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Bowie and Politics Chapter 1: Teenaged Satyrs and Tricoteuses

Conservative intellectual Allan Bloom identified in his bestselling 1987 book, The Closing of the American Mind, the very personification of the libertine moral relativism he opposed. That person was not David Bowie. It was Mick Jagger. Jagger, Bloom wrote,

“…played the possessed lower-class demon and teen-aged satyr up until he was forty, with one eye on the mobs of children of both sexes whom he stimulated to a sensual frenzy and the other eye winking at the unerotic, commercially motivated adults who handled the money. In his act he was male and female, heterosexual and homosexual; unencumbered by modesty, he could enter everyone’s dreams, promising to do everything with everyone; and, above all, he legitimated drugs, which were the real thrill that parents and policemen conspired to deny his youthful audience. He was beyond the law, moral and political, and thumbed his nose at it. Along with all this, there were nasty little appeals to the suppressed inclinations toward sexism, racism and violence, indulgence in which is not now publicly respectable. Nevertheless, he managed not to appear to contradict the rock ideal of a universal classless society founded on love, with the distinction between brotherly and bodily blurred…In the last couple of years, Jagger has begun to fade… Mick Jagger tarting it up on the stage is all that we brought back from the voyage to the underworld…” (P. 78-79)

Bloom might have been a serious thinker, but he got a few things wrong about Mick Jagger, not the least of which being that he was fading. More than three decades after Bloom’s death in 1992, Jagger and his band, The Rolling Stones, released their bestselling album Hackney Diamonds and launched a sold-out world tour, accompanied by music videos featuring pretty young women. Admittedly, Jagger stopped presenting himself as a teenager.

Bloom also miss-identified the ur-satyr. Bloom wrote that Jagger embodied what he called, adapting a term from Nietzche, a “Nihiline” figured for “almost fifteen years, which is to say since approximately 1972. Yet The Rolling Stones had already been well-established by that point. And while Jagger had previously embodied some of the traits of which Bloom wrote, he hadn’t exactly been “tarting it up on the stage” in the 1960s. That is, until Bowie came along.

David Bowie, at least in his early-70s manifestation, was too subversive to make it on to Allan Bloom’s radar. And by the late 1980s, he had perhaps become too tame for Bloom to identify as a threat. But if Mick Jagger had come to embody the personification of what conservatism was against, it was because David Bowie had paved the way.

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David Bowie was not simply a singer, he was also an actor. Here, I don’t simply mean that he played roles in movies, which he did. But Bowie was very consciously taking on ever-shifting personas, even as rock star. The character of Ziggy Stardust was different than that of the Thin White Duke and so on. And while he was very much aware that he was playing such parts, whether he knew it or not, Bowie was another kind of actor as well— a political actor.

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Some of Bowie’s real-life statements or actions had political resonance. While the purpose of his early androgyny was to shock, entertain and command attention, the time at which Bowie rolled out his looks and themes was shortly following the Stonewall Uprising in the United States and the establishment of the Gay Liberation Front as a movement in the United Kingdom. Indeed, the GLF, as it was known, held its first meeting at the London School of Economics in October 1970, around the same time Bowie posed with long hair, wearing a dress for an alternate cover to his album, The Man Who Sold the World. Throughout his career, Bowie would have an uncanny ability to pick up on social or musical trends shortly after their birth but before they would become mainstream and address them through his art. It is striking that Bowie’s lesser-known 1960s material only vaguely hints at gay themes, which are entirely absent his first two well-known albums, Space Oddity and The Man Who Sold the World. Yet Bowie picked up on something stirring in society and changed the cover of the latter album so as to add timely shock value in the context of then-current events. Whether he intended to or not, Bowie plunged himself into the public debate about gender, sexual orientation and the sexual revolution.

This was not the first and would hardly be the last time Bowie intertwined art and politics. Occasionally, Bowie would take overtly political stands. He spoke out about MTV’s lack of black artists in 1983. Two years later he performed at Live Aid, a concert intended to raise funds for and draw attention to African famine. Two years after that, Bowie performed in the shadow of the Berlin Wall, where East Berliners on the other side heard him sing, “‘Heroes’” and their demand for that wall to come down was engaged. Bowie performed again at another inflection point in world politics, when he again sang “‘Heroes’” along with a cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s “America” at the Concert for New York, in 2001, after the September 11th terrorist attacks. And in 2014 Bowie issued a statement, delivered by model Kate Moss at an awards ceremony, that Scotland should say no to a referendum on independence from Great Britain.

Despite these and other examples, David Bowie is not generally regarded as an especially political artist. He only occasionally directly, intentionally made political statements outside the context of his actual art. But sometimes the art itself had political resonance.

Bowie recorded what might be to a casual fan a surprising number of political songs. His most overtly political songs are not necessarily his best, though he has many overtly political songs. Bowie tended to be at his best when his meanings were far from clear. Like Bob Dylan before him (and, well, after him too), Bowie would often write confusing lyrics that don’t make literal sense. Bowie encouraged his fans to bring their own meaning to his art and often would throw curveballs into his songs to make sure they defied easy explanation, for instance by using his famous “cut up method” or composing with Brian Eno using “oblique strategies”.

But an effect of obscuring whatever meaning Bowie himself had in mind while writing many of his best songs, was to open the door to alternate, subjective meanings giving to his material by his audience. Bowie said, “What people see in my songs is far more interesting than what I actually put into them.” In his book, Silhouettes and Shadows: the Secret History of David Bowie’s Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), Adam Steiner explained, “The liminal space from the lyric to lyric gives us the spark to make our own imaginative leap with no claim to definite interpretation; the more oblique, the greater the creative distance traveled…messy ends are left open and undone to let new meaning bleed through…” Steiner bolsters this view by again quoting Bowie talking about the writings of William S. Burroughs, “using the wrong pieces of information and putting them together and finding a third piece of information— it’s what our life has become…’ (p.208)

In this respect, Bowie allowed for his audience to apply to his songs political meaning that Bowie himself never intended.

There’s a clip in Brett Morgen’s Bowie documentary, Moonage Daydream, in which Bowie says, “What we try to keep out of our existence is chaos, which is a very real part of our lives. And our refusal to accept chaos as being integral to our existence has been one of the greatest mistakes as a civilization that we’ve made.”

Yet understanding this sentiment adds an ironic dimension of sensibility, or, put another way, order, to what Bowie was trying to do with some of his best songs. When, in the opening to Diamond Dogs, Bowie suddenly says, “Ripping and rewrapping mink and shiny silver fox, now legwarmers; family badge of sapphire and cracked emerald”— the nonsense is the meaning. The spoken-word preface sets the stage for a world gone mad. One in which society has broken down and been reordered by a Big Brother-like authoritarian (or, actually, Big Brother). Bowie flips order and chaos on their heads. Dictators and despots appear again and again in Bowie songs, who, through their imposed societal order shatter the oppressed individual. Bowie’s songs and albums are frequently less direct than say, Pink Floyd’s, The Wall of Rush’s song, “The Trees,” but these themes, which are political themes, thread together much of Bowie’s half-century worth of music.

Bowie’s invitation to his audience to bring their own meaning to his songs allows for them to serve as a kind of lens through which many topics beyond Bowie’s imagination can be seen. It was in this context that nearly 50 years after the release of Diamond Dogs, I found myself listening to the album over and over trying to make sense of how my world was turned upside down as a result of a political takedown of my former boss, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.

I especially contemplated one of the album’s most complex and obtuse songs, “Candidate,” and the lines, “Someone scrawled on the wall ‘I smell the blood of les tricoteuses;’ Who wrote up scandals in other bars; I’m having so much fun with the poisonous people; Spreading rumors and lies and stories they made up.” Talented and forward-thinking though Bowie was, he could not actually see the future. Nonetheless, I came to think the song described the crucial aspect of what happened better than any contemporary analysis or reportage had even attempted.

But I’ll come back to that.

For now, I’ll turn to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Long Haired Men.

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Stay tuned for chapter 2 next week. Bowie and Politics is intended to be a long-form piece under the umbrella of the Lyrics Series.

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