Skip to content

Bowie the Cynic

I think I forgot Bowie appeared on the 2005 song, “The Cynic” by the Danish band, Kashmir. I either forgot or never knew. I certainly had never seen this video, in which Bowie appears, albeit in animated form. The song and video belong somewhere in this blog, but I also find it a bit of a coincidence that I recently posted about how the overall philosophical message of Bowie’s music is similar to that of ancient Cynicism (click HERE for that post).

Despite the name, and despite part of the closing refrain containing the line, “we’re the cynical men,” I don’t think this song is actually about Cynicism, at least not in the ancient philosophical sense of the word.

Briefly recapping my observation— the ancient Cynics made a conspicuous show of defying social convention. They had less of a plan to make the word better than to point out the hypocrisy , or at least uselessness of norms. They were performative and not fans of groupthink. “The Earth is bitch; we’ve finished our news; Homo sapiens have outgrown their use” might as well have been a Cynical maxim.

I didn’t and don’t think that Bowie was a conscious adherent to the ancient philosophy. Also, though its tough to know what the real David Jones thought, he did not lead his personal life like an ancient Cynic (who were extreme ascetics), however the message of his songs was subtly, but consistently anti-materialistic.

I’m not an expert on ancient Cynicism and was helped along by Ansgar Allen’s brief primer on the topic titled, Cynicism. The more I think about it, the more I think it fits. A few quotes from the book:

“Cynicism seeks to transform moral attitudes, passions and appetites, but it does so by attacking the structures and conventions of which these attitudes are symptomatic.” To me, this seems like a concise encapsulation of Bowie’s entire message, but especially what radiated from the glam period when Bowie challenged conventions about gender, marriage, family and the social order. The song is called, “Rebel Rebel” for a reason. Songs like “Five Years,” “Panic in Detroit” and “Diamond Dogs” depict an upside-down world in which social conventions cease to exist. Such songs do not depict utopian alternatives but rather highlight the fragility of those conventions as well as their lack of inherent value.

In recounting a well-known story about the most famous Cynical philosopher, Diogenese defacing coins, Allen explained, “coins that once had value became worthless, and things once considered worthless gain value.” This makes me think of quite a few Bowie lyrics, but especially a line from the stage-setting “Future Legend” that kicks off the Diamond Dogs album, “Ripping and rewrapping mink and shiny silver fox, now legwarmers.” What Bowie is describing here is a world in which feral gangs repurpose objects of status into practical accessories. He’s defacing the coins.

Allen later quoted another modern commentator explaining that Cynics confronted “what civilization offers by way of comfortable educations to entice people to serve its ends,’ namely a whole set of ‘ideas, ideas about duty, promises of redemption, hopes of immortality, goals for ambition, positions of power, careers, arts, riches.’” Again, where to start? I could pretty much pull lines from multiple Bowie dongs to illustrate each point. The very first of which that comes to mind is from “Fantastic Voyage,” in which Bowie sings, “dignity” (and later, “loyalty”) “is valuable, but our lives are valuable, too.”

That song is from Lodger, but I keep going back to Diamond Dogs, in part because the word “cynicism” essentially means “dog-like.” Bowie might have been more conscious of Cynicism than I have been assuming. And there might be another hidden nod to the concept buried in that album, too: a line from “We Are the Dead” — “For you’re dancing where the dogs decay, defecating ecstasy.” The song, based on scenarios from George Orwell’s 1984, is very much about aggressive societal conditioning. And there’s that word again, “dogs,” used in the same sentence as “defecating.” It’s a little tough to write about, but the Cynics would perform bodily functions in public as a way of challenging societal norms. Diogenes used defecation as a protest tool. There’s a story about him giving a speech that enraptured a crowd, and then, at the moment he was receiving the applause of his audience, he pooped on the spot, essentially calling them out for being lemmings. I can’t think of another song that includes the word, “defecating,” and for it to appear in the same sentence as “dogs” on an album that also includes “dogs” in its title seems a little too much of a coincidence.

Well, none of this has anything to do with the Kashmir song. But if you, like me, have never seen the video, it’s worth watching.

Back To Top