GOD IS AN AMERICAN
In 1989's 'Under the God' from the album Tin Machine, Bowie implicates and ensnares America and God in the same song. Here in America we pledge allegiance to the flag with a swastika over the door. Bowie describes our leaders' indifference to our fellow citizens' pain: "Washington heads in the toilet bowl. Don't see supremacist hate." In fact the men in power are actively fostering the hate: "The right wing dicks in their boiler suits are picking out who to annihilate."
David brings God back into the picture in the song 'Bus Stop.' He confesses his own ambivalence about the Bible yet he acknowledges his faith, his will to believe. After all as he admitted in 1993's song 'Jump They Say' - "You gotta believe." He adds a rare humor to the whole song: "Jesus, he came in a vision and I'm not saying that I don't believe you but I've been told that it could have been the blue cheese or the meal that we ate down the road. Hallelujah!"
In 'Crack City', Bowie takes a shot at the corruption in American cities. He curses the betrayers of youth and innocence. And in a gruesome twist, Bowie then plays the antagonist-voyeur in the song 'Video Crime.' He sings, "Me, I'm crawling with no cash. I'm looking for hot flesh. I ain't got time for the honeymoon. I just want to chop it up. Trash Time Bundy. Death row chic and I just can't tear my eyes away." This theme of the Third World's destruction by outsiders will show up again in 1991's 'Shopping for Girls'. And in 1995's 'Wishful Beginnings and 'We Prick You' off the album Outside, he divulges even more depravity.
In 'Wishful Beginnings' Bowie intimates the sexual abuser's contempt for his victim. He admonishes how an "unworldly fool" can become hunted prey. And in the song 'We Prick You', he gives us sad and disgraceful images of purity corrupted: "All the little rose-kissed foxy girls with their little white shoes."
In the song 'Tin Machine' from Tin Machine I Bowie sang: "One sick deathless duty to remain endangered species." "The guy who beats his baby up, the preachers and their past." Throughout the album the theme of "innocence corrupted" reigns. A theme Bowie would later return to on the album Outside. The death of Baby Grace insinuating that there is a crack in the very foundations of the world. In the song 'Baby Universal' on Tin Machine II Bowie exhorts: "When the child goes bad it's no cause for celebration." He brings to light the domestic derangement, the broken families created by chaotic mothers and blundering fathers. It is this internal derangement that widens the crack in the larger external world. The Inside inevitably leaking through to the vast Outside.
In another domestic violence send up, the song 'One Shot' reveals just how touchy and hypersensitive Bowie can be in the role of the assailant. David gives us a precise summary of suburban unrest brewing just beneath the veneer of tranquility and seemingly ordinary lives: "Look out on a green world. Windows and Wives. No bedroom to run to. No miracle jive. No conversation." Here there is no flight from the abyss.
In 'Betty Wrong', Bowie takes on the role of the shaman-priest forecasting doom: "I'll be your light when the shadows fall down the walls." Again he is comfortable in the role of messiah offering redemption and enlightenment. Knowledge and wisdom, he later admits in the song 'Earthlings On Fire', will not however, provide certainty. And since this prophet is only a mouthpiece for the divine revelation, Bowie's protagonist/antagonist "reveals" the irony in offering such hope: "Then life will be done and it just won't matter at all."
In 'Shopping for Girls' the American tourist goes overseas to conquer the Third World. The lyrics send shivers down the spine. Bowie is disturbing in his depiction of these childrens' torments. He elucidates the menace and the dread beneath the masks of propriety worn by the "company boys" - "Between the dull cold eyes and the mind unstable. No one over here reads the papers pal. He's a clean trick and he's shopping for girls."
On the album Black Tie White Noise, Bowie contemplates the nature of good and evil when "the flesh meets the spirit world." He confesses: "I can't tell good from bad."
Bowie the seasoned trickster rejects simple solutions to complex problems. Overstatement and sarcasm typify the lyrics in 'Black Tie White Noise'. It's not nostalgia or romance he's going for with trite and sentimental cliches. He is uncovering the "evil of banality" - how the "normal" and "everyday" conceal the routine brutalities of racism and how a sickening apathy promotes them: "Getting my facts from a Benneton ad. I'm looking through African eyes. Lit by the glare of an L.A. fire. I've got a face, not just my race, Bang Bang, I've got you babe."
Again this song is another indictment of America. What stains the "American Dream" is the "American Apartheid" we all still vehemently promote with our apathy and indifference. By using lines from the Sonny and Cher jingle as well as Marvin Gaye's 'What's going on' and that seasonal darling 'We are the world', Bowie clearly outlines how suffering becomes trite and commonplace, and how vapidly simple solutions are chosen over more complex ones.
In 'Pallas Athena' Bowie acknowledges that God is on top of it all - suggesting that either he's got the solution or he's to blame. Besides if it's the same God we find in 1995's 'No Control' off the Outside album or 1997's 'I'm afraid of Americans' off of Earthling, we have reasons to be afraid. It's a God to whom we should not reveal our plans.
On Outside, comical passages/language depict the futility, loneliness and anxiety of life in the late 20th century. David's characters may remain intentionally blurry/indeterminate (like the computer morphings of Grace and Stone) but their origins are certain. They were born in the stark void (the fantastic death abyss) of modern existence.
The Hollow/Hallowed/Halo Space Boy lives in the abyss of the "Fool's Paradise." He has no flesh and blood. He's a Zero, a Nobody with no odor and no real substance. The "Simple Man" born into chaos. Not unlike the "Lost Innocents" of 'Baby Universal'.
If God is not listening to our prayers or if the "gods" have forgot they made us, then the fool must step in to describe the majesty and sorrows of this "god-damned" starving life. The blind fool is a "Sober Philistine" in a state worse than Hell. A Stone Boy watching the crawling land. A Poor Dunce standing so near to innocent eyes.
And neither the Private Eye nor the Voyeur can offer any true enlightenment.
In the song 'The Heart's Filthy Lesson' David Bowie may be reminding us of the perils of terrorist bombs and emerging viruses in the following lines: "There is something in our skies. There is something in our blood." He also exposes our complacency: "It falls upon deaf/dead ears."
In 1999's song 'Something In the Air' from the album 'hours...' the threat comes from within the soul. The main character in this melancholy song has "nothing in his eyes" just like the protagonist in 'Looking For Satellites' from the Earthling album who looks toward the sky for answers.
Paradoxically he has "something in his eye," some external hazard (tears perhaps, and something far more perilous than a speck of dust) In any case, it is looming, potentially threatening the very center of his being. Bowie's use of the paradox is stupendous. In the song 'No Control' Bowie recommends that we stay away from the future and that we back away from the light.
The soullessness that pervades 'The Heart's Filthy Lesson' also infiltrates the song 'I'm Afraid of Americans'. Johnny is in America. He's a Nobody, a low tech "has been" and he's behind the wheel. In 1997's America, it is every man for himself. Individualism means everything. Nobody needs anyone and it's not just pretense! Johnny's desires are mediated through mass consumerism and rampant commercialization. Johnny wants a woman but he's having a hard time thinking of a joke to tell her. Johnny can't think, not unlike the zero in 1989's 'I Can't Read', who spends all day changing tv channels and watching the police cars.
Johnny's a dummy, an American dummy living in America. And Bowie is not only afraid of Americans, he's afraid of the world!
By Nevada Kerr
25th October 2001.
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