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Bowie and Politics Chapter 5. Candidate The Progressive Platform of David Bowie

How would it have looked had the Thin White Duke been more successful? Would Bowie’s fans begin showing up at concerts dressed as Duke clones, looking on some level like they were wearing uniforms? (I’m sure there were some such fans, but the Ziggy clones left more of an impression). Would concerts have become more like political rallies? More like Nuremberg rallies? Bowie played with the idea that fans’ relationships to rock stars were similar to that of believers’ relationships to their gods and partisans to their political leaders. That’s surely in part what Bowie was consciously doing with the Duke.

Perhaps unconsciously he was following a similar pattern that worked with Ziggy and might have seemed like a good idea all the way back during the Society for the Protection of Long-Haired Men stunt — he was proposing a defined group that he would lead, which was opposed by another defined group. These groups were generational more than ideological, but even the hint of Nazism carried with it an appalling ideology. This was noticed, and not just by those who took offense.

Bowie chronicler Nicholas Pegg recounts that Bowie was “appalled to discover that his own name had already been annexed by Nazi fanatics.” Among them (but not alone among them), the vile British fascist party, the National Front. Pegg cites a National Front newsletter claiming that Bowie had made favorable comments about the party. Bowie said no such thing and by 1978 attempted to set the record straight by denouncing the party, admitting that the Thin White Duke concept had “backfired” and claimed to have been trying to “theatrically show what could happen.”

Bowie did not stop there. Much has been written about Bowie’s sojourn to, of all places, Berlin, as a way to dial back his drug use and get down to business making music with the likes of Brian Eno and Iggy Pop. He also shifted the political implications of his music.

For a start, Bowie ceased trying to antagonize older generations, or anyone else, except for fascists and criminals. He stopped analogizing himself to a political leader or messiah, and he no longer placed himself within an in-group. Gone was his appeal for fans to, “give me your hands” amidst reassurances that “you’re not alone.” Far from giving his fans what they wanted, Bowie’s first record after the Duke period, Low, was a challenge. Though the album now appears atop many fans’ lists of favorites, it is about as far from Young Americans as an album could be. Half the album consists of instrumentals. None of the songs are upbeat — they aren’t soul and they aren’t rock and roll. Perhaps the album’s best known song, “Sound and Vision,” is essentially a lament about writer’s block. Plus, the album cover is a visual joke telegraphing Bowie’s intentions — under the title, Low, is Bowie in profile— low profile. The star was in retreat, and he wasn’t especially asking anyone to come with him.

Bowie had avoided overt political messages up through the mid 70s. This is not to say that his music didn’t have political implications, but with the exception of a few anti-war songs, Bowie had never used his music to overtly identify political issues and take sides in the debate on those issues. And he still didn’t do that right away, with the first two of his Berlin Trilogy albums, Low and “Heroes.”

But the Nazi episode was clearly on Bowie’s mind. Although he’d make the song better known in 1983 with the version he included on Let’s Dance, Bowie co-wrote “China Girl” in 1976 originally for Iggy Pop’s 1977 album, The Idiot. Like many of Bowie’s best songs, its exact meaning is somewhat elusive. Imperialism? Fascism? Corrupting western influence? Chinese girlfriend? The song contains a line seemingly inspired by the Nazi salute incident— “I stumble into town, just like some scared cow, visions of swastikas in my head, plans for everyone.” Like much of the song, the term “scared cow” has multiple meanings. One interpretation of this sequence of lines in the song is that “sacred cow” and “swastikas” references should be thought of in terms of Hinduism. More likely, the song’s narrator is stumbling into town like a false idol, thinking of himself as a potential Hitler. This very much describes what Bowie had been putting out just a few months earlier.

It is worth mentioning that once again, Bowie and Elton John use similar bovine terminology. In describing the lead-up to a rock show by the fictional band in the 1973 song “Bennie and the Jets,” which songwriter Bernie Taupin admitted was partially inspired by Bowie, John sings, “We’ll kill the fatted calf tonight,” analogizing the concert with a religious ceremony. Although “China Girl” was not meant as a response to “Bennie and the Jets,” it does reflect Bowie’s resolution to stop acting like a cult leader or demagogue in training.

Some of the songs on Bowie’s Low and “Heroes,” both released in 1977 paint unforgiving pictures of heavy-handed government. The backdrop of the song, “Heroes” is “the wall” (presumably the Berlin Wall), with guns shooting overhead. Three instrumental songs are similarly evocative. Bowie and Iggy Pop had traveled by train into Eastern Europe in 1976, and the “bleak atmosphere” of Warsaw, Poland inspired the bleak, atmospheric “Warszawa.” Bleaker still is “Neukölln,” named for a struggling part of Berlin largely populated by (at the time largely Turkish) immigrants. “V-2 Schneider” has more of a sense of humor (and is not entirely instrumental), suggesting that the music of Florian Schneider, leader of the German band Kraftwerk, hit Bowie like a V-2 rocket. But Bowie’s choice of words were seldom coincidental. The V-2 rocket was exclusively used by Nazi Germany and was an instrument of terror and destruction against allied cities, including London. To some extent, Bowie was satirizing his own loose use of Nazi symbolism.

Not to put too fine a point on it, Bowie agreed in 1977 to star in a German movie, Just a Gigolo. The movie is not well regarded and Bowie himself virtually disowned it. But it reflects Bowie’s most transparent rejection of Nazism. In it, Bowie plays an idealistic German World War I veteran, who, upon returning to Berlin after the war’s end can’t find meaningful work. He ends up as a gigolo. Along the way he naively gets mixed up with other veterans who are organizing into what we, the audience, can deduce to be the Nazi movement. Bowie’s character is somewhat indifferent. The proto-Nazis are depicted as goofy, almost comedic— until they aren’t funny any more. Bowie’s character eventually gets caught in the crossfire as a Nazi gang clash with Communists on the dark streets of Berlin. The Nazis scoop up the corpse, dress it in a Nazi uniform and display it in a conspicuous funeral. In death, Bowie’s character was transformed into a Nazi martyr.

The story parallels what Bowie must have thought the National Front had been doing in real life, claiming Bowie as one of their own. Much like Bowie himself, his character was not entirely blameless, though less due to malevolence and more due to naïveté. The movie isn’t very good, but the image of Bowie’s corpse, dressed in a Nazi uniform in a coffin is arresting. I have never seen this image outside the movie itself, but it is hard not to to get the sense that Bowie wanted it to say something about his own situation and not just that of the character.

After Low, Bowie would make some sort of allusion to Nazis— however tangentially— in several of his subsequent albums. Between “V-2 Schneider” on “Heroes,” and “China Girl” on Let’s Dance, Bowie reminded listeners that, “to be insulted by these fascists is so degrading,” on the two versions of “Its No Game” that open and close Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps). He’d return to the topic in 1989 with his new band Tin Machine’s song, “Under the God,” which was his most explicit condemnation of neo-fascism.

With the third and final album of the Berlin Trilogy, Lodger (1979), Bowie tried something different. He included on the album a song that directly and unambiguously addressed a social issue other than war. “Repetition” took on the unexpected topic of domestic abuse. The song tells the unsubtle story of a man who beats his wife, blaming her for all his shortcomings. The Bowie/Queen collaboration, “Under Pressure” (1982) was originally going to be called, “People on the Street,” and although it is largely heard today as being more generically about being “under pressure” (its sometimes played at football games prior to field goal attempts)— the song is at least partially about homelessness. “This is Not America,” which Bowie wrote and recorded for the based-on-a-true-true story movie, The Falcon and the Snowman, is about treason (it is perhaps Bowie’s only song that seems sympathetic to a government over rebellious individuals). Bowie would revisit the issue of homelessness in the 1987 song, “Day In, Day Out.” That song was from Never Let Me Down, Bowie’s last attempt in the 1980s to recapture the pop sensation of Let’s Dance before making another radical shift with Tin Machine. Bowie would often include a song on his albums that would telegraph what’s coming next. Though “Day In, Day Out” sounds little like a song off Tin Machine (1989), it was a precursor to the many overt issue songs that would appear on that latter album.

Tin Machine was Bowie’s least subtle album (to be more accurate, it was the least subtle album on which Bowie appeared, since Tin Machine is a band of which Bowie was a member). Its direct issue songs include “Crack City,” in which Bowie ironically warns about drugs (and not in an introspective way, as in the 1980 song, “Ashes to Ashes”). The aforementioned “Under the God” condemns racists and neo-fascists. “Video Crime” is about violent entertainment. Thrown in is Tin Machine’s cover of John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero” and other songs that are slightly less direct. The follow-up album, Tin Machine II (1991), isn’t quite as focused on social issues, but includes one of the most disturbing songs of Bowie’s catalogue, “Shopping for Girls,” which paints a horrific picture of the international sex tourism industry.

Bowie was not finished making his views known. “Black Tie White Noise” (1993) was inspired by the Los Angles race riots of 1992 and was as unsubtle is Bowie was capable of being. Perhaps he felt that that particular song left too little to the imagination as he veered away from these issue songs on his next several albums until Reality (2003). Bowie’s immediately previous album, Heathen (2001), was released in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Some of the songs on that album seemed like reactions to the event, though Bowie denied that. But the reference to the “great white scar over Battery Park” in the song, “New Killer Star,” which kicked off Reality, was directly inspired by what Bowie had witnessed as a then-resident of New York City. The album also contained the slightly obtuse, “Fall Dog Bombs the Moon,” about the oil-inspired motives behind the Iraq War. Following Bowie’s decade-long exile from public life, due to health problems and the birth of his daughter, he returned with The Next Day (2013), which includes both overt and subtle political songs including “Valentine’s Day,” about a school shooter, “I’d Rather Be High,” which is another anti-war song, and less direct songs including “The Next Day,” which has something to do with corruption within the Catholic Church and “I’ll Take You There,” released as a bonus song, in which its protagonists flee an unnamed oppressive country for a new, covert life in “the USA.”

By 2013 and Bowie’s penultimate album, he had made it as clear as can be that he was not a fascist. He had purged the ghost of the Thin White Duke. With little or no lyrical analysis, longtime fans of Bowie would know that he was concerned about racism, war, homelessness, violence against women, the plight of the working class, gun violence, corruption and other issues all within the liberal bandwidth.

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This brings us back to Allan Bloom. Somewhat ironically, Bloom and Bowie saw much the same thing. Bloom saw fans of rock music submitting themselves totally, in a way comparable to the passionate 19th Century fans of Wagner’s operas— “they had the religious sense that Wagner was creating the meaning of life and that they were not merely listening to his works but experiencing that meaning.” For rock fans, “nothing surrounding them— school, family, church— has anything to do with their musical world.” Unlike Wagner, though, rock music “has one appeal only, a barbaric appeal to sexual desire.” Rock, to Bloom, is not just irrational but anti-rational: “rock gives children, on a silver platter, with all the public authority of the entertainment industry, everything their parents always told them they had to wait for until they grew up.”

Much as Bowie was wary of commercialism, so too was Bloom. He saw that entertainment industry as the hidden puppet masters, sending forth pied pipers (specifically, like Mick Jagger) touting a false vision of a “classless, prejudice-free, conflict less, universal society.” The sentiment seems almost suspiciously similar to a line from the aforementioned “Working Class Hero,” “And you think you’re so clever and classless and free.” But just below the surface of this fake “version of brotherly love” lies charismatic demagogues — Bloom notes that none other than Hitler’s image kept popping up on MTV. He compared Jagger to Napoleon. Out of rock music “emerge the gods that suit it.”

Bowie in the first half of the 1970s was not just exploring these very concepts but embodying them. He and Bloom were on opposite sites of the fence, but they were looking at the same fence. He was everything Bloom was railing against. Bowie’s later articulation of something approaching a political platform, with his decidedly liberal issue songs, were as Bloom would have predicted. Had Bloom lived long enough and paid attention to what Bowie was doing, he likely would have dismissed the socially conscious Bowie as a shallow hypocrite.

Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind was a hit at the time, the same time I was in college and becoming a Bowie fan. It was a hit among members of the same generation Bloom was saying had been failed by higher education. Camille Paglia, who counted Bowie as a hero, said that Bloom’s book was “the first shot in the culture wars.” But Bloom might not have intended his book to serve as the foundation for what would come. His description of the Dionysian rock star and the charismatic demagogue, moral relativism, anti-rationalism, and the abandonment of the cultural underpinnings of Western civilization have, in the years since his death, come together in the person of Donald Trump. The movement demanding total submission to animal passions, given to the cult-like following of a morally relativistic would-be Hitler turned out to be the very conservative movement that evolved from some of Bloom’s most avid readers. As Nietzsche wrote of he who fights monsters becoming a monster, and Bowie, inspired by Nietzsche sang about seeing a monster and realizing “the monster was me,” the monster that Bloom saw is what the conservative movement would become.

Why? And, other than the “Man Who Sold the World” reference, what does this have to do with David Bowie? Well, as for the why, Bloom’s book was not simply a defense of the “great books” and traditional virtues. It was a sneering denunciation of what today might be called the “woke elite.” Unlike the more influential, earlier, God and Man at Yale, which William F. Buckley wrote in 1951, Bloom’s book was not simply a critique of academia but of the mainstream, Western civilization of the late 1980s. In targeting higher education as the main culprit, even more than Mick Jagger, Bloom’s defense of rationality served as the acorn of the exact opposite view. Bloom’s treatment of unrealistic, liberal academics make’s ya wanna kick ‘em. His description of rock stars and their fans in animalistic terms is a hair away from calling them animals, or vermin. Bloom provided an intellectual foundation for a coming theology of hate.

I don’t think Bloom intended for any of that. I suspect he’d be horrified by Trump. Indeed, in life Bloom rejected the label of “conservative.” And in death, he’s, well, he’s not quite forgotten, but his book is more a cultural artifact of the late 80s and less a foundational document of contemporary conservatism. The Closing of the American Mind was a fad. Bloom gets attention here less because of his legacy, such that it is, and more because the goblin he saw that looked like David Bowie metastasized into something quite the opposite. Meanwhile, Bowie had already looked into the same abyss, course-corrected and got back to his main points. If one of the functions of his issue songs was to clarify that Bowie was not, indeed, a Nazi, they also only scratched the surface of the true political resonance of the main body of his work.

David Bowie knew what to do with fads— he rode them for a while before abandoning them and changing direction. But as ironic as it was that Bloom’s version of conservatism transformed into something akin to the opposite of what he was advocating, Bowie’s seeming embrace of chaos, relativism and hedonism, with a smattering of almost stereotypically liberal position papers-cum-songs, turned out to be the rippling surface of a deeper, more consistent political philosophy that Allan Bloom wasn’t around long enough to see in its entirety.

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Stay tuned for Chapter 6 next week (hopefully…) Bowie and Politics is intended to be a long-form piece under the umbrella of the lyrics series.

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