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Bowie songs of the year #10: Repetition, 1979

I’ll begin this series with what I thought was the 10th biggest story of the year, and the one that I’d call a cultural development: the Johnny Depp versus Amber Heard defamation trial. Representing the issue is Bowie’s song, “Repetition,” which was possibly misplaced on Lodger. I had never seen the attached video before, which is of an 1997 acoustic version of the song that I’ve never heard before. I’ll discuss the video itself a little later.

“Repetition” is a fairly straightforward song about domestic abuse in which the abuser happens to be named Johnny. For this reason alone, it’s the obvious song to represent Depp v. Heard, however I think the cultural impact of the trial was more nuanced than Bowie’s song. I didn’t follow the trial too closely, but I was struck that Depp seemed to engender an enormous amount of sympathy. Also, though I am not a lawyer, I was further struck that Depp won on what seemed to me to be the tenuous premise that Heard had defamed him without actually ever mentioning his name. I don’t know that this case has changed the meaning of the law, but its hard not to think that other people with means who have been accused of sexual misconduct of some kind will be emboldened to use the same tactic as Depp.

This is not to say that I think Depp was guilty. I didn’t follow the case closely enough to know one way or the other. Depp wasn’t himself even on trial— Heard was on trial. I think this was a top news story because of what it said about where our culture was this year on a few interconnected issues.

The case was unavoidable while it was happening. At one point shortly after the verdict, we went to see Paul McCartney perform at Fenway Park. He accompanied one of his songs with a video featuring Depp. That he thought he could— that he should do that in front of a huge, presumably diverse crowd said something about both the public’s awareness and opinion about what went down.

So what did it say about the state of our culture? At least three things:

1. The case became a stand-in for what has come to be called the “Me too movement.” Like many movements, the original idea caught on because it gave voice to a real and far too broadly experienced societal problem— however I’m not so sure that there was ever broad agreement on what that societal problem is. I think I can fairly say that most people agree with the sentiment of Bowie’s song, that domestic or sexual abuse is bad. The idea that many, many women have experienced it, yet many of those who have have also been afraid to talk about it is a broadly sympathetic and important point. High profile cases of truly nauseating predators like Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby fueled the “movement” in part because the public stood with the victims in those cases. I think there’s also abstract agreement that sexual harassment is another a bad thing that’s far too common. But there’s little agreement as to what sexual harassment actually means. Over time, high profile cases of abuse were joined by some high profile cases of either false accusations, or accusations of behaviors that were not widely agreed to actually be bad. I’m deliberately using the vague word, “bad,” because there’s ambiguity about what even constitutes “bad.” In short order, the term “me too” went from being a novel way to describe a common phenomenon to a confusing cliche that obscured rather than clarified meaning. The rise of new rules in and out of the workplace, new societal norms governing human interaction, the concept of “cancel culture” (another term that quickly developed from being descriptive to being virtually meaningless) certainly led to a counter-reaction. Again, I’m deliberately not adding specific examples aside from the Depp case because my point is not to argue about the merits of specific accusations against actual people, but to point out that at least a large segment of the population reacted in 2022 like “me too” went too far. More significantly still, I think both what “me too” has evolved into and the counter-reaction is now part of the motivation of grievance-oriented politics.

2. Fan reaction to both Depp and Heard says much about celebrity and fame. Why did so many people not only trust Depp implicitly, but seem to feel personally invested in his fate? If the case turns out not to make more than a ripple in the legal sense, it might be because Depp’s level of fame was an essential element to the outcome. In this respect, I might have chosen Bowie’s song, “Fame” to represent the issue…but “Repetition” is pretty obviously better!

3. I heard more than one commentary about how some other commentators were using true crime techniques to analyze the case. Broadly, the techniques in question have to do with noticing and exposing secret knowledge. True crime fans focus on inconsistencies in the official version of events, logical deductions that investigators missed and generally being in on a hidden truth. The technique breaks down when the secret truth isn’t actually true, the logic is faulty or context is ignored. Far more broadly than the Depp case, this almost gnostic urge is fueling conspiracy-theory movements like Q-Anon and has become a very common theme in movies, TV shows and especially podcasts.

So all that’s why I think Depp versus Heard is one of the top stories of the year. “Repetition” is going to turn out to be one of the more obvious choices to represent the issue on this top-ten list. It was one of the songs I did not include in my original 2016 tribute, and I was delighted to happen up this video. The disconcerting image of Bowie’s double face is achieved by projecting the image of his face on his actual face. He used the projection technique on dolls in the videos for both “Where Are We Now” (2013) and “Love is Lost” (2013), but this is an early use of the technique with a different canvas.

Finally, I mentioned that “Repetition” seemed slightly out of place on Lodger. As with most Bowie albums, at least one song hints at the next album. This might be the one. Bowie’s next album as Scary Monsters, which contained more social commentary that his recent past albums, so there should be no surprise that two songs from that album will make it to this list…

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