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Bowie and Politics Chapter 6: We Want You, Big Brother

The subtitle of the previous chapter is, “the progressive platform of David Bowie.” The reference is to several issue-oriented songs Bowie released after his Think White Duke period that establish him as a liberal, on the left-right spectrum, and more importantly not a fascist. There is, however, a major difference between the message of these songs and that of most genuine political platforms— they offer no solutions. Indeed, few of Bowie’s hundreds of songs provide any advice as to what his audience should do to improve their situation in life. Bowie identifies many problems, but gives little hint as to what to do about those problems. Instead, he expresses deep skepticism about anyone who does offer solutions. His claim that the fascistic Thin White Duke concept had “backfired” and he was only trying to “theatrically show what could happen” comes off as excuse-making after the fact. But while he might have gotten too swept up in playing the part of a would-be dictator, Bowie had a leg to stand on.

More than space or time, more than alienation, more than identity or mortality and impermanence, the most enduring theme throughout Bowie’s entire repertoire is the individual’s struggle against the collective . Institutions do not fare well in Bowie’s songs (with the very occasional and inconsistent exception of the family unit). The church, police, army, fashion and music industries all come in for a drubbing, as do gangs, crowds, towns, and entire nations. Bowie never wrote a patriotic song, nor any about heroic authority figures of any kind. There are no just wars, righteous criminal prosecutions, or value-adding instances of public service. “Kooks” (1971), written upon the birth of Bowie’s son, anticipates a happy, three-member family. That’s the largest unit portrayed sympathetically in any Bowie song. More typically, Bowie would sing of the individual resisting oppressive conformity, or at most, a couple struggling to be heroes, if only for one day.

Albums such as Diamond Dogs (1974), Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) (1980), and, to some extent, The Next Day (2013) are largely concerned with the individual’s struggle against the world. Attempts to order society end in breakdown and chaos. Religion, music and drugs all provide false promises of escape, but worst of all is the charismatic demagogue. Tyrannical, or potentially tyrannical figures appear repeatedly in Bowie’s songs, however his subject is often not their despotism, but their appeal.

Bowie’s earliest such figure is “President Joe” in the song, “Saviour Machine” (1970). President Joe, as the song goes, once had a dream to build a Saviour machine. The promise of the machine was to solve all problems, and, within the context of the song, it apparently worked. But Joe, or the machine itself, grew bored with life having become too easy once all problems were solved. In response, it contemplates plague, war or genocide.

“Saviour Machine” is not simply a song about a monster. President Joe does not create the machine in a hidden subterranean lab. Instead, “the world held his hand, gave their pledge.” Much of the of the song is devoted to the machine’s pleading for rejection — “please don’t believe in me, please disagree with me…don’t let me stay, don’t let me stay; my logic says burn so send me away.” Implicit is the intoxicating appeal of a demagog’s promise to solve all problems in exchange for unflinching loyalty. Bowie anticipated Donald Trump’s promise that he alone can fix it decades before Trump said the words, because that type of promise is at least as old as Caesar.

What exactly is the Saviour machine? It doesn’t really matter. The song could be one of Bowie’s science fiction hellscapes, but the “machine” works just as well as a metaphor, or simply a term for a program, a movement or a course of action. President Joe is either Dr. Frankenstein, who created a monster he now cannot control, or (as with Frankenstein), he is the real monster for trying to play god.

But the people, as a collective are not simply victims. They took President Joe’s hand and gave him their pledge. The machine repeatedly pleads with the people to reject it. 46 years later, Aimee Mann released an anti-Trump song, “Can’t You Tell,” that echoed the sentiment:

“Isn’t anybody going to stop me?
I don’t want this job
I don’t want this job, my god
Can’t you tell
I’m unwell”

In both cases, the monster is not simply delivering a warning but pleading to be stopped. The point, has less to do with the monster’s psychology but that of the public. Both the Saviour Machine and Trump face no real obstacles in these songs and is actually empowered by those who should recognize them as threats. Bowie was imagining a hypothetical situation, while Aimee Mann was writing a song about what was happening in real time.

Bowie came back to the theme with his 1974 song, “Big Brother.” The song is obviously about the George Orwell character from 1984, but it does not focus on Big Brother’s villainy. Instead, the song is about Big Brother’s appeal:

“Please saviour, saviour, show us
Hear me, I’m graphically yours
Someone to claim us, someone to follow
Someone to shame us, some brave Apollo
Someone to fool us, someone like you
We want you, Big Brother”

Once again, it is the follower, not the leader whose actions are responsible for the eventual outcome. The individual here gives over his or her agency to the god-like leader. Through Big Brother doesn’t actually do anything tyrannical in the song, the song comes at the end of Diamond Dogs, a dystopian album based in part on the Orwell novel. The world of Diamond Dogs is a mess. The totalitarian state does not bring with it order but rather chaos, as outlined in the title track, which opens the album, and even before that, the “Future Legend” which depicts roving gangs, mutant vermin, and a general up-is down, fractured “Hunger City.”

“Big Brother” is the last complete song on the album. Its placement serves as kind of a reveal— having established a societal breakdown, and having established an oppressive neighbor-on-neighbor culture in “We Are the Dead,” the album’s final song serves as a kind of origin story— this is how we got here.

So as early as 1974, Bowie established three of his recurring ideas— heroic figures promising leadership are dangerous, as is the collective’s longing to hand over its freedom in exchange for false promises of salvation. The victims, in Bowie’s songs, are individuals who stand out in any way— the couples who “are the dead” and “jump in the river holding hands” from Diamond Dogs, Sam, who was thrown blindfolded and chained into a wagon to be beaten into becoming a conformist member of society from “Scream Like a Baby” (1980), Sophie and Lev fleeing to the USA in “I’ll Take You There” (2013).

All of this has to do with how society organizes itself, which is to say, politics.

The lure of the demagogue returns in Bowie’s 1975 song, “Somebody Up there Likes Me.” Unlike “Saviour Machine” and “Big Brother,” the smoldering soulfulness of this song serves as misdirection from its lyrics. The words of the song focus on a politician (or perhaps a pop star) whose “ever loving face smiles on the whole human race.” The figure politics throughout the ongoing and is described in Jesus-like terms:

“Planets wrote the day was due
All the wisest men around
Predicted that a man was found
Who looked a lot like you and me”

Once again, this figure doesn’t actually do anything harmful within the context of the song. He’s a charmer who is “so divine,” and is the product of television, which suggests that what’s ominous is his hollow appeal. Rather than being a villain because of what he does, the subject of this song is a threat because of how he’s empowered:

“Was a way when we were young, that
Any man was judged by what he’d done
But now you pick them on the screen (what they look like)”

So the real omen here is less about the charismatic leader and rather about the easily-duped followers. In this sense, Bowie’s vision is both democratic and anti-democratic. Bowie places the responsibility for whatever outcome befalls the people on the people, but he never tells a story about the people making the right choice. These songs contemplate the democratic empowerment of a dictator, yet there is no counterpart among Bowie’s hundreds of songs demonstrating productive collective action.

Bowie was obviously contemplating the relationship between the crowd and the object of its desire during the early 70s. This exact foundation, though — the leader/follower dynamic receded after the Thin White Duke experiment. The potentially dangerous, charismatic leader didn’t entirely vanish from Bowie’s songs, but he became somewhat hidden. He’s there in “China Girl,” who, like the figure in “Somebody Up There,” has a plan and promises television (both themes turn up in both songs), but Bowie’s version of “China Girl” sounds upbeat. There’s a distracting, faux- Chinese sounding guitar riff, and the music video seems to be about a guy with a Chinese girlfriend. What did he say about swastikas? Don’t worry about that, let’s dance.

Similarly, “D.J.” (1979) appears at first blush to be about a disc jockey. The memorable refrain, “I am a D.J., I am what I play” seems straightforward enough: I am a disc jockey, I am the records I play. Except nothing else about the song seems to have anything to do with being a disc jockey playing records. The next lines, at least in part of the song are, “ I got believers believing me.” I am not the first to notice that “D.J.” also stands for “David Jones.” “I am what I play” can be read as a confession — “I am the parts that I play.” Bowie wrote “D.J.” not too long after “China Girl” and not too much before “Ashes to Ashes,” about drug addiction. It seems that he was coming to reckon with his demons in the later 70s.

Several of Bowie’s songs are self-reflective, starting early on with lines like, “I turned myself to face me” from “Changes” (1971), and, “I ran across a monster who was sleeping by a tree, and I looked and frowned and the monster was me” from “The Width of a Circle” (1970). That Nietzchean concept of the self as the monster is, for Bowie, both a struggle for the individual but also the collective. His Trump-like figure is a monster of our own creation. Perhaps Bowie realized that he was staring a little too long into the abyss following the Duke period, so, having made his point about followers turning over their freedom to demagogic leaders, he shifted his emphasis.

But he wasn’t quite done with the crowd.

Stay tuned for Chapter 7 next week. Bowie and Politics is intended to be a long-form piece under the umbrella of the lyrics series.

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