Here’s the full iTunes playlist for Women in Rock, Women in Romanticism (Routledge 2022): click the image.
I’m pleased to announce the publication of Women in Rock, Women in Romanticism (Routledge, 2022), which is the first book-length work to explore the interrelationships among contemporary female musicians and eighteenth- and nineteenth-century art, music, and literature by women and men. The music and videos of contemporary musicians including Erykah Badu, Beyoncé, The Carters, Missy Elliot, the Indigo Girls, Janet Jackson, Janis Joplin (and Big Brother and the Holding Company), Natalie Merchant, Joni Mitchell, Janelle Monáe, Alanis Morrisette, Siouxsie Sioux, Patti Smith, St. Vincent (Annie Clark), and Alice Walker are explored through the lenses of pastoral and Afropresentism, Hélène Cixous, Gothic, male and female Gothic, and the literature of William Blake, Beethoven, Arthur Schopenhauer, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Charlotte Dacre, Ralph Waldo Emerson, E.T.A. Hoffmann, Ann Radcliffe, William Shakespeare, Mary Shelley, her husband Percy Shelley, Henry David Thoreau, Horace Walpole, Jane Williams, Mary Wollstonecraft, and William Wordsworth to explore how each sheds light on the other and how women have appropriated, responded to, and been inspired by the work of authors from previous centuries.
You can read more about the book here.
I will be hosting a virtual book launch this coming Saturday, November 19th from noon to 3:00 p.m. ET (we’re off Daylight Savings Time now, -5 UTC). The book launch will be held simultaneously on Zoom and on Instagram live streaming at the account rock.and.romanticism:
The lineup is as follows.
If you’d like to attend on Zoom, please email me privately for the session login. Feel free to promote the session on social media and elsewhere.
11:55-12:10 – Jim Rovira introducing the book and session.
12:10-12:30 – Alicia Carpenter on William Blake and Patti Smith
12:30-12:50 – Rebecca Nesvet on Jane Williams and the figure of the rolling stone
12:50-1:10 – Sasha Strelitz on Janis Joplin and “electric Romanticism.”
1:10-1:30 – Christopher Clason – on Joni Mitchell and German Romanticism
1:30-1:50 – Diana Edelman – on Siouxsie Sioux and the male/female Gothic
1:50-2:10 – Sherry Truffin on St. Vincent, the Gothic, and the grotesque
2:10-2:30 – Kristen Zemke on Romanticism and Afropresentism in Erykah Badu, Missy Elliott, and Beyonce
2:30-2:50 – Sherry Truffin interviews Jim Rovira on Schopenhauer, music, and women in German Romanticism, and the extension of that topic to the study of British Romanticism and women in rock.
Each section will reserve five minutes at the end for questions.
“‘It’s painful being a democracy because one of the. . . things you have to do is allow people to say what they want to,’ he [Bowie] said in 1991. Freedom of speech could be weaponized. Should a David Duke be allowed to run for office, to broadcast his racism? Bowie wondered. Hunt Sales pointed out that Duke had failed at the ballot box. Bowie replied that Duke ‘created a power base for himself. He should not be taken lightly, we have not seen the last of him by any means at all.'” Bowie’s comment probably seemed paranoid at the time, but in the light of the events in Washington D.C. on January 6th, 2021, they now seem eerily prescient. In his 2016 history of glam, Shock and Awe, Simon Reynolds drew these comparisons among glam, early Bowie manager Tony Defries’s management style, and Donald Trump: “The second [kind of entrepreneur] seduces using techniques that bypass the rational: charisma, word-magic, a sense of theatre. . . In some ways he [Defries] resembled a seventies music-biz version of Donald Trump. In The Art of the Deal, Trump wrote that ‘the final key to the way I promote is bravado. I play to people’s fantasies’. . . The showmen-businessmen understand the power of wild promises, impulsive investments, irrational exuberance.” While Reynolds doesn’t make this connection, he is also describing the fascist dictator as Bowie understood him. . .James Rovira, David Bowie and Romanticism, pp. 233-4
The conversation above comes from a 1991 interview held near the end of Bowie’s Tin Machine period. The interviewer had asked about the 1989 Tin Machine song “Under the God.” One of Bowie’s most directly political songs, it’s laced with bitter invective against white supremacy in the United States:
Skin dance back-a-the condo
Skin heads getting to school
Beating on blacks with a baseball bat
Racism back in rule
White trash picking up Nazi flags
While you was gone, there was war
This is the west, get used to it
They put a Swastika over the door
Under the God, under the God
One step over the red line
Under the God, under the God
Ten steps into the crazy, crazy
Washington heads in the toilet bowl
Don’t see supremacist hate
Right wing dicks in their boiler suits
Picking out who to annihilate
Toxic jungle of Uzi trails
Tribesmen just wouldn’t live here
Fascist flare is fashion cool
Well, you’re dead, you just ain’t buried yet
Under the God, under the God
Under the God, under the God
I wanted to start this discussion of David Bowie and fascism with Bowie’s 1990s’ invective against fascism because the starting point for chapter 10 of David Bowie and Romanticism, “1. Outside as Bowie’s Gothic Technodrama: Fascism and the Irrational Near the End of the Millennia,” is Bowie’s infamous, very badly conceived comment to Cameron Crowe during a 1976 interview: “I believe very strongly in fascism” (p. 221). My chapter attempts to answer a number of questions about this comment, which include
- Did Bowie really mean that? Why did he say it?
- What did he mean by fascism?
- How did Bowie view fascism over the course of his career?
- How might Bowie’s 1. Outside (1995) be a comment on fascism?
- How does the study of Romanticism help us understand Bowie’s responses to fascism over the course of his career, especially on the album 1. Outside?
So, in order, then —
Did Bowie really mean that? Yes and no. Crowe gave Bowie a chance to walk back his comments, and Bowie took it. Near the end of the interview, when Crowe asked, “Do you believe and stand by everything you’ve said?”, Bowie responded, “Everything but the inflammatory remarks” (p. 220). In the same interview, Crowe described Bowie as “a sensational quote machine. The more shocking the revelation, from his homosexual encounters to his fascist leanings, the wider the grin. He knows exactly what interviewers consider good copy; and he gives them precisely that. The truth is probably inconsequential” (p. 220). Furthermore, within the same interview, Bowie describes German fascism as a terrible thing: “The attitude that says the artist should paint only things that the proletariat can understand, I think, is the most destructive thing possible. That sounds a little like Hitler’s going around to museums and tearing modern paintings down, doesn’t it?” (p. 223). He clearly recognized that Hitler’s governance was terribly destructive.
That sounds like a no. Why yes and? Oooh, that’s…. complicated. More below.
Why did he say it? Also really… complicated. Many people ascribe Bowie’s comments to cocaine psychosis around this time, which is well documented, and Crowe reported Bowie’s inability to sit still for very long. But I think there was more to it than coke. More below.
What did he mean by fascism? This question is probably the most important for understanding his 1976 interview. Bowie’s definition of fascism within this interview — and I believe it became more sophisticated over time — is just “ordering people around.” It’s authoritarianism. And he points out that the entertainment industry is run this way: solo artists making an album are in charge of their music if they’re not completely at the mercy of the record company. They tell the other musicians what to play. Producers and directors order people around all of the time. Overall, Bowie’s working definition of fascism during the interview included:
- Authoritarianism, ordering people around, telling them what to do: Within the interview, Bowie defined fascism as a “dictatorial tyranny” and then elaborated: “The only way we can speed up the sort of liberalism that’s hanging foul in the air at the moment is to speed up the progress of right-wing, totally dictatorial tyranny and get it over with. People have always responded with greater efficiency under a regimental leadership. . . I can’t stand people just hanging about. Television is the most successful fascist, needless to say. Rock stars are fascists too. Adolf Hitler was one of the first rock stars” (p. 221). But note that it was a stage to get through, not an ideal state. He hoped that fascism would speed progress, most importantly, and then be left behind.
- Charisma: Crowe asked Bowie to elaborate on the whole “Hitler was the first rock star” comment, and he did: “Look at some of his films and see how he moved. I think he was quite as good as Jagger. It’s astounding. And, boy, when he hit that stage, he worked an audience” (pp. 222-3).
- Media manipulation: Elaborating on the “he worked an audience” comment, Bowie said, “Good God! He was no politician. He was a media artist himself. He used politics and theatrics and created this thing that governed and controlled the show for those 12 years. The world will never see his like. He staged a country.” I suspect Bowie’s primary referent for Hitler was Leni Riefenstahl’s The Triumph of the Will (1935), an artfully constructed Nazi propaganda film. An entire city was essentially transformed into a set for the sake of this film. But he also mentioned Goebbels (Hitler’s Chief Minister of Propaganda) in this interview and the spectacle of Hitler flying from one German city to the next on an airplane.
At this point, Bowie is starting to sound uncomfortably sincere, explaining my yes and. He’s expressing real admiration. But I also think his ideas at this point are politically unsophisticated. He seems most impressed with “getting things done” and with the performative aspects of fascism rather than thinking through fascism as a political system.
At this point, though, I think it’s fair to ask, What did Bowie think of fascism over the course of his career? His first mention of fascism in interviews corresponded with his first reading of Nietzsche and the recording of the song “The Supermen” in 1970 for The Man Who Sold the World. He makes the unusual claim that Hitler’s goal was to block the arrival of the Übermensch rather than the usual claim that he just misunderstood it: “I wrote a song called ‘The Supermen’ which was about the Homo Superior race and through that I got interested in Nazism. I’m overwhelmed at their methods — diabolical. I have no room in my head to entertain their theory, the gross effects, the terrible disregard for human life, especially for particular races and religions. . . Hitler wanted to develop an Aryan race. For what reason? To fight Homo Superior” (p. 221).
Bowie is unquestionably critical of Hitler and fascism in 1970. Leap forward to “It’s No Game” from 1980’s Scary Monsters and Super Creeps and you find these lyrics: “So where’s the moral / When people have their fingers broken? / To be insulted by these fascists / It’s so degrading,” and then nine years forward again and you have “Under the God” from Tin Machine. So I think it’s fair to say Bowie’s career was openly anti-fascist, and his comments during 1976 were uncharacteristic of his attitudes towards fascism throughout most of his life.
So why did he say it? Some answers have been suggested already, from the shock value of the comment (his own media manipulation) to cocaine psychosis. But at different points in David Bowie and Romanticism I discuss Bowie’s relationship to his own creative production in terms of a painterly metaphor, one which Bowie used himself at times in interviews. We should remember that “David Bowie” is an invention, a stage name — the real human being is David Jones. I suggest that David Jones is the artist, David Bowie his canvas, and his string of personas throughout the 70s are his paintings. I think that he eventually collapsed into fascism briefly, somewhat before the summer of 1976 or a little earlier, right before finally leaving the US for Europe, because of his loss of internal control. He was killing himself with coke. So he may have painted a controlling, fascist persona — the Thin White Duke — onto his exterior to compensate for his loss of internal control.
But leap forward just four more years after that Tin Machine interview, to 1995’s 1. Outside, and I think we encounter Bowie’s most sophisticated comment on fascism. His horror at David Duke’s following–which was not Duke building a following for his own future political career, which didn’t materialize, but for Donald Trump’s–was just the beginning of his fascination with and shock at the world of the 1990s, a reaction exacerbated by the impending turn of the twentieth century.
1. Outside expresses Bowie’s horror and fascination with self-mutilating outsider artists, 1990s’ fascism, and the rise of the internet near the turn of the millennia. The fragmented, partial narrative describes the “art ritual murder” of Baby Grace Blue from the point of view of Prof. Detective Nathan Adler. Baby Grace Blue, a teenage girl, was dismembered, her body parts mounted around different parts of a museum in New Jersey. Her memories were then culled from her bodily fluids and processed through a computer which wrote haikus from them. These poems were broadcast through speakers mounted onto Baby Grace’s body parts. The murderer is the “Artist-Minotaur,” a figure represented in videos as a human being with a bull’s head.
This artist figure, a human being with a bull’s head that uses advanced computer technology to create art out of murder and dismemberment, represents the combination of technology with the irrational, which leads us to the insights that Romanticism can provide into this album. Romanticism as a form of fascism has been a small niche within Romantic studies for some decades now. Löwy and Sayre’s Romanticism Against the Tide of Modernity (2001) develops a taxonomy of Romanticisms that includes “Fascistic Romanticism,” which they define as a “‘paradoxical combination of irrationality and technics’ whose outcome will be that ‘humanity will shortly reach a higher stage'” (p. 226). And there it all is in a single sentence: the desire to speed progress that Bowie expressed in 1976, the combination of irrationality and technology evident in Hitler’s media manipulation and the album 1. Outside, in the figure of the Minotaur as an artist who uses human dismemberment in combination with computer technology to create art, all of it coming together at the end of the millennia.
Bowie was prescient, and he saw in advance where the United States was heading. That Trump was mentioned in a paragraph with David Duke is no coincidence. Trump, with his irrational exuberance technologically played out on a mass stage through his media manipulation.
Check out the iTunes playlist for David Bowie and Romanticism.
James Rovira teaches literature and writing on Florida’s Space Coast and has published poetry, creative non-fiction, short stories, reviews, articles, and a number of books.
The release of David Bowie and Romanticism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2022), an exciting new examination of David Bowie’s life, music, and film using the historical and theoretical insights provided by the study of Romantic art and literature, is now my third book examining the intersections of rock and roll and Romanticism, followed by a fourth one that just came out in October — Women in Rock, Women in Romanticism (Routledge, 2022). I’ll start discussing Women in Rock here in late November. All of these studies provide unique insights, in my opinion, both into Romanticism of centuries past and into rock music of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries and so, by extension, into our own lives in the present.
But why? Why specifically rock and Romanticism? Why Romanticism at all?
Check out the iTunes playlist for David Bowie and Romanticism.
That’s a strange question for me to consider four books into my project. While I think the books themselves are their own justification, I’d like to try to answer that question in shorter form here. And that begins with the question, what is Romanticism?
If you read long enough and far back enough, you not only get a sense of how past ages have contributed to the development of our own, but a sense of ongoing similarity as well. This impression differs by field and period of study, and it’s different for the study of art and literature and even more so for the study of politics and philosophy. No past times or ages are irrelevant to our own.
I would say our most immediate predecessor, the period during which the modern world began to take its current form, was the nineteenth century. It most resembles us without completely being us. The Romantic era, traditionally defined, ends during the first half of the nineteenth century according to most scholars of the period and begins sometime in the latter half of the eighteenth century, with the publication of Goethe’s Werther, or some of the writings of Jean Jacques Rousseau, or the fall of the Bastille. However the start of Romanticism is defined, though, it was first theorized as Romanticism by the Schegels in their late eighteenth-century journal Athenaeum. They associated it at the time with the novels of their contemporary Ludwig Tieck, and in a number of fragments, aphorisms, and short essays considering the works of Greek and Roman authors and other writers such as Shakespeare.
Romanticism in their writing came to be associated with nostalgia, irony, and synthetic rather than analytic thinking and writing, which combines disparate parts into a new whole rather than dissecting things up into parts to better understand them. What’s interesting is that they didn’t initially periodize Romanticism, but rather associated it with a number of themes and aesthetic commitments, so that the late eighteenth century is perhaps best understood as the period during which Romanticism was first theorized rather than the first period during which Romantic literature first appeared.
But what is Romanticism? That question came to be asked more frequently and with greater intensity throughout the nineteenth century and into the present. Early on, it was opposed to Classic and Enlightenment thought and then extended to different fields, nations, and kinds of art, so that by the early twentieth century A.O. Lovejoy could say that the word “Romanticism” has ceased to serve the function of a verbal sign. As the debate continued, Romanticism came to be associated with an emphasis on imagination and feeling rather than reason; with radical political commitments (the British Romantics were supporters of the early days of the French Revolution, at least); less importantly, though very early, with drug use; and with the figure of the Romantic poet as an inspired individual who creates art out of genius.
A number of authors contributed to the discussion throughout the twentieth century with conflicting answers to that question in what seemingly became an unresolvable question. For my purposes, though, I’ve found the definition of Romanticism suggested by Sayre and Lowy’s Romanticism Against the Tide of Modernity (2001) to be the most useful for the study of rock music. They define Romanticism as an emotional reaction to modernity, which for them is the combination of Enlightenment thought and capitalist economies which manifests itself in a number of forms. They create a taxonomy of forms of Romanticism to account for the wide variety of Romanticisms identified across different times, cultures, and different fields of study, allowing for a single, coherent definition of Romanticism that expresses itself a number of different ways.
Modernity provokes the response of Romanticism because it isolates individuals from each other and from nature, leading people to long for a past time when people were more of a community and closer to nature. Since Romanticism is a reaction to modernity, it can exist whenever, wherever, and however modernity exists, and as modernity transforms, Romantic reactions transform with it. Romantics at any given time may or may not buy into the project of modernity, and may or may not be consciously critiquing modernity, but either way, they react to the sting of modernity and its sense of isolation.
Since Romanticism is an ongoing response to modernity, the forms it takes continually evolve as modernity continually evolves so that Romanticism itself becomes modernity’s ongoing self-criticism. The first two Rock and Romanticism books, David Bowie and Romanticism, and then Women in Rock, Women in Romanticism assert that one transformation of Romanticism following World War II was into rock music. David Bowie himself, born in 1947, is the product of a post-war environment, the offspring of a PTSD generation burdened with the knowledge of the Holocaust and our possession of nuclear weapons. Rock music is therefore a Romantic response to post World War II modernity, one that subverts received categories of thought about art, music, gender, film, technology, politics and — in all of these writ large — human identity.
David Bowie himself is a fertile site for the exploration of Romanticism expressed through rock music from the 1960s onward. David Bowie and Romanticism advances our knowledge of Romanticism, modern culture, and David Bowie in chapters dedicated to David Bowie and Romantic androgyny; Bowie’s space imagery; Bowie and drug use; The Man Who Fell to Earth; two chapters on the so-called Berlin trilogy (an entire book could be devoted to this topic alone); Bowie as an ever-changing embodiment of Romantic types; Labyrinth; Bowie, fascism, and the album 1. Outside; and Bowie, death, and the album Blackstar.
Check out these books, which you can order from the Bookstore, and learn more about life and culture since World War II and about one of its most productive geniuses, David Bowie. I’ll be blogging about individual chapters soon.
If you weren’t able to join us for the virtual book launch for David Bowie and Romanticism (Palgrave Macmillan 2022), you can watch the recording below. Held live on location at Savvy Vinyl Records on 28 Laurie St. in Melbourne, FL. Many thanks to Michelle and Martha for their generosity hosting the book launch.
Many thanks to contributors Eric Pellerin, William Levine, Samuel Gladden, Aglaia Venters, Paul Rowe, Jennifer Lodine-Chaffey, and Julian Knox for their time and contributions, and to guests Sherry Truffin and Alicia Daily for their contributions and insights.