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Life During a Panic in Detroit: Two Takes on Societal Breakdown

Talking Heads’ “Life During Wartime” (1979) became part of my personal soundtrack during the early days of the Covid lockdown. I’ve always liked the song’s frenetic energy, David Byrne’s detached delivery, and… I’m not even sure why I like the lyrics so much, but I have always liked the lyrics. On its surface, the song is a vision of societal breakdown and civil unrest, themes covered by several Bowie songs such as “Diamond Dogs” (1974), “Sunday” (2002), and my favorite, “Panic in Detroit” (1973). Part of the reason that latter song as well as “Life During Wartime” (1979) resonate with me is that something is seriously off with the narrators of each song.

Though the lyrics are somewhat ambiguous, I think the narrator of “Life During Wartime” is paranoid, and there is no actual societal breakdown. Why else would he be surrounded by people dressed like students, housewives, or “in a suit and a tie”? He’s seeing people going about their daily lives, not people in the midst of a revolution, civil war, or state of anarchy. We don’t get this line until fairly late in the song, at which point we realize that everything else being described by the narrator is purely his take on what he’s perceiving or what he himself is doing. The war exists in his head. In this respect, I’m reminded of Bowie’s video for “I’m Afraid of Americans” (1995), in which Bowie’s character seems to be imagining he’s being followed. In that case, the video turns the song’s meaning on its head— instead of it being about the fearsome qualities of Americans, the visual story is about the individual’s paranoia and fear. That’s also what I think is going on in the Talking Heads song.

But not “Panic in Detroit.” There’s little in the lyrics to suggest that what’s being described isn’t actually happening. But the narrator is taking in death and destruction on a mass level as if it were all an entertainment spectacle— “I asked for an autograph.” The narrator isn’t throwing caution to the wind— he’s completely oblivious to the threat. He has so little regard for human life that he doesn’t give much value to his own, as if life and self were totally separate.

So, what both songs are really addressing are attitudes that are very relevant to today’s politics— a paranoid and conspiracy-minded outlook on the one hand, and celebrity and spectacle culture on the other. These songs are decades old, but they might as well have been written for today…

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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