The Politics of Bowie

The Wilderness | Issue 62 | 1 . 26. 2016 |

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In 1987, two major cultural events presaged the eventual fall of the Berlin Wall two years later. American political culture had theirs when Ronald Reagan — a rock star and icon in his own right — stood up and commanded Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down that wall. The other was when David Bowie, weeks before Reagan, stood triumphantly in front of it and declared that we could be heroes just for one day, singing an anthem written for two separated lovers and the political chasm that lay between them. Turns out he was even a trendsetter with international diplomacy. That was about as far as David Bowie’s dabbling in political activism would ever get (a few misplaced Tin Machine lyrics aside) and yet, like a strip of irresistible fly paper in a room full of insects, Bowie attracted endless attempts from political opportunists to attach their preferred cultural narratives onto his music. But Bowie himself could never be made to serve that purpose.

Progressives who wish to anachronistically claim David Bowie as some politcally radical avatar of transgender rights are more than welcome to celebrate that feeling of private liberation that Bowie’s avuncular resistance to heteronormativity may have offered them. That’s the point of music, and why it’s so personal. Just don’t be fooled for a second into thinking that he actually cared or thought much about them on a political level in the way today’s activists do.

Bowie departed suddenly on the 10th of January, leaving behind a startling amount of perplexing questions involving his final release, Blackstar, his best work of the past 25 years and almost assuredly a lock for Album of the Year at next years Grammy Awards. Modern day philosophers, critics and pundits immediately began poring over who Bowie was and how anything he could have left behind could possibly serve their current cause du jour. But those of us that appreciated who and what Bowie was (and more importantly, what he wasn’t and never wanted to be) simply smile, finish our cigarettes and look up at the stars. How tiresome this all must have gotten for him.

What was so significant about David Bowie personally and politically is how he integrated himself into America, musically and spiritually. Here was a man born in the hardscrabble Brixton neighborhood of London who came to symbolize our country’s greatest excesses, even if artistically he never quite reciprocated that love. It’s a great metaphor for what we have lost as a country and a culture today. America owes you nothing, even if you’re David Bowie. The measure of its love is what you give to it.

Though Bowie’s first extended visit to the United States (in 1972) produced the gritty glittering glam trash that came to symbolize the Aladdin Sane era, he once lamented to a young Cameron Crowe in 1975 how he wasn’t at all happy with the music he was creating. Upon his arrival in Los Angeles, that seemed to change.”I’ve got that good old ‘I’m gonna change the world’ thing back again.” (Then again: after spending those two years in Los Angeles during 1974-1975 living more or less exclusively on a diet of cocaine and red peppers, he packed up, left the city forever, and maintained to his last breath that it deserved to be “burned to the ground”).

Once Bowie was residing stateside, he was overwhelmed by the mythology of our glowing skylines, flashing lights, sounds of supermodel high heels on the pavement and the galleries of Andy Warhol. David Bowie became as important to our music culture as American born Elvis Presley. It was like a space alien watching all of our excesses rolled into one Las Vegas sequin-collared suit from a distant craft and thinking, “I know how I can use this.”

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Despite his personal flirtations with Mick Jagger, his artistic heart belonged to Bob Dylan, Iggy Pop and The Velvet Underground. He followed the iconic sensibilities of James Dean and Frank Sinatra. Perhaps David Bowie realized all the people who once made America fun have departed, and Bowie being Bowie would never be the last one to depart the party. 

There’s also something to be said here about our culture as a whole. Our music and film industry are more concerned now with how they come across socially and politically than with embracing and pushing artistic boundaries. Bowie — who more than once found himself on the wrong end of angry mobs and the baying howls of “respectable journalists” — perhaps surveyed the social media landscape of our current entertainment stars, realized he neither wanted nor needed to play this game, and checked out. Upon his sweet release, immediately media and pop stars began to claim him as one of their own, and his fold his legacy into theirs.

But for all the credit Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust-era persona is given for (sort of) normalizing gender-bending and homosexuality, he was never really the sort of person who cared about advocating in the streets for it. He wasn’t a political activist bent on shaming those with different ideologies in a public square. His act was meant as an artistic expression, as a culturally transgressive middle finger of independence, and as a fantastic way of getting onto the cover of Melody Maker and the New Musical Express to boot. It’s a lesson both our media and our entertainers have forgotten in this saturated age.

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Modern pop stars such as Katy Perry or Miley Cyrus (as well as a horde of costumed wannabes) advocate their political policies on Instagram and Twitter and at campaign appearances because they simply don’t have the talent to do so in their music. Madonna, who claims to worship Bowie and attempted as many persona changes as he did, did more than anyone else to vulgarize his ethos: as time went by and she began to fade in relevance, she swung away from artistic expression through song and began seeking notoriety through public activism. Now no one would deny artists their right to campaign on behalf of a Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders; but please don’t do that then claim they understand what David Bowie was on about.

Bowie used his art to exorcise his own personal demons first and foremost: the guy accused of glamorizing white nationalism during the Station To Station tour with his Thin White Duke character wasn’t actually a Moseleyite fascist; he was just writing about mystique of Old Europe to hold a mirror up to the desperate drug-sodden degradation of his life in Los Angeles. (As if any more proof were needed, it bears reminding that Bowie’s core band during 1975-1980 was composed of funky black and Latino guys he’d met during his Philly soul phase.)

As our media continues to pound the drum about Black Lives Mattering and keeps shoehorning any narrative they can find in to prove their already written concluded theories on race and racism in modern America, a clip of Bowie from 1983 began to make the rounds on dedicated outlets of Bowie questioning then MTV VJ Mark Goodman in an interview about the lack of black artists being shown on the fledgling network. Goodman was of course flustered with the question, citing demographics, the direction of the network, or what kids might want to hear. Bowie was having none of it, but he didn’t have to shout to get his point across.  Bowie didn’t wait for society to change under the weight of politicians and astroturf media protests. It was a mutual relationship and his concerns about the advancement of black artists wasn’t about fronting for cameras, or garnering positive notices from the New York Times; it was just something he cared about artistically.

Bowie’s multiple personas could be claimed presently with the rising tide of populist nativism seen on the political right with Donald Trump, just as much as the Black Lives Matter protesters on the left and that’s why he could never be owned politically. 

He was an anomaly and that was part of the game he played on purpose. I also suspect the game just got a bit tedious for him. He came for a party and witnessed a political mosh pit ensue instead. He departed Earth at the exact point that he was no longer needed, and his mission to unite those of many political faiths had failed. He will not be returning home a victor.

David Bowie, the most non-conventional musical artist in history, as well as one of the most non-political, decided to go home at a time when convention and politics rule everything about the entertainment industry.

David Bowie didn’t die. He just got bored with it all.

– SM –

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  1. Janiece Shields Reply

    What a gorgeous read. I surreptitiously follow you on Twitter, not on it yet as I am afraid I will screw it up when I “tweet” something and embarrass my children . Your writing never disappoints.
    Thank you for helping me to see the genius of the alternative media. 
    Cheers Mr. Miller

  2. Scott Dough Reply

    this about as fine a requiem for Bowie that i’ve come across… i’ll have to go back thru the Tin Machine material to see what you were referring to (re: misplaced lyrics).
    if Bowie paid any attention at all to modern-day politics/hashtag warriors i surmise he’d have a barf bag at the ready for a culture devolving, as it’s become a snake forever eating itself. 

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