My article on David Bowie's years in Berlin went up at Jacobin on Wednesday. More than anything I'm just glad it's no longer sitting on my "to-do" list, as it's one of the most difficult pieces I've ever written. There were a lot of ideas to draw together, so many things I could have chosen to write about, and most of those were scrapped.
One of the strains I left on the cutting room floor was a bit of a glimpse into how I came to care about Bowie at all. I think it was the right call to junk that section, but I nonetheless wanted to post it here because it may push discussions about identity under capitalism should be regarded by Marxists and radicals preoccupied with art. Maybe. Or maybe not. I leave that to the reader to decide.
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In 1997, I am fifteen and, characteristically, pissed off at everything. My CD collection is overflowing with the Clash, Fugazi, Black Flag and other essentials for the punk purist. But when I first hear David Bowie’s “I’m Afraid of Americans,” I take notice. Buzzing, menacing, stylishly sardonic, it managed to seamlessly aim barbs at everything in Clinton’s United States I was instinctively estranged by but lacked the vocabulary to articulate.
This was Bowie in his Outsider persona, one of his reinterpretations that took themes of social alienation to a fairly literal degree. It was a trope that sat well with the surge in popularity of trip-hop, trance and electronic; musics of a cosmopolitan life sensing its own inner decay. 1997 was, after all, also the year of Daft Punk’s Homework, Radiohead’s OK Computer and the first singles of Massive Attack’s Mezzanine. In line with this, Bowie’s Earthling incorporated a digital-industrial soundscape of jungle and drum and bass. Collaborating with Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor -- whose iconic The Downward Spiral was itself just a few years old -- Bowie’s sense of artistic timing was deft. The gulf between America’s truth and self-image had been the object of his fascination before, and he was attempting a version of it for pre-millennial anxiety.
I wouldn’t realize it until years later, but “I’m Afraid of Americans” was one of those small but key artistic links in forging my own identity as an artist, a writer, and a socialist. It was a reference point peeking out, dressed in the the outlandish raiments of a weird quasi-alien irreverently gesticulating at the hypocrisy of evangelism, gun culture and globalization. Bowie’s own politics weren’t radical, even in that song, but they were just subversive and catchy enough to play a role in shaping my attitudes. When I heard from others that capitalism, imperialism, patriarchy deserved to have their collective heads torn off, the pounding electronic rhythms of the song -- along with the sound of many others -- had a grip on enough synapses for me to reply “well, that makes sense.”
Identities are fictions, but very real fictions. They are the crystallization of moments and meanings. They are manifestations, monadic for a fraction of a second, instantly losing their hard edges when others bring their own moments and meanings to them. They can be enforced, chosen, or a combination of both, signifiers of personal freedom or societal burden.
Identities are also inescapable, whether we are conscious of them or not. We are born into a world in which certain things are expected of us and are seen as natural. Why wouldn’t we internalize them, live them, reproduce them in our own existence? The now-departed David Bowie’s music and art provided jarring answers to that safe, rhetorical question time and again.