“‘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.