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Janel Monae’s “Heroes” cover and Bowie’s original pessimism

I posted a song yesterday by Janelle Monáe that mentions Bowie. I wrote that Monáe admired Bowie and had previously covered, “Heroes.” The song was used in an anti-bullying campaign that, I guess was sponsored by Pepsi. This video tells a visual story of bullied oddball children teaming up to counter their adversaries by being themselves but gaining strength through numbers. I think there are other versions of Monáe’s version of this song out there.

Monáe promoted the song at the time and talked about Bowie. A Rolling Stone feature explained, “‘Bowie is part of my musical DNA in so many ways,’ Monáe says. ‘And ‘Heroes’ is one of my favorite Bowie songs. When you love your favorite song, you want to keep some of the beautiful qualities of the original, but we brought Atlanta in the drums and wanted them to be thick and hit hard. It’s like us reimagining it. I thought, ‘If this song was in my dream, how would it get from our dream to my reality?’ Monáe says she was drawn to the song by its lyrical message as much as the music. ‘It’s very hopeful,’ says the singer. ‘The way the world is today, you can never write enough inspiring or motivating songs or songs that embolden the people and make us feel fearless. Those lyrics spoke to me as someone who is for the people. I try to inspire and lead by example and be the change that I want to see. So this song is a poster child for just that.’”

I like this version of the song, but I’m not sure I agree with Monáe‘s interpretation of its meaning. I don’t think of the song as hopeful. Bowie describes doomed lovers who contemplate forgetting the world falling down around them even for a very brief period of time. “Just for one day” is not a very hopeful ambition. Bowie himself would sometimes perform the song emphasizing the “we can be heroes” part, but I think the whole of the song paints a more complicated picture. Sort of like Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.”

Think about Bowie’s version on his album, “Heroes” (the name of which appears in quotes, to suggest irony). Bowie sounds increasingly desperate as the song progresses. He’s just about screaming by the time he gets to, “I can be king.” While repeating that “we can be heroes, just for one day,” he lays out a truly harrowing situation: “nothing will drive them away” and “nothing will keep us together.” And the “we” involved don’t seem to helping their cause— “you can be mean, and I drink all the time…” and “we’re nothing, and nothing can help us.” The song’s narrator pretty much admits that his temporary heroic scenario is fundamentally dishonest— “maybe we’re lying, then you’d better not say.” This is all in line with Bowie’s frequent theme of celebrating in the face of doom. Think of the character in “Diamond Dogs” who asks for the latest party upon being pulled out of an oxygen tent, or the narrator asking for an autograph amidst the panic in Detroit or whoever it was the narrator saw in an ice cream parlor drinking milk shakes upon learning that the Earth has five years remaining. Even one of Bowie’s few flat-out love songs, part of the soundtrack to a children’s movie, is called “As the World Falls Down.” “Heroes” is of a piece with these themes.

And if that’s not enough evidence that Bowie’s original intent for “Heroes” was not hopeful, watch his official video. Bowie, a lone, writing figure back-lit and standing amidst fog seems to be lamenting the situation. He doesn’t seem hopeful, comfort and or optimistic.

Also, I’m a little concerned that the video against bullying basically has the victims of bullying teaming up to fight fire with fire. They come charging over the hill, and while they don’t actually attack the bullies, they intimidate the bullies, who flee. Doesn’t that count as violence?

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