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David Bowie and Politics, Part 13: David Bowie was wrong, David Bowie was right

David Bowie was Wrong; David Bowie was Right*

If one dominant theme has emerged from this series’ examination of the political implications of David Bowie’s music, it is the idea that the collective is incapable of making good decisions. Groups of almost any size larger than a family unit oppress their own members who stand out as atypical, delegate power to destructive demagogues, waste time on “bullshit faith” and other abstract ideas, and are responsible for creating and enforcing destructive norms that crush the individual and propel civilization toward collapse. Bowie identifies numerous issues that might normally be viewed as ripe for political solutions. However, Bowie places no faith in politics. When governments or political leaders appear in his songs, they are almost cartoonishly malignant. Bowie advocates no solutions but rather suggests that the individual bears a great deal of responsibility for his own fate.

So, the politics of David Bowie are anti-politics. Bowie’s repeated observations do not translate into a political program or agenda, or even a mindset that works in politics at all. Yet, politics are necessary for human survival. Bowie’s concerns about the human condition focus on fundamental, tangible needs rather than abstract concepts. However, societies approach tangible needs through conceptual lenses. Even libertarians and anarchists are married to abstract ideologies. Bowie does not endorse the idea of societal collapse—his dystopias in songs such as “Diamond Dogs,” “Panic in Detroit,” and “Sunday” negatively depict masses turning against themselves rather than detached but happy co-existence. Isolated characters, ranging from Major Tom and the Starman to less familiar figures like “Mr. Touchshriek” from *1. Outside* (1995) or “The Loneliest Guy” (2003) from the song —-of the same name, are not happier for being detached from society.

It is simply not Bowie’s agenda to answer the question, “what is to be done?”

But while Bowie avoids the question, he clearly has an idea about what isn’t the answer. Bowie is not so ham-fisted as the Police, who come right out and say it in, ‘Spirits in the Material World” (1981):

“There is no political solution
To our troubled evolution
Have no faith in constitution
There is no bloody revolution”

Perhaps Bowie is less explicit because the Police song reaches the inevitable conclusion that, “there must be a better way.” Though the Police, too, don’t suggest what that way is, Bowie never suggests that there is a better way.

And in this respect, David Bowie was wrong.

Thanks to political progress and collective action, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse have less influence than ever before. There is less war, hunger, and poverty than in any previous era of human history. While the issue of pestilence is more complicated, the state of medical science is more advanced than earlier generations could have imagined.

At this point I’d like to reveal something about myself: Although I’m a fan of David Bowie, I am writing this towards the end of my career in politics and public service. This work is not about me, but it reflects my career experience in collaboratively improving people’s lives and their communities. One of the frustrations in my line of work involves dealing with diversity—people have different opinions and values. Bowie, like the ancient Cynics, often challenged those values as pointless drains on thought and energy. While he might have been right in many cases, politics provides a mechanism to navigate these differences. Bowie may have no interest in interpersonal struggle, but struggle is part of human existence. Abandoning struggle is as much an abandonment of responsibility as delegating decision-making to Big Brother. Bridges aren’t built and diseases aren’t controlled by individuals sitting alone in their rooms, waiting for sound and vision. Bowie offers no vision of how people should govern themselves or co-exist fruitfully, but his assumption that such a goal is impossible is wrong.

This is not to say that the collective is not guilty of anything Bowie charges, from oppression and war to creating dangerous technologies that yield unintended consequences (“what’s really happening”). The collective is responsible for environmental degradation, consumerism and, as a result of cascading consequences of collective decision making— isolation. The collective is capable of producing some monumentally catastrophic outcomes, and the good things it produces usually come via an iterative, incremental process that almost always yields compromised results.

Nonetheless, the average human lifespan is roughly double that of wheat it was a century ago. For all its flaws, s-s-s-society is doing something right.

But the political implications of Bowie’s work were never his main point, except perhaps in his conscious effort to prove he was not a Nazi sympathizer. Diogenes supposedly lived in a barrel and discarded one of his few possessions—a bowl—when he saw a child cup water in his hands. The human condition would not have been enhanced if everyone lived that way; Diogenes was not seeking to be emulated. Similarly, at least after the Thin White Duke period, Bowie did not project characters meant to be role models. Bowie himself, by which I mean the real David Jones, did not necessarily live his life in line with the political implications of his songs. He was, in fact, quite collaborative. His repeated process of killing off old characters served as a reminder that they, too, were not meant to be emulated, while challenging his fans’ reasoning for their affection. The cover of his 1999 album, hours…, features an image of Bowie in his latest manifestation holding, Pieta-like, a dead or exhausted version of himself from his immediately prior incarnation. The past was dead. If you liked the previous album, Earthling, Bowie was about to ask purchasers of the new album to think about what it was they actually liked about his music.

The difference between Bowie and a political advocate was even more fundamental than their perspectives on the collective—political advocates have a plan, while Bowie had, in the words of one of his posthumously released last songs, “no plan.”

But if he had no political plan, he did have a way that intentionally or not served a productive function in a pluralistic, global society in need of constant re-evaluation. The conservatism of an Allan Bloom was about the reverence toward old values and the preservation of cultural pillars. I mentioned Bloom earlier because his outlook was nearly opposite that of Bowie’s. Nowhere was this more apparent than on the issue of gender.

Despite the agenda of others, perhaps including his own wife, Bowie did not seek to challenge norms related to gender in the hope of changing broad public attitudes. To the extent the exercise held any commercial value for Bowie, it had to be shocking for a man to show up wearing a dress. But the act of doing so has, over the past half-century, contributed to a cultural shift such that gender fluidity and sexual orientation has become much more widely accepted. Today it would hardly be shocking for a man to show up in a dress. That wouldn’t have happened had Bloom’s style of conservatism held its ground. Bloom himself was gay, but ironically, his defense of old values made it tougher for him to find a place to authentically exist within society, while Bowie, who embraced artifice and made a deliberate effort to be provocative, found it easier (and made it easier for others) over time.

On this issue in particular, its worth noting that Bowie continued challenging gender norms through his very last album. Young Americans (1975) was Bowie’s first album after he took down the vermillion mullet, and at first glance it is absent of gay or nontraditional gender related themes. But while he was promoting the album, he also performed and recorded “John, I’m Only Dancing (Again), an updated version of his earlier song that is widely believed to celebrate bisexuality. Lodger’s “Boys Keep Swinging” might seem, by virtue of its title, to be gay-themed. The lyrics suggest otherwise, but Bowie appears in drag in the video not once, but as three different feminine figures. That same year he appeared on Saturday Night Live wearing a skirt suit, and accepted a full-on-the-mouth kiss from a male fan in the video for “D.J.”

The following year, on Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) (1980), Bowie included three songs that touched on issues having to do with gender and sexual orientation. The first song, “It’s No Game (No. 1)” features the masculine vocals of Michi Hirota, a Japanese woman performing in a way to “break down a particular kind of sexist attitude about women.” “Scream Like a Baby” lamented that “they came down hard on the faggots,” and “Teenage Wildlife” includes the line, “Same old thing in brand new drag comes sweeping into view.” Bowie wouldn’t record another complete album for three years until he reemerged as the mainstream and seemingly heterosexual pop star of Let’s Dance. But even in that album Bowie snuck in a cove of the gay-themed “Criminal World,” which few seemed to pick up on at the time.

The hyper-masculine Tin Machine band was not at all androgynous, even decorating its second album cover with the image of anatomical statues of naked men. Nonetheless, Tin Machine II (1991) contained a cover of Roxy Music’s “If There is Something.” Bowie viewed Roxy Music as one of the legitimate originators of glam, along with himself and T-Rex. The song isn’t gay-themed, but it’s a reminder of where Bowie came from. Similarly, Black Tie White Noise (1993) included a cover of Morrissey’s “I Know Its Gonna Happen Someday” (does that one need further explanation?)

Bowie returned to his more overt ways with “Hallo Spaceboy” from 1. Outside (1995), in which he asked the musical question, “do you like girls or boys?” To promote his next album, Earthling (1997), Bowie included a video for “Little Wonder” featuring an androgynous Ziggy clone wandering around town. The video for “The Stars Are Out Tonight” (2013) includes an androgynous spirit, and promotional material for the song included an image of Bowie as Tilda Swinton and Swinton as Bowie. Bowie’s final album, (2016) includes the song “Girl Loves me” which employs the gay cant, “Polari.

Despite all this, Bowie androgyny became a less dining feature and even less noticed aspect of Bowie’s identity. In repeatedly questioning society’s values here, society eventually more or less came to the collective conclusion that it couldn’t answer the question and stopped caring. This, of course, is far from universally true, but whether he set out to do so or not, Bowie helped bring about societal ch-ch-change. Much as with the case of gender, Bowie continued challenging other societal norms throughout the duration of career right through Blackstar, an artistic exploration of his own mortality.

So, if David Bowie was wrong in holding out no hope for the collective, he was right in constantly confronting and questioning its values. Bowie’s lyrics were usually negative. His self assessment, especially during his later works, suggested dissatisfaction with himself, his work and how he had spent his life. The sentiment expressed in “Ashes to Ashes” (1980), “I’ve never done good things; I’ve never done bad things” did not get much better nearly 20-years later in “Thursday’s Child” (1999) in which he claimed, “All of my life I’ve tried so hard; Doing my best with what I had; Nothing much happened all the same.” But the self assessment always carried with it the implication that it was within his power to have done better, and that he still had the opportunity of self-improvement. That latter song continued, “Now that I’ve really got a chance…Everything’s falling into place…Seeing my past to let it go…throw me tomorrow.” Bowie reached a point where he linked personal advancement to reflection followed by rejection of the past. In one respect, this view represented a statement on the individual’s role in society, but on the other it reflected a path for society itself— reflect on the past so as to see what not to do going forward. Perhaps Bowie had a plan for the collective after all.
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What Bowie had to say through his music about politics was right in another way. Bowie’s death brought about an outpouring of reflection on the meaning his music had for thousands of fans. A common sentiment was that Bowie’s music made people feel it was OK to be different. This notion resonated with people who felt atypical in various ways. The flip side of Bowie’s repeated lamentations about society’s shortcomings and the oppressive nature of the collective on the individual is that many individuals heard another message about their relationship with the wider world—they had a place in it. The idea that “all the weird kids liked Bowie” has become a given. The great illusion of conformity is that it masks the reality that none of us are really alike. We are a world of weird kids. There is something both comforting and paradoxically unifying about that. Once established, it’s a premise that helps people relate, which, at its essence, is the business of… politics.

Bowie only said it once, in one song, but what might have been his most meaningful and cherished lyric came from a more than half-century-old song, “Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide.” The line takes all of what Bowie had already presented and would present in the future about the threats of crowds and governments, laws and norms, and provided reassurance. Despite his ongoing meditation on isolation, his lonely characters, and his longing for solitude, this one line at once sent the message that regardless of what it might seem, the individual is very much part of the collective: “You’re not alone.”

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* I recycled some of the language here from my June 4th post, “Pride Month in New York and Bowie’s Androgyny after Ziggy

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