song itself. But a verse that begins with the hopeful, “Some things they turn out right when you’re under the USA,” ends with the song’s protagonist “stealing for that one good rush.”

This is Not America (1985). The song was written for the soundtrack of the espionage drama, The Falcon and the Snowman and makes some references to events and characters in the film. But taken totally on its own, it is Bowie’s most abstract “America” song. I’ve seen the title used on its own— I’ve done it myself— to draw attention to something that seems un-American, but exactly what Bowie meant beyond the contextual movie references is a bit of a mystery.

“I’ll Take You There” (2013). Possibly Bowie’s most hopeful “America” song is filled with tension and fear— of someplace far worse. Lev and Sophie sneak out of someplace scary for the place “where tomorrow is king.” They have high hopes, but will live in the shadows as Lev wonders, “what will be my name in the USA?”

In Love with New York

New York, for Bowie, is a place of excitement, contrasts, dangers and sometimes just a place. The following is not a comprehensive list of Bowie songs that reference New York, especially considering those that do so only implicitly:

“The Jean Genie” (1973)— “New York’s a go-go and everything tastes nice”

“Don’t Look Down” (1984) — “I always hear that crazy sound from New York to shanty town.”

“New York’s in Love” (1987) — “New York’s in love with her big green eyes and her long blonde hair”

“Goodbye Mr. Ed” (1991) — “Andy’s skull enshrined in a shopping mall near Queens”

“Slip Away” (2001) — “Sailing over Coney Island”

“New Killer Star” (2003) —“See the great white scar over Battery Park”

“She’ll Drive the Big Car” (2003)— “Love lies like a dead cloud on a shabby, yellow lawn up on Riverside”

“Lazarus” (2016) — “By the time I got to New York, I was living like a king”

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