The Protest Songs Of David Bowie
“I’m not a political commentator, but I think there are times when I’m stretched to at least implicate what’s happening politically in the songs that I’m writing,” David Bowie said in 2003, when referring to “New Killer Star” on his album, “Reality.”
Bowie was not what one would think of as a protest musician, but there is an intensely human quality to most of his music. His music was infused with philosophy about people versus God, people versus animals, and people versus machines. Many of his songs confronted mortality, both personally and as a human species, and contained post-apocalyptic lyrics, which were inspired by politics and current events.
The following are a selection of songs by Bowie, which have overt or implicit political overtones:
“New Killer Star” | “Looking for Water” | “Fall Dog Bombs the Moon” (Reality/2003)
Bowie saw “New Killer Star” as a “very abstract” nod to the wrongs being committed in the Middle East. “Let’s face the music and dance” is a line that does appear to suggest people should come to grips with what is happening. He has “idiot questions” and is in an “idiot trance.”
“Looking for Water” has a post-apocalyptic vibe of life in a human sacrifice zone created by capitalism. The protagonists in the song are searching for basic resources they need to survive. “I can’t live in this cage/I can’t eat this candy,” points to the misery of existing in this world. What the protagonists are able to find to sustain their lives is responsible for making their condition worse.
“Fall Dog Bombs the Moon” is about the military industrial-complex and written just prior to the Iraq War.
As Bowie said, “It came from reading an article about Kellogg Brown & Root, a subsidiary of Halliburton, the company that Dick Cheney used to run. Basically, Kellogg Brown & Root got the job of cleaning up Iraq. What tends to happen is that a thing like an issue or a policy manifests itself as a guide. It becomes a character of some kind, like the one in Fall Dog. There’s this guy saying, ‘I’m goddamn rich’. You know, ‘Throw anything you like at me, baby, because I’m goddamn rich. It doesn’t bother me.’ It’s an ugly song sung by an ugly man.”
In retrospect, the song takes on additional resonance because the Iraq War was a massive criminal conspiracy perpetrated by a cabal of individuals with Cheney at the forefront. No one has faced any meaningful accountability for their actions. Their goddamn richness, or elite status in the political class, has ensured allegations directed at them do not bother them at all.
“I’m Afraid of Americans” (Earthling/1997)
Bowie said of the song, “It’s not as truly hostile about Americans as say ‘Born in the USA’: it’s merely sardonic.” (Though, no politician would never mistake this for a patriotic anthem and play this at a campaign event.)
“I was traveling in Java when the first McDonald’s went up: it was like, ‘for fuck’s sake.’ The invasion by any homogenized culture is so depressing, the erection of another Disney World in, say, Umbria, Italy, more so. It strangles the indigenous culture and narrows expression of life.”
The music video gives the lyrics even more edge, as the American character of Jonny is chasing Bowie around New York wielding an imaginary weapon. Bowie constantly tries to escape Americans, who have their fingers out and are pointing them like guns at each other. It is quite a statement about gun culture and the prevalence of gun violence in America.
“Black Tie White Noise” (Black Tie White Noise/1993)
As Nicholas Pegg recounts in his book, “The Complete David Bowie,” Bowie and his wife, Iman, started looking for a house in Los Angeles the same day that four policemen were acquitted in the Rodney King case. There were riots, a curfew, and Bowie could see shops as they were looted and buildings were set on fire. “It felt like a prison riot more than anything else. It felt as if innocent inmates of some vast prison were trying to break out—break free from their bonds,” Bowie said to Record Collector.
Bowie created a duet with Al B. Sure! that would not be like “Ebony and Ivory” but would have a similar message. It is idealistic, but it also rejects the kind of music created by star musicians for charity, like “We Are the World.” He sings, “There’ll be some blood no doubt about it,” a recognition there may be a certain level of violence to the uprising against systemic racism. Yet, “We’ll come through don’t doubt it,” he adds.
In another part of the song, Bowie is face-to-face with a person of color. “I look into your eyes and I know you won’t kill me.” He repeats, “You won’t kill me.” He shares, “I wonder why sometimes.” It is as if Bowie is grappling with white supremacy, its history and legacy, and confessing it would not be surprising if that person wanted to blame him personally for his oppression.
“’87 and Cry”| “Time Will Crawl” | “Day-In Day-Out” (Never Let Me Down/1987)
“’87 and Cry” is Bowie’s reflection on England under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. He said it is about the “separation between a high, authoritative governmental force and the ordinary people, the ‘dogs.'” But, as Bowie described, “I don’t use a didactic kind of politicism; I tend to create an ambiance rather than a polemic.”
“Time Will Crawl” dealt with the ecological devastation of Earth by corporations. He came up with the lyric, “Time will crawl,” after the Chernobyl disaster in April 1986. The most obvious nod to pollution may be the lines, “I saw a black black stream/Full of white eyed fish.” It is another Bowie vision of a toxic planet, where he gets a “bad migraine” that lasts “three long years” and the pills he takes for it make his fingers disappear.
It is also possible to interpret the following as some kind of metaphor for government’s embrace of capitalism.
I know a government man
He was as blind as the moon and he
He saw the sun in the night
He took a top-gun pilot and he
He made him fly through a hole
Till he grew real old and he
And he never came down
He just flew till he burst
The opening track of the album, “Day-In Day-Out,” is probably one of the least abstract political songs. It tells the story of a poor mother, who is struggling to feed and take care of her child. She has to do sex work. The police shake her down. She does not get her fair share of the money she was owed for her service. She is an “angry gal,” and she is willing to take a stand against those who owe her to get what she should be paid.
“Loving the Alien” | “This is Not America” (Tonight/1984)
Interviewed for Rolling Stone magazine, Bowie shared that he wrote this song based on a view that “so much history is wrong—as is being rediscovered all the time—and that we base so much on the wrong knowledge that we’ve gleaned.” The lyric of “loving the alien” may be interpreted as claiming to know something that one does not really know. It is devotion to a belief, which is devoid of facts, that Bowie seems to allegorically be questioning.
For the soundtrack for the movie, “The Falcon and the Snowman,” Bowie wrote, “This is Not America,” which is a forlorn rejection of what the country has become. “Blossom fails to bloom this season/Promise not to stare,” he sings. It is a kind of anthem for the idealist-turned-cynic when the mythology of the United States begins to unravel.
“Fashion”| “Scream Like a Baby” (Scary Monsters/1980)
Explicitly, “Fashion” mocks the quickness a trend in music or dance can come into and fall out of style. Yet, on a more implicit level, the song can be interpreted as an implicit rejection of politicians. “Listen to me, don’t listen to me/Talk to me, don’t talk to me,” is the schizophrenia of the political class. One day they may speak and act as if they care about the lower classes, the most vulnerable in society. The next day they speak and act with indifference, only concerned about their own self-interests, image, and power.
“Scream Like a Baby” is a dystopian vision, what Bowie described as a “past look at something that hasn’t happened yet.” It tells the story of Sam, who is a political prisoner. He would not consume goods so he was not a good consumer. He would not go to war so he was not a good warrior. He mixed with other colors so he did not know his place in society. He was rounded up and treated more brutally than even the faggots. And the person telling this story has taken a lesson from the totalitarian government responsible. He/She is now learning to be a “part of society.”
“Fantastic Voyage” (Lodger, 1979)
The first song on Bowie’s “Lodger,” “Fantastic Voyage,” is about the prospect of humanity being wiped out by nuclear war. He seems to acknowledge that any sudden movement and an entire race could be wiped out. He pleas for others to recognize the value of lives and address the problems of our “moving world” by shooting “some of those missiles.” Though he dreads how people with their fingers on the trigger may “think of us as fatherless scum,” and what that may mean for all of us.
“TVC15” (Station to Station, 1976)
This song depicts a future, where there are hologram televisions. The hologram television devours his girlfriend and will not give her back. The TVC15 seems to have taken his girlfriend from him out of jealousy, a fear that his girlfriend would take the place of his television. As Jim Naureckas of FAIR suggested, it is “a nightmare vision of total absorption by media.”
“1984” / “Big Brother” (Diamond Dogs, 1974)
The entire album, Diamond Dogs, is inspired by George Orwell’s “1984,” and was one of Bowie’s first artistic representations of what he thought a post-apocalyptic world might be like. He wanted to produce a stage musical, but Orwell’s wife refused to give him permission. (Oh, what a masterpiece it would have been.)
To some degree, the whole entire album could be seen as a kind of allegorical protest album. It was released in May 1974. Some of the music, including the song, “1984,” was written during the “Aladdin Sane” sessions in 1973. President Richard Nixon was in his second term, and this was during the time of the Watergate scandal.
“1984” is directly inspired by the book’s character, Winston Smith. The lyrics have a foreboding element to them so it is almost like a warning to Winston of the dystopian future that is to come.
The next track on the album, “Big Brother,” is after Winston has been brainwashed. He accepts Big Brother. “Someone to claim us, someone to follow,” Bowie sings. He is now a follower of the dictatorship of Big Brother. “We want you, Big Brother, Big Brother.”
“All the Madmen” | “Running Gun Blues” | “Saviour Machine” (The Man Who Sold the World/
The most iconic song of Bowie’s on this album is, “The Man Who Sold the World,” inspired by Robert Heinlein’s novella, The Man Who Sold the Moon. But other songs are far more pointed in their commentary on the world.
“All the Madmen” is Bowie’s dystopian vision of a world where the only sane people left on Earth are those who have been rounded up and put in asylums because they suffer from mental illness. He wrote the song for his half brother, Terry,” who had schizophrenia and was an inmate at the Cane Hill mental institution.
It is a kind of rejection of the incarceration of mentally ill individuals. He sings, “Where can the horizon lie/When a nation hides?/It’s organic minds/In a cellar, dark and grim/They must be very dim.”
On “Running Gun Blues,” the protagonist is a soldier in the Vietnam War, who is overtaken by his bloodlust for killing and counting corpses. This character laments the fact that the “peacefuls stopped the war.” Yet, he will not stop killing. He still has his rifle and will “promote oblivion” and “plug a few civilians.” It is a story of veterans returning home and still having the desire to kill other human beings.
An all-seeing supercomputer is the subject of the “Saviour Machine.” It seems the machine has instituted some kind of order but is not content with the peace. It’s malevolence leads the machine to confess, “Life is too easy, a plague seems quite feasible now/Or maybe a war, or I may kill you all.”
These are stories of totalitarian societies, either where people have transformed into totalitarians or where people created a machine to solve their problems that wound up imposing totalitarianism against them.
Rest In Power, David Bowie
*For more posts on protest music from Shadowproof’s “Protest Music Project,” go here.