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Is “Fight the Power” the antithesis of a Bowie song?

While writing my “Bowie and politics” series, I wanted to come up with some examples of songs that expressed political ideas opposite, or at least very different, from those in Bowie songs. I came up with a bunch of examples and posted about them a few weeks ago (click HERE to see that piece). I almost included Public Enemy’s 1989 song, “Fight the Power,” but held back, not because it actually is like a Bowie song but because I kinda felt it was the antithesis and therefore demanded special attention.

Well, antithesis might be a bit strong. Rather than saying “Fight the Power” is the nearest thing I can come up with that’s the exact opposite of a Bowie song, I’ll instead explain why the thought entered my head.

“Fight the Power” was memorably used in the opening credits of Spike Lee’s movie, Do the Right Thing. It, along with Rosie Perez’s high-energy dance accompanying the song, sets the stage for a movie about racial tensions. And its point is pretty simple—“we got to fight the powers that be.” Angry and aggressive though the song is, it is actually quite hopeful. There’d be no reason to fight if the battle couldn’t be won. The song doesn’t much articulate what “we need,” but makes demands to get it. I also get the sense that the call to fight is quite literal—there’s enough in the song to suggest that “fight” means “fight.”

Bowie has many songs about the powers that be, but he never calls for a fight. Think about it—“Big Brother” is wanted. President Joe, from “Saviour Machine” (1970), is empowered and delivers an oppressive plan because that’s what the people want. Sam, from “Scream Like A Baby” (1980), is forcibly made to conform and is abused but doesn’t resist. “Fashion” (1980) also describes a kind of powers that be, but rather than generating resistance, these powers, be they actually whoever it is that dictate fashion or if “fashion” is a stand-in for political trends, anyway, they demand turns to the left and right with no sign that anyone says no. Even songs like “‘Heroes’” (1977) allow for taking advantage of the moment to kiss while “the guns shot above our heads,” but, despite the name of the song, the pretend heroes don’t join in the combat.

It isn’t that Bowie doesn’t acknowledge violence or a revolutionary impulse. He makes fun of the determination to “fight for the right to be right” in “Cygnet Committee” (1969), and then again in “Panic in Detroit” (1973), which depicts the breakdown of society as an entertainment spectacle. The world was flipped upside down in “Diamond Dogs” (1974), but it isn’t a better world.

Moreover, while “Fight the Power” deals with “what we want” and “what we need,” along with rights like the “freedom of speech” and abstract concepts such as pride, Bowie reminds us in “Fantastic Voyage” (1979) that dignity and loyalty are valuable, “but our lives are valuable, too.” Social injustice for Bowie is tangible and takes the form of poverty (“God Knows I’m Good,” 1969); gun violence (“Valentine’s Day,” 2013); and drug addiction (“Ashes to Ashes,” 1980). There’s more, but nothing abstract.

Plus, “Fight the Power” takes a shot at Elvis, who, along with John Wayne, are singled out as racists. I think the point about Elvis is the idea that he appropriated black music and less to do with his personal beliefs and behaviors (though I don’t really know). Bowie liked Elvis for his music and showmanship, and he himself could have been subject to the same accusation (though, oddly, I have never encountered that, even in discussions of Young Americans).

Although I do think Public Enemy’s song is more hopeful, I’m not ready to say that one message is better than the other. Bowie is more introspective and deals with the individual’s relationship with the collective. It simply isn’t his point to call for action. Bowie suggests that the individual might have some influence over his own fate and points out that even if there’s only a day to play at hero, that in itself is an opportunity. But, to paraphrase “All the Young Dudes” (1972), he never got it off on that revolution stuff.

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The Divine Symmetry series compares Bowie songs to other songs with some sort of similarity, intentional or otherwise. The term is borrowed from Bowie’s song, “Quicksand.”

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