David Bowie’s Artful Death

On January 7, 2016, about a week before his death, David Bowie released his final music video, “Lazarus.” The similarities between Donne’s death shroud portrait and Bowie’s video are unmistakable as both highlight the artists’ engagements with mortality and creation of an artful death. In this song and video, and throughout his final album, ★, Bowie’s use of symbols associated with early modern death rituals as well as the communal aspects of his parting gift to fans reveal possibilities for rediscovering the art of dying for our modern age.

Jennifer Lillian Lodine-Chaffey, David Bowie and Romanticism, p. 258

I have my own memories of the release of Bowie’s Lazarus video. I remembered I’d first caught it not long after its initial release, just hours. I remember thinking to myself, wryly but pleased, “He did it again. Weirded us all out.” Not just the visuals. The music too. I’d never heard anything quite like it. Then I checked the video again about 24 hours after it was released and was very, very pleased again: the video had received over 1 million views in a little more than 24 hours. It was a hit.

And then I heard he died, and then I watched the video again, seeing it differently this time. He knew. And then, before the next day had passed, I committed to this book. Bowie had been on my radar since my teenage years, and especially since I saw him perform live on Saturday Night Live in December 1979, when I was 15. But I didn’t buy many of his albums. I picked up his Singles Collection on CD within a couple years of its release in 1993 and loved it. Then I picked up another CD at a flea market, I think Reality, overpriced because it was “rare,” sometime after 2008. But then he died, and now I have all of his studio albums on vinyl and a nice stack of his CDs. And now I have this book, David Bowie and Romanticism.

What struck me the most about Bowie’s loss was the loss of his genius and humanity at the beginning of a year in which Trump’s star started to rise. It seemed so unfair–such a horrible tradeoff, like trading in a Ferrari for a brown Matchbox sedan. Plus it was the loss of David Bowie. The world lost some of its color that day; I knew it could come back, but I didn’t know when it would.

A colorless world. His final album, Blackstar, ★, packaged black on black. Even the inner booklet is matte black with gloss black lyrics and images printed on it. But when you hold the outer sleeve up to the light, you see stars through the Blackstar cutout. Constellations. There’s little joy on this album. There’s bitterness, confusion, anger, betrayal. Death. But he took all of that and turned it into art. He wants us to see the constellations through all of that darkness.

Bowie reinvented himself musically once again on this album. I write about his musical transformation in my chapter on Bowie and jazz in the forthcoming collection Jazz and Literature (Routledge 2023), but I believe as much is communicated through the album art, as sparse as it is, and through the videos, as is communicated through its music and lyrics. It begs for visual interpretation. Jennifer Lillian Lodine-Chaffey’s “‘Blackstar’: David Bowie’s Twenty-First-Century Ars Moriendi,” chapter 11 of David Bowie and Romanticism, the book’s final chapter, does this work of visual interpretation. She interprets Bowie’s album and videos in the light of the ars moriendi tradition, or the early modern practice of an artful death which “encouraged individuals to thoughtfully and artfully plan for and practice their deaths” (pp. 257-8). She traces the loss and then rediscovery of this tradition in the Romantic era, particularly “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Just as Keats’s urn preserves eternally the memory of a moment, Bowie’s “Lazarus” video “re-envisions his history through objects that tell of his demise, while simultaneously reminding the viewers of his past and pointing toward his future as an object of memory” (p. 269).

Check out the iTunes playlist for David Bowie and Romanticism.

Lodine-Chaffey’s chapter is graceful and cathartic. You can read more in David Bowie and Romanticism. Order it from the Bookstore or have your local, college, or university library order it.

Jennifer Lillian Lodine-Chaffey is Assistant Professor of English, Department of English, Philosophy, and Modern Languages, Montana State University. She is the author of A Weak Woman in a Strong Battle: Women and Public Execution in Early Modern England (2022).

What David Bowie Had to Say About Donald Trump and Fascism

“‘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.

This chapter is the longest in the book. I go into an extended discussion of the album and its Gothic overtones in much more detail. You can read more in David Bowie and Romanticism. Order it from the Bookstore or have your local, college, or university library order it.

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.

When David Bowie Was a Muppet

In many ways, Bowie defied categorization by transcending binary identities like male and female or heterosexual and homosexual. Bowie even escaped fixed labeling as a musician, artist, actor, or performer, thereby asserting that rational order’s authority over individuals is illusory. His embrace of opposing images (male vs. female, public vs. private) was the linchpin of his commitment to his own genuine selfhood.

Aglaia Maretta Venters, David Bowie and Romanticism, pp. 185-6.

I’d never thought of Bowie’s performance in the 1986 film Labyrinth as reducing him to one of Jim Henson’s muppets until now. Perhaps I still don’t. I think that performance elevated him to the status of one of Jim Henson’s muppets, perhaps the best muppet of them all. Bowie certainly had fun with the role; while the film performed poorly at the box office, grossing only about half of its production costs in the US, it’s never been seen as one of Bowie’s embarrassments, and it’s developed a cult following since then. An entire generation became Bowie fans because of this film, and Toija Cinque and Sean Redmond in The Fandom of David Bowie (2019) reports that a number of young female fans experienced a kind of sexual awakening after watching this film — the codpiece! (pp. 32, 45).

Aglaia Venters provocatively argues in “The Goblin King, Absurdity, and Nonbinary Thinking,” chapter 9 of David Bowie and Romanticism, that Bowie’s character Jareth was not a villain at all, but seemed to act more consistently in the interests of the young heroine’s (perf. Jennifer Connelly) growth and development. Through an extended close reading of the film, she characterizes Bowie’s Romanticism through its destabilization of normally stable binary opposites: hero/villain, actor/character, masculine/feminine, etc.

Check out the iTunes playlist for David Bowie and Romanticism.

You can read more in David Bowie and Romanticism. Order it from the Bookstore or have your local, college, or university library order it.

Aglaia Maretta Venters teaches in the History Department at South Louisiana Community College. She has recently published a chapter on Hegel in Reading as Democracy in Crisis: Interpretation, Theory, History (Lexington, 2019) and has forthcoming publications on French Renaissance political theory and Jesuit paradigms for understanding the tensions between reason and faith.

Bowie in Berlin, Part 2

The new persona that we might call “David Bowie in Berlin” was created through a turn to the art of a past era that also grappled with capitalist realism: Expressionism, an artistic movement that deepens the Romantic vein of expressing emotional experience. . . A future is mourned in the spectral fade-out that closes “Speed of Life.” Through vanishing clouds of futurity, Bowie’s unprecedented musical landscape emerges.

Paul Rowe, David Bowie and Romanticism, pp. 147, 149

Paul Rowe’s “Relics of The Future: The Melancholic Romanticism of Bowie’s Berlin Triptych,” chapter 7 of David Bowie and Romanticism, negotiates the tensions between modernism and Romanticism in Bowie’s “Berlin Trilogy.” Drawing from Michael Löwy and Robert Sayre’s Romanticism Against the Tide of Modernity (2001), Rowe emphasizes that Romanticism remains embedded in modernity; that it is, in fact, a modern critique of modernity, modernity’s self criticism.

Check out the iTunes playlist for David Bowie and Romanticism.

This conceptual move allows him to bring together Bowie’s modernist electronica of the Berlin albums with Romantic nostalgia, melancholy, and, in Schlegel’s words, “the willows of exile.” Rowe sees Bowie in Berlin as an exile, “an outcast in his own time who mourns the future without knowing what he has lost or will lose, a dreamer who yearns for relics of the future, powerfully prophesizing the end of history associated with the fall of the Berlin Wall” (p. 143). What’s stunning to me about Rowe’s work is not just his identification of Romantic nostalgia in Bowie’s work, but in defining that Romantic nostalgia as nostalgia for the future. What could nostalgia for the future be but a longing for lost hopes, a lost trajectory, a lost vision for the future?

You can read more in David Bowie and Romanticism. Order it from The Bookstore or have your local, college, or university library order it.

Paul Rowe teaches at Endicott College and works as a music writer for PopMatters. His work also appears in Literary Imagination and Literary Matters.

When David Bowie Fell to Earth

Newton’s mission clearly suggests a Romantic “return to origins,” specifically the pastoral origins of a lost homeland, so as to redirect his profits toward reviving a dying community that will presumably be founded on use rather than exchange values for his alien race and earthly allies. This restorative vision also would allow the fulfillment of a Romantic selfhood, a full realization of an inner life and agency that would no longer be divided by economic subjectivization.

William Levine, David Bowie and Romanticism, p. 88

David Bowie’s acting career extends to 37 appearances in film and television alone, not counting theater roles. That number covers numerous supporting parts, of course, but a number of leading ones as well. His two most important leading film roles were in Nicholas Roeg’s 1976 film The Man Who Fell to Earth as Thomas Jerome Newton and Jim Henson’s 1986 Labyrinth as Jareth, the Goblin King. I’m happy to say that David Bowie and Romanticism has chapters dedicated to both films; I would have felt that the book was incomplete without covering at least both of them.

Check out the iTunes playlist for David Bowie and Romanticism.

One idea that surfaced in both chapters is how strongly Bowie’s public persona intruded on the films through these roles. There’s something a bit obvious about casting Bowie as an alien because his first musical persona was Ziggy Stardust. It complicates our reading of the film, inviting us to read the film as commentary on Bowie’s career as much as an artistic statement in its own right. The film’s title also invites a comparison with Bowie’s 1970 song, “The Man Who Sold the World.” The man who sold the world is a reference to Lucifer’s third temptation of Christ, who offered Christ all the kingdoms of the world if he would bow down and worship him. Similarly, the man who fell to Earth, representing a fall from the sky, invokes Lucifer as well as an alien, both fallen beings in both a material and a moral sense. Lucifer was cast out of heaven; Thomas Jerome Newton came to Earth to rescue his arid homeworld from drought but then never left; and then David Bowie, during the making of this film, was nearing the end of his first stay in America. Verging on cocaine psychosis, if not falling in and out of it, at one point his weight dropped to only 90 lbs. because he was living on a diet of milk and peppers and hardly sleeping. Bowie fell to America the way Lucifer and Newton fell to Earth. Before the end of 1976 he left America for Europe to escape the ready availability of drugs and to save his own life.

William Levine’s “Capitalist Co-optation, Romantic Resistance, and Bowie’s Allegorical Performance in Nicholas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth,” chapter 5 of David Bowie and Romanticism, is a sophisticated close reading of the film and its intersections with Bowie’s public persona and Romantic themes and images. Levine writes about “capitalist co-optation” in the film because Thomas Jerome Newton’s goal to save his homeworld requires him to secure a number of patents that make him a very wealthy man, give him access to Earth’s industrial capabilities, and make him a threat to established corporations that ultimately cause his downfall.

In Levine’s words, “Newton commands the regime of modernity even more decisively than its major corporations.” But by the end of the film, in Bowie’s words, “Newton has ‘actually found some sort of real emotional drive; he knows what it is to relate to people.'” He has transcended his capitalist, opportunistic, and exploitative goals to form relationships with people on Earth, however doomed they were to fail.

You can read all of Levine’s chapter in the book, of course, which you can purchase through the Bookstore or request for your local, college, or university library.

William Levine regularly teaches courses in the literature of jazz and the blues, philosophy and literature, and the history of literary criticism at Middle Tennessee State University. He has published articles on almost every major English poet and literary critic from Pope to Anna Barbauld and Coleridge, and his current work on the literature of jazz and the blues is informed by many years spent as a jazz journalist producing radio interviews and writing for urban arts weeklies.

%d bloggers like this: