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Bowie and Politics Part 10: Holding on to Nothing

At their most abstract, the political implication of the Space Oddity album is that politics is pointless (see last week’s post). This is to say that people give up their agency and their intelligence when they become one with a group, collective action works against the individual, authority only acts to oppress and the chaotic world is impervious to being ordered. Much of Bowie’s work going forward did not so much advocate these views as take them for granted. The assumption of politics is that society can be ordered and that the collective is capable of improving the lot of its members in a way individuals cannot on their own. That the authority of leaders is derived from the people is assumed to be a positive good in a representative democracy, but to Bowie, that granting of authority by the masses to its leaders is an abrogation.

Thus far I have veered away from relying on Bowie’s own explanations of what his music meant in part because he was infamously inconsistent except in that he encouraged those who experience his art— or anyone’s art— to bring their own interpretation to the work. But filmmaker Brett Morgen included a clip of Bowie speaking more generally in his 2022 documentary, Moonage Daydream, in which Bowie said, “What we try to keep out of our existence is chaos, which is a very real part of our lives. And our refusal to accept chaos as being integral to our existence, I think, has been one of the greatest mistakes as a civilization that we’ve made.” Though Bowie did not make this statement by way of explaining the message of any particular song, it reflects the most essential view of politics reflected by the totality of his music.

Chaos is unavoidable, and the attempt by the collective to replace chaos with order represents a failure of humanity.

Through this lens, Bowie’s flirtation with demagoguery and manufactured identity politics makes sense as a demonstration of how collective action and the granting of authority leads to catastrophe. Yes, Bowie would occasionally record issue-oriented songs following the Thin White Duke period that showed he was against fascism and its precepts — war, racism, violence, etc. But he did not use his art or celebrity to advocate any particular program. Unlike Bruce Springsteen or Bono, or, for that matter Ted Nugent, Bowie did not mix art with advocacy, endorse candidates or rally for causes.

This is because Bowie’s basic stance toward politics is that politics don’t work.

This sentiment even underscored Bowie’s participation in two major concerts with political implications, Live Aid (1985), for the benefit of famine relief in Ethiopia, and the Concert for New York City (2001) in response to the 9/11 terrorist attack. Bowie’s choice of songs at both events are telling— “‘Heroes’” at both, the “TVC-15” at Live Aid and a cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s “America” at the Concert for New York.

Bowie might have selected “TVC-15” simply because it is lively and upbeat. The song is a surreal fairytale about its narrator’s girlfriend disappearing into a television. Bowie wrote the song at the depths of his cocaine-fueled paranoia in 1976, which he supposedly did not remember after the fact. The song’s energy and lighthearted sensibility matched the celebratory atmosphere of Live Aid, but its an odd choice, especially considering how more recent Bowie hits such as “Let’s Dance” or anything at all from his most recent album at the time, Tonight would have been more present in the minds of the event’s global audience. Bowie might have been subtly commenting on Live Aid being less of a charity fundraiser and more of a television spectacular.

“‘Heroes’” is often performed as a celebration of heroism, but the lyrics don’t support that meaning. At essence, the song is about doomed and desperate lovers. The song does not propose solving, or even escaping problems, but pretending that they don’t exist “just for one day.” Much as Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” was frequently mistakenly presented as an almost jingoistic anthem, “‘Heroes’” has been used time and again to celebrate actual heroism, a message that is absent from the song. At Live Aid, Bowie might have simply been conceding the song’s common interpretation. Taken together, though, Bowie might have slyly been suggesting that the massive audiences for Live Aid were not really solving hunger but were pretending to be heroes while watching a television show. This interpretation would be in line with the larger political implications of Bowie’s songs, which is to say that politics and collective action don’t much matter.

The 9/11 terrorist attack against New York City literally struck closer to home for Bowie. There’s little reason to suspect cynical intent in his choice of “‘Heroes’” this time, especially since the song had gained in its anthemic stature over the preceding years. Bowie’s choice of “America” as his second song might be more telling. Bowie never recorded the song, and, to my knowledge never performed it again. Yet his rendition is beautiful and loving.

The song is about two lovers taking a scenic and seemingly carefree trip across the country, smoking cigarettes and counting cars on the Turnpike. But beneath the surface is a haunting sense of unease more common to Bowie songs— “I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why,” confesses the male lover. At the time, Bowie was putting the finishing touches on his album, Heathen, which while not specifically about the terrorist attack, captured a similar sense of mysterious emptiness and ache. Amidst speeches from politicians such as New York Governor George Pataki and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, and patriotism-tinged (at least in the moment) songs such as Bon Jovi’s “Wanted, Dead or Alive” and Paul McCartney’s then-new song, “Freedom,” Bowie selected to perform a song about ennui.

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Bowie is not an anarchist. Anarchists believe, like Bowie, that structure and authority are bound to fail, but unlike Bowie they think that getting rid of those things can improve the human condition. Bowie has no prescription. One of his later songs, “A Better Future” (2002), is teasingly vague:

“Please don’t tear this world asunder
Please take back this fear we’re under
I demand a better future
Or I might just stop wanting you”

Of whom is he making this demand? A lover? A country? God? We don’t know. Nor do we know what Bowie’s vision is for a better future. After years of songs about dystopia, broken lives and human failures, the song’s title finally hints that Bowie would roll out his positive vision for the way things ought to be. But he doesn’t. The song is an ultimatum that someone or something forge a hazy but nonetheless better future on pain of becoming unwanted by the song’s narrator.

Anarchists are more specific than that. So are libertarians. Bowie is not a libertarian in part because his songs don’t acknowledge civil liberties. In the contemporary use of the term, libertarians want “small government.” Bowie songs never depict government of any size as virtuous. Nor is the exercise of discernible civil liberties: “Running Gun Blues” (1970) and “Valentine’s Day” (2013) cast a bad light on gun ownership. The clueless yet malevolent hippies of “Cygnet Committee” (1969) abuse their freedom of speech— “Our weapons were the tongues of crying rage.” President Joe’s evil plan in “Saviour Machine” (1970) was called “Prayer,” and though religion and spiritualism are frequent topics of Bowie songs, religious liberty is not. Religion, for Bowie, is a worthwhile conundrum for the individual, but organized religion is like every other organization — inherently corrupt and unworkable. As for the right of assembly, “don’t listen to the crowd” was one of Bowie’s most consistent messages.

In terms of bringing about that better future, Bowie does not advocate anything. Simon Critchley observes in his book, Bowie, that “the word ‘nothing’ keeps recurring” in Bowie songs and that “at the core of Bowie’s music is the exhilaration of an experience of nothing and the attempt to hold on to it.” “Hold on to nothing, and he won’t let you down” is from “After All” (1970), an early song that telegraphs yet another philosophical thread that would weave its way throughout the fabric of Bowie’s catalogue.

Both space and time are recurring characters for Bowie. Space, which is mentioned in fewer Bowie songs than the casual fan might guess, is a stand-in for stasis, while the ever-ravaging time means eternal change. Stasis, for Bowie is, if not comfortable, at least devoid of pain. Many of his songs describe situations in which nothing happens. Major Tom, of course, achieves stasis by exiting his spacecraft and floating away. He returns in “Ashes to Ashes” where he’s strung out in Heaven’s high, confessing that he’s never done good things, bad things or anything out of the blue. The “Starman” (1972) doesn’t do anything. He sits waiting in the sky. There, in space, it’s “always 1982,” as Bowie points out in the nostalgic “Slip Away” (2002). And even the papers reveal that “things don’t really change” (“Modern Love,” 1983).

Though change does happen. Bowie, of course, acknowledges that in “Changes” (1971), and again in “Sound and Vision” (1977) where his narrator sits right down and simply waits for inspiration. Bowie seems to sum it up in “Sunday” (2002), in which he sings, “For in truth, it’s the beginning of nothing; And nothing has changed; Everything has changed.” The song, which begins with a description of a nearly depopulated post-apocalyptic cityscape, finally also mentions group action —“rise together,” though the context is mass extinction as a result of a fear-inspired Holocaust:

“In your fear
Of what we have become
Take to the fire
Now we must burn
All that we are
Rise together
Through these clouds
As on wings”

Death is the leveler, the true unifier and “knowledge comes with death’s release” (“Quicksand,” 1971).

Death creeps into Bowie’s songs, but Bowie is not in a hurry to die. He makes a distinction between the phenomena of death, which is neither good nor bad, and killing, which he never advocates. The one circumstance mentioned in his songs that condone death as a result of someone’s choice is suicide. Bowie mentions suicide in at least four songs— in “All the Young Dudes” (1972), a 25 year old speed freak raps all night about his suicide. In “Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweetheart Thing” (1974), the narrator proposes to his partner that they buy some drugs, watch a band and end their date-night-amidst-the-apocalypse by jumping in the river holding hands. The river again appears as the instrument of suicidal death in “Glass Spider” (1987) which contains the surprising yet virtually unnoticed line, “if your mother don’t love you, the riverbed might.” And then, of course, there’s “Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide” (1973), which, if anything, is a plea against ending it all.

Death is not an agenda item in Bowie’s songs. Its an inevitability. Change is inevitable. Nothing is forever, and the concept of eternity is horrifying. In the song he wrote for his own marriage to Iman, “The Wedding Song” (1993), Bowie pledges to improve his life and makes this statement, which is extraordinary for a love song, let alone a wedding song, “She’s not mine for eternity; though I’ll never fly so high.” A stereotypical pop song celebrates endless love (like, for instance, Lionel Ritchie’s “Endless Love”). In this, his most optimistic take on the concept, Bowie acknowledges that marital bliss can only last as long as life, so he’s going to make the most of the time he has. The outcome is in his own hands, so he pledges, “I’m gonna be so good, just like a good boy should; I’m gonna change my ways.” He has agency.

The lyrics also serve as a counterpoint to his 1977 song, “Beauty and the Beast,” which, while oblique, seems to be a lament about giving in to destructive temptation — “I wanted to, believe me; I wanted to be good; I wanted no distractions; like every good boy should,” but “you can’t say no to the beauty and the beast.”

Bowie’s repeat of the tautological formulation of wanting to be good like a good boy should connects the latter song, which in which the narrator seizes responsibility for his own future, to the earlier song in which he laments giving in to temptation. Change is inevitable, but the direction of change can be influenced by the individual. In both cases, the outcome is independent of any government program, communal support structure or law. In the one case, the individual is at fault for his failures, and in the other it is up to the individual to ensure success for the enterprise. Individualism so deeply penetrates even “The Wedding Song,” that it doesn’t so much as acknowledge the role of the other person in the upcoming marriage. The bride is praised, but she’s not assigned any responsibility for making the marriage work. The family can be described as the smallest, most fundamental governmental unit, and Bowie’s attitude about the individual’s relationship to that unit scales to fit but is otherwise consistent.

There’s another force that, like the Starman waiting in the sky, looms passively over the events described in these two, and many other Bowie songs— God. Both songs invoke religious imagery and specifically Heaven. In the “Wedding Song,” Heaven is “smiling down;” whereas in “Beauty and the Beast,” Heaven “left us standing on our feet,” for which the narrator thanks God, as if he dodged a bullet. But God didn’t do anything. Heaven did not cause the narrator to stand, but “left” him standing. In both songs, God and Heaven don’t intervene. The outcome is up to the individual.

These are two examples of another topic related to the organization of societies that permeates Bowie songs, God and man…

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