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David Bowie and Politics, Pt. 12: the Politics of Death (and Life)

Yep, the above picture is Bowie, as the living dead in the movie, The Hunger demonstrating the downside of immortality.

If there’s a thread of philosophy that runs through Bowie’s music that resembles ancient Cynicism, his attitude toward death seems similar to that of the Stoic Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Bowie, like the Roman emperor, saw death as inevitable and life as fleeting. The concept of eternity seemed horrifying to Bowie, who held himself to a standard of making the most of what time he had, and regretting when he failed to meet that standard. And while most of the political implications of Bowie’s songs don’t translate into instructions on what anyone should do, he seemed most explicitly against the idea of governments or individuals ending anyone else’s life prematurely.

Death and life are the ultimate political issues. Governments seek to regulate when people die, either by deeming death appropriate (wars, executions, etc.) or by devising schemes to fend off death (public health policies, workplace safety laws, public investments in cancer research, etc.). Partisans battle for control of government to make these determinations, and the results are often measurable.

The one type of issue-oriented song that Bowie promulgated prior to his Thin White Duke period spoke against war and killing. Songs like “Bombers” (1971) was a fairly straightforward anti-war song while “Running Gun Blues” (1970) depicts a maniacal Vietnam veteran on a murderous rampage.

Bowie would reiterate his opposition to war as a way of solving problems in “Fantastic Voyage” (1979), in which he acknowledges that dignity and loyalty are valuable but “our lives are valuable, too.” Here he is basically saying that abstract virtues don’t justify “shoot[ing] some of those missiles.” This turns out to be an important aspect of what can be discerned to be Bowie’s political values: abstract ideas do not justify killing or dying. Indeed, not a single song that Bowie wrote over half a century established a justification for killing. Perhaps the nearest was embedded in the overall concept of the 1995 album, 1. Outside, which dealt with the fantastical concept of murder as art. So art, which Bowie eventually made out of his own dying process with the 2016 album Blackstar, might be a lofty enough ambition to kill for, however even within the context of the album, there isn’t a song that clearly articulates that anyone killed or died explicitly for the sake of art. Bowie killed off plenty of other characters in his own art before and after 1. Outside, but he never did so in such a way to suggest a justification for killing.

Bowie did not drop the subject. His 2003 song, “Fall Dog Bombs the Moon” was loosely inspired by Dick Cheney, while “I’d Rather be High” castigates generals as “full of shit” and a soldier really rather not wanting to shoot at “those men in the sand.” War, and sanctioned killing stood at the pinnacle of oppression in Bowie’s hierarchy of things the individual could suffer at the hands of the crowd, whether organized in the form of a government, as a mob or simply as society. In this sense, the kids who killed the man in “Ziggy Stardust” are of a piece with the full of shit generals and the “they” from “Jump, They Say” (1993). Bowie’s profound lack of confidence in politics seems to stem from the idea that when people band together, they want to kill the other.

But Bowie lamented the individual’s choice to kill. “Running Gun Blues” was only the first of three Bowie songs about shooters and their motives. If the shooter in that song seems to have adjusted poorly to returning from the war, the school shooter in “Valentine’s Day” was motivated by his hatred for the “teachers and the football stars.” For Bowie, who so often found common cause with the outcasts and weirdos, here he depicts an unacceptable reaction to ostracism. “Day In, Day Out” is seldom noted as another shooter song, but the lyrics describe an impoverished, drug-addicted women who eventually takes a shotgun to “make them well aware she’s an angry girl.”

What’s interesting is that in all three cases, Bowie describes his shooters’ motivations, but, while possibly expressing sympathy, clearly does not approve of their decision to kill. There are plenty of popular songs that set up justifiable killings, such as Aerosmith’s “Janie’s Got A Gun,” in which a woman kills her abuser (in stark contrast to Bowie’s abuse victim in “Repetition”), or Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff,” in which the narrator confesses to killing one law officer for reasons he clearly believed were warranted, but not the deputy, whose shooting he contends he had nothing to do with. I mention these songs because Bowie has nothing like them— the taking of another’s life is always lamentable for Bowie.

Indeed, the depiction of premature death at the hands of others appears in some of Bowie’s earliest songs, such as “Please Mr. Gravedigger” (1967), a theoretically humorous song about a serial killer, right up to “Sue (Or In A Season of Crime)” (2015) which, while ambiguous seems to depict the lamentations of a murderous jealous lover.

Not surprisingly, Bowie also depicts death as a result of government oppression to either be a looming threat (“the guns shot above our heads,” in “‘Heroes’”) or the ultimate form of enforced conformity (“We Are the Dead,” 1974).

Bowie was against killing, but he was far more neutral when it came to death itself. While death pervades Blackstar, Bowie does not seem to be fighting to stay alive. Though “Quicksand” is essentially a standalone song, his conclusion that “knowledge comes with death’s release” suggests that the grass in greener on the ultimate other side. Bowie matter-of-factory references suicide in “All the Young Dudes” (1972) and “Glass Spider” (1987) and seems to suggest that as a preferable alternative to living in a totalitarian state in “Candidate” (1974)— “well buy some drugs and watch a band, then jump in the river holding hands.”

Immortality is a fate worse than death. Bowie describes “The Supermen” (1970) as having “endless, tragic lives,” while the undying stars in “The Stars Are Out Tonight” (2013) are depicted as vampires. Bowie himself played a vampire in, the movie The Hunger, for whom immortality meant torturous, eternal stasis, which might also have been his character’s fate at the end of the The Man Who Fell to Earth. In that movie, Bowie’s alien, trapped on earth, appears not to age along with the humans around him who do, and not to die as his family back on their planet do. Instead, Bowie’s character wallows in alcoholism.

Bowie seems to conflate substance abuse, space and stasis. Major Tom escapes to space only to become a junky, while, in “Slip Away” (2002) Bowie declares that, “in space it’s always 1982.” Stasis, for Bowie, might be numbing but ultimately unsatisfying.

What does all this have to do with politics? On the one hand, very little. In matters of life and death, like most other issues, Bowie does not advocate a platform. His anti-war songs are not directed at particular wars. His songs about shootings are several steps away from being gun control songs. However, Bowie suggests that attempts to govern the life and death of others is at best, futile. Here, his view of politics as worthless can most clearly be discerned from his attitudes about death.

This view toward death fits nicely with Bowie’s repeated musings about the individual’s responsibility form making the most of what time he has, as well as Bowie’s larger distrust of the collective’s ability to achieve anything useful.

So at this point we can conclude that the politics of Bowie were— he’s against. He’s against politics.

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