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Bowie and Politics, Part 11: God and Man

A thread of spiritualism runs throughout Bowie’s music from obscure, early songs such as “Silly Boy Blue” (1966) and “Karma Man” (1967) that reflect a teenager’s understanding of Buddhism, through both overt references to the occultist Aleister Crowley, such as in “Quicksand” (1971) and more obscure references to Crowley’s work in such songs as “Station to Station” (1976), to contemplations about faith and doubt in songs such as “Word on a Wing” (1976) and, the Tin Machine song “Bus Stop” (1989) and the pop hit “Modern Love” (1983). One of his final songs, “Blackstar” (2016) establishes that, “something happened on the day he died; spirit rose a meter and stepped aside.” Some of Bowie’s songs simply make passing references to God (“God Knows I’m Good,” 1969); gods (“The Supermen,” 1970; “Seven,” 1999); Heaven (“Heaven’s In Here,” 1989); angles (“The Wedding Song,” 1993), the Devil (“Holy Holy, 1970”) or prayer (“I Pray, Ole,” 1979). Far more than aliens and outer space, religious imagery is so replete throughout Bowie’s catalogue that it is difficult to distinguish what he did and did not mean to have spiritual implications.

Much as Bowie does not offer a coherent political vision, he doesn’t attempt to characterize the spiritual world. On the occasion that he does say “God’s a young man, too” (“Width of a Circle, 1970) or “God is an American” (I’m Afraid of Americans, 1997), he uses “God” metaphorically rather than theologically. There is no theology of Bowie. Early Buddhist and occultist references give way in his later songs to musings on spiritual struggles and simple acknowledgment of a spiritual reality. “Just because I believe don’t mean I don’t think as well; don’t have to question everything in Heaven and Hell,” Bowie declares in “Word on a Wing” (1975). He flips the coin of doubt in the short, humorous “Bus Stop” (1989):

Now Jesus he came in a vision
And offered you redemption from sin
I’m not sayin’ that I don’t believe you
But are you sure that it really was him
I’ve been told that it could’ve been blue cheese
Or the meal that we ate down the road
Hallelujah

“I’m a young man at odds with the Bible
But I don’t pretend faith never works

This uncertainty is also reflected in sometimes contradictory assertions that appear over time, such as his admonition against belief in “Quicksand” (1970) compared to the aforementioned attestation of belief in “Word on a Wing.” He uses contradiction to make his point in “Afraid” (2002) with the simple line, “I believe in Beatles,” a clear reference to John Lennon’s atheistic song, “God,” in which Lennon iterates everything he doesn’t believe in including Beatles (no mention if Lennon believed in Bowie). In “Afraid” (2002) Bowie’s narrator basically explains that he does everything he’s expected to do and believes everything he’s supposed to believe but remains afraid. So, “Bus Stop” aside, it seems faith doesn’t always work.

Bowie does not pretend to understand the divine. He does not evangelize. To the extent he even acknowledges those who do, he’s skeptical at best. The title track for Bowie’s 2013 comeback album, The Next Day is filled with religious imagery including a priest “stiff in hate” and a “gormless” (foolish) and “baying” crowd (again with the crowd) that can’t get enough of a “Doomsday song.” Here Bowie once again returns to observe the relationship between the nearly mindless, instinctual crowd, the leaders it empowers, and it’s embrace of its own destruction. Most of his songs about demagogues do this— the demagogic figure in “Somebody Up There Likes Me” presents himself as a divinely inspired crowd pleaser; the “we” demanding Big Brother cry out for a “brave Apollo” (Apollo, after all, was a god); “they” in “Saviour Machine” call President Joe’s plan “the Prayer.” Religious figures and institutions are no different than political figures and institutions, and, for that matter rock stars.

But religious figures and institutions appear infrequently in Bowie’s songs compared to other spiritual references. Spiritual reality is almost a background element, there like air or sunshine, ready to be mentioned to fill space in a song or to paint a fuller picture. Bowie’s claim in “Word on a Wing” to be “trying hard to fit among Your scheme of things” seems about right. He never reaches a point where he declares that he’s figured it out.

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While Bowie’s songs don’t endorse a particular religion paint a very clear picture of what Bowie might have thought existed on a higher plane of existence, they display an alignment with an ancient philosophical orientation — Cynicism. Here it’s worth once again pointing out that the topic at hand is Bowie’s music and not necessarily the personal beliefs of David Robert Jones. I don’t know what the actual man thought and am distrustful of media accounts, or even his own accounts given in interviews. And, for those of us who didn’t actually know him, it doesn’t much matter. Our experience of David Bowie— a character portrayed by David Jones— is through his art. And his art was Cynical.

I am not suggesting that Bowie was an adherent of the ancient philosophy of Cynicism, or that he necessarily even recognized the similarities between his songs’ overarching approach to relating to the universe with that of the Cynics. Nonetheless, the broad message of his songs are more consistent with Cynicism than other philosophies, theologies or political theories.

The Cynicism of Diogenes (the Greek figure forever searching for an honest man) is different than the cynicism of today. In his seminal book, A History of Western Philosophy, Bertrand Russell wrote that some “intellectually eminent men” throughout history were basically happy with society and confident in their own ability to make it even better, while others believed that society required radical, revolutionary change yet their own role in fomenting revolution could once again improve the situation. But others, wrote Russell, “have despaired of the world, and felt that, though they themselves knew what was needed, there was no hope of its being brought about. This mood sinks easily into the deeper despair which regards life on earth as essentially bad and hopes for good only in a future life or in some mystical transfiguration.”

Russell was setting up his explanation of ancient Greek Cynicism, but he might as well have been setting up a discussion of the broader philosophical implications of Bowie’s music. Again and again, Bowie’s songs remind us that humans cannot collectively better themselves or devise a plan to avoid inevitable doom. “The Earth is bitch; we’ve finished our news; Homo sapiens have outgrown their use” (Oh! You Pretty Things,” 1970). Cynicism, wrote, Ansgar Allen in his book on the topic, “had no fixed dogmata and seems to have operated without a defined ‘end’ or ‘philosophical goal…’” For all of Bowie’s observations about death, decay and regret, he proscribes no solutions. He does not point out flawed behaviors or thoughts in order to turn around and say what should be done instead. Bowie’s songs reflect half a century of ruminating but contain no conclusions.

Bowie also did not pretend to serve as a role model. Bowie is sometimes described as hedonistic, based, no doubt, in part on his personal behavior, especially in the 1970s, and in part due to his glam-era personae. But his songs do not advocate hedonism. As previously mentioned, pleasure seekers eventually suffer the consequences of their indulgences — Major Tom of “Space Oddity” (1969) returns as a junkie after spending more than a decade “strung out in Heaven’s high” (“Ashes to Ashes,” 1980). Despite occasional drug references, and his own drug addiction, no Bowie song explicitly glorifies drug use. While a few lines from a few songs can be interpreted that way, getting there involves navigating oblique references and disjointed combinations of words.

On this point— by way of example, “The Jean Genie” (1973) contains the lines, “walking on Snow White,” which is sometimes interpreted to mean, “using cocaine,” and “sleeps in a capsule,” which is sometimes interpreted to mean needing barbiturates to “come down” to go to sleep. But the overall lyrics of the song are surreal, and even if that’s actually what Bowie meant to convey, it seems more a description of the Genie’s behavior rather than a celebration of it. On the other hand, songs like “Ashes to Ashes,” “Crack City” (1989), and “Like a Rocket Man” (2013) could hardly be more overt in their descriptions of the negative consequences of drug use.

Proto-Cynic Antisthenes purportedly said, “I’d rather be mad than feel pleasure.” Despite Bowie’s reputation as a pleasure-seeker, few — if any— of his songs celebrate pleasure. Bowie, too, uses the “I’d rather be X than Y” formulation, for instance, in “All the Madmen” 1970, where he declares, “I’d rather be here, with all the madmen, than perish with the sad men roaming free;” or, “I’d Rather Be High” (2013) in which the by-then recovering drug addict declares that he’d rather revert to chemical dependency than fight in a war. In both cases, Bowie is rejecting societal imperatives (group-defined sanity in the one case, the group activity of war in the other). Antisthenes would likely have empathized.

The ancient Cynics were extreme ascetics, which in life Bowie clearly was not. But again, there’s a striking lack of value placed on material or worldly things in almost all of Bowie’s original songs. On the other hand, again as previously established, he repeatedly shows an appreciation of if not a value in “nothing” (“hold on to nothing, and he won’t let you down,” “After All,” 1970). Those few lines in a very few songs that suggest any appreciation for material things are countered by other lines in other songs. For instance, Bowie’s narrator in “Star” (1972) says, “I can do with the money,” but the album (Ziggy Stardust) ends with “Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide,” and that appears after we already heard that “the kids had killed the man.” Money does not lead to happiness in Ziggy’s story. In “Golden Years” (1976) Bowie mentions “a dream car, 20-feet long,” but this is only after, the year before, in “Fame,” he claims, “what you like is in the limo; what you get is no tomorrow.” Bowie’s catalogue has no equivalent of Madonna’s “Material Girl.”

The Cynics made a point of conspicuously flaunting convention, including by performing sexual acts in public. Diogenes, for instance, masturbated in public, which appears to have been as shocking then as Bowie’s performance of oral sex on Mick Ronson’s guitar was in 1972. Hipparchia, meanwhile, made a show of defying gender expectations both in her lifestyle and mode of dress. And it was a show— the Cynics’ behavior was meant to confront society and challenge norms. Like Bowie they rejected the very crowd they performed for, and like Bowie they expressed this rejection though a kind of performance art (Diogenes wasn’t actually seeking an honest man, in an early form of virtue signaling, he was just putting on an act to make a point). The Cynics made a literal virtue out of deviance, which Bowie’s lyrics seemed to do even when expressed by one of his more mainstream manifestations.

Bowie’s ultimate expression of Cynicism was his repeated rejection of his own past persona and everything that went along with them. What greater rejection of the crowd could there be than Bowie’s discarding of what the crowd sought from him? It is as if he was saying, “This thing you value of mine? I cast it aside as it has no value to me.” The transition from the hit-making blue-eyed soulster of Young Americans to the ambient recluse of Low, or the shift from the suave stadium-packer of Let’s Dance to the nearly reviled Tin Machine band member was almost insulting to many fans. He is perhaps the only major pop star who repeatedly gave the fans what they didn’t want (until they’d come around, and then he’d repeat the cycle).

And while Bowie’s stated respect or lack thereof for his own past work would shift over time, he never truly went back to embracing his past styles (well, aside maybe for the album, Toy). The presumed realities that set the stage for his own, immersive performance art were repeatedly wiped clean with every new identity. Shifting identity is not necessarily a Cynical trait, but rejection of what one might have valued in the past surely is. The Cynics were nonconformist even as it pertained to their relationship with each other, so Bowie would have been little more than a wannabe if he appeared on stage in a loincloth wielding a lantern in search of an honest man. But he and Diogenes were not at odds.

Rejecting conventional politics and societal norms, Bowie was indeed searching for something. He never found it and didn’t point the way for others.
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Next: David Bowie’s Politics of Death

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