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Not David Bowie songs

I’ve been working on my next installment of the “Bowie and Politics” series and was thinking that the political resonance of some of Bowie’s less-obvious songs might show up better in relief, against their opposites. So, that’s what this is. I’ve added links to bolded names of the non-Bowie songs if you want to hear them…

Legalize It” by Peter Tosh. Perhaps surprisingly, Bowie never wrote an overtly pro-drug song. Moreover, Tosh calls out the hypocrisy of respectable people, including judges, smoking pot despite legal prohibition, so, logically, he calls for a change in the law. Bowie’s songs show little regard for the law one way or the other and never call for institutional change. Contrast with “Ashes to Ashes,” where Bowie makes the very individual struggle with addiction the subject (I know, not addiction to pot, but Bowie doesn’t have a marijuana song).

Janie’s Got a Gun” by Aerosmith. The story here is basically one of justifiable homicide as Janie kills her incestuous father. Janie gets arrested, but the real villain was the abuser who “had it comin’.” Bowie’s “Repetition” also deals with domestic violence, but there is no resolution. Though at one point Bowie breaks into his own song and shouts, “don’t hit her,” his nameless victim never gets a gun and the beating never stops. Absent from Bowie’s songs is any concept of justice and very few happy endings. Bowie often highlights the ills of society but seldom proscribes a solution.

The River” by Bruce Springsteen. This song resembles sentiments that appear in Bowie songs to some extent— the narrator and Mary more or less pretend to be heroes just for one day at the River, even though their broken lives continue to spiral. But Springsteen lays blame at all kinds of external factors— the economy, the convention of marriage, “they.” Bowie tends to hold the individual responsible for his own fate. His advice in “Golden Years” is to “never look back, walk tall, look fine.” Eventually, though, Bowie does look back, for instance in songs like “Thursday’s Child” where he laments that despite trying so hard all his life, “nothing much happened all the same.” But its on him. And yes, Bowie has plenty of songs in which society gangs upon against the individual, often forcing conformity, much like in this song, but for Bowie what’s happening is the beating down of deviance whereas with Bruce its merely the perpetuation of the social order. Plus, for Bowie, rivers are a symbol of death, which is clearly not the case here.

God Bless the USA” by Lee Greenwood. Perhaps the most un-Bowie song on this list, this is so obviously different than anything Bowie would even contemplate that it barely merits mention. The point is that nationalism can be celebrated in songs— just not Bowie songs. While there are many aspects of Greenwood’s message that Bowie would refute, the best counterbalance is not “I’m Afraid of Americans” or “This is Not America,” but “Young Americans,” which celebrates the grit and underbelly of America rather than its divine backing and lofty ideals. Bowie sees beauty not just in what his adopted country really was, but in the struggle itself.

Power to the People” by John Lennon. The most salient political theme that weaves throughout Bowie’s catalogue is his distrust of the crowd, whether it be unorganized (“Jump, They Say”) or organized into a government, army or even gang (say, for instance, “the National People’s Gang” in “Panic in Detroit”). Bowie often introduces demagogues who are empowered by “the people,” who in divesting themselves of their own power, enable Big Brothers and President Joes (from “Savior Machine”) to run amok. Bowie never makes clear who he trusts with power, but it sure isn’t the people.

A Boy Named Sue” by Johnny Cash. Bowie plays games with gender in songs like “Queen Bitch;” “Lady Stardust;” “Rebel Rebel,” “Hallo Spaceboy” and others, but Cash gives his boy a feminine name to a very different effect. Bowie’s treatment of androgyny probably didn’t have a political motive, but it worked its way into the cultural mix, inspiring many to be themselves and slowly contributed to the evolution of societal norms. Cash just assumed that giving a boy a feminine name would be a curse that would force him into being a tough, violent man who can beat back a threatening world with fists, knives and guns. Despite Bowie’s characters sometimes being oppressed because of their difference, they never fight back. It just isn’t how Bowie solves problems. Cash’s character ends up battling his father, which reminds me of the line from “Kooks,” in which Bowie sings to his son, “Don’t pick fights with the bullies and the cads, because I’m not much cop at punching other people’s dads.” Bowie had named his son, “Zowie.”

Get Up, Stand Up” by Bob Marley. So, this is another one with an aspect that Bowie would probably agree with— between all the admonitions to get up and stand up for your right, Bob Marley rails against religious leaders who promise that good things will come in the next life at the expense of the quality of life on Earth. I think Bowie’s good with that— though spiritual, Bowie’s not a fan of religious charlatans (“The Next Day”). But he also places no value on abstract concepts like rights, “Fantastic Voyage” points out that dignity and loyalty are valuable, “but our lives are valuable too.” And while that doesn’t exactly speak to rights, he makes fun of those who fight for “the right to be right” in “Cygnet Committee.”

Freedom” by Paul McCartney. McCartney’s helped organize the “Concert for New York” in response to the 9/11 terrorist attack. Bowie participated, singing “‘Heroes’” and Simon and Garfunkel’s “America.” McCartney wrote this song for the occasion. Surprisingly jingoistic, the aging former Beatle pledged to “fight for the right to live in freedom.” Though Bowie didn’t write, “America,” he selected a song about two wanderers, one of whom laments to his sleeping partner, “Kathy, I’m lost. I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why.”

Which Side Are You On?” (Traditional). Though the old folk song is about labor versus management, Bowie takes issue with the entire concept of taking sides, for instance in “Loving the Alien,” which has nothing to do with space aliens but rather religious divisions, especially between Christians and Muslims from the time to the present when “Palestine [is] a modern problem.”

Fame” by Irene Cara. The caveat here is that there’s at least a chance that the Cara song is meant to be ironic. I do think she gives a nod or two to Bowie’s song of the same name. But Cara’s song is probably an earnest expression of ambition and is celebratory of fame as an end goal, while Bowie’s is just the opposite.

The Hero” by Queen. An over-the top rock song, complete with villainous laughter and explosion sound effects, this is part of the Flash Gordon soundtrack and, in the context of the movie, really has to be taken as earnest. Flash is, in this song, the good version of Bowie’s “Big Brother”— “he’s for every once of us…he’ll save with a mighty hand.” Bowie’s crowd ironically pleads to Big Brother, “someone to claim us, someone to follow, someone to shame us, some brave Apollo…we want you, Big Brother.” Also, obviously, Bowie’s “‘Heroes’” uses the term so ironically that its in quotes. Anyway, Flash Gordon is a very different spaceman than Major Tom.

Fight the Power” by Public Enemy… Possibly the most un-Bowie song on this list…even more so that “God Bless the USA.” But this one will require more of an explanation. I’ll save it for a future edition of my “Divine Symmetry” series…

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