The death of David Bowie has resulted in an understandable outpouring of adulation for the man’s life and work. I never was a huge fan of his, but I count many of his releases in my vinyl library, and have been captivated by a handful (The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars and Station to Station being some of my favorites).
Along with discussions on the caliber and impact of his music, a few have touched upon Bowie’s flirtations with a slew of different political traditions during the course of his life. He has been celebrated for his role as an LGBT icon and for championing black musicians, but few will include his embrace of fascism in their reflections.
Conservatives have long lamented the lack of right wing voices in the entertainment industry. When explaining why conservatives were underrepresented in comedy and the creative arts, Oliver Morrison argued in The Atlantic:
One explanation is simply that proportionately fewer people with broadly conservative sensibilities choose to become comedians. Just as liberals dominate academia, journalism, and other writing professions, there are nearly three times as many liberal- as conservative-minded people in the creative arts according to a recent study. Alison Dagnes, a professor of political science at Shippensburg University, argues that the same personality traits that shape political preferences also guide the choice of professions. These tendencies just get more pronounced in the case of comedy, which usually requires years of irregular income, late hours, and travel, as well as a certain tolerance for crudeness and heckling.
It is likely the case that a naturally inclined conservative individual is less likely to enter a field that requires constant change as its guiding professional mantra. But there has been a long history of right-wing artists gaining prominence and influence. The American right simply doesn’t understand why artists are influential. When discussing music and politics with a conservative friend a few years back, he mourned the fact that there never was a “conservative Beatles” to push back against the perverse influence of the 60s counter-culture. While it is true that no such band gained prominence during that period, this comrade failed to see why McCartney and Lennon were influential culturally.
Reflecting on the The Beatles musical output, you are hard-pressed to find overtly leftist jargon or arguments present. Sure, there are unconcealed references to love and veiled allusions to drug use, but the political nature of their lives was generally absent from the music (in fact, some of their most political songs were counter-revolutionary in character).
The Beatles were influential because they made something beautiful. Even those standing in opposition to hippies and the political left would be hard pressed not to name a Beatles song they couldn’t sing from memory while adorning a joyous smile. Any influence the band had on the culture was predicated on their ability to craft art that was enchanting and picturesque. Songs that are designated as “conservative” are almost always terrible. Few beyond those in ideological agreement will find anything to appreciate in said music and these works will rightfully be regulated to the artistic ghetto of propaganda.
Enter David Bowie. The man wore more than one guise (literally and figuratively) throughout the course of his career. This willingness to embrace characters crafted to deliver records allowed Bowie to dismiss criticisms of specific songs and statements made during that period as unreflective of his true thoughts and beliefs. This professional inauthenticity has been copied by many musicians since (I have been known to partake in this exercise from time to time) and forces critics to take Bowie’s statements via various incarnations with a grain of salt.
With that in mind, Bowie did have a controversial period in his career that saw him flirting with fascism and the right. In the mid 70s, Bowie embraced a persona titled The Thin White Duke. In both stage performances and interviews, Bowie expressed an admiration for right-wing figures and authoritarianism. In an NME interview with Anthony O’Gradey in 1975, David lamented the moral decline in society:
I think the morals should be straightened up for a start. They’re disgusting. This whole particular period of civilisation … it’s not even decadent. We’ve never had true decadence yet. It borders on Philistine, really.
He then went on to advocate for a dictatorship of the right.
There will be a political figure in the not too distant future who’ll sweep this part of the world like early rock and roll did.
You’ve got to have an extreme right front come up and sweep everything off its feet and tidy everything up. Then you can get a new form of liberalism.
There’s some form of ghost force liberalism permeating the air in America, but it’s got to go, because it’s got no foundation at all, apart from a set of laws that were established way back in the bloody ’50s and early ’60s and have no bearing at all in the ’70s. (The Supreme Court in America was at its most liberal in the late ’50s, early ’60s.)
So the best thing that can happen is for an extreme right Government to come. It’ll do something positive at least to the cause commotion in people and they’ll either accept the dictatorship or get rid of it.
Shocking to be sure, but not beyond the pale for a contrarian musician. Perhaps this was whole period was just a publicity stunt intended to garner attention (Bowie did later reject these comments and blamed his excessive use of cocaine as a contributing factor). But it was this observation earlier in the interview that was the most telling:
Like the original aim of rock and roll when it first came out was to establish an alternative media speak voice for people who had neither the power nor advantage to infiltrate any other media or carry any weight and cornily enough, people really needed rock and roll.
And what we said was that we were only using rock and roll to express our vehement arguments against the conditions we find ourselves in, and we promise that we will do something to change the world from how it was. We will use rock and roll as a springboard.
What Bowie failed to recognize here was the real reason art is capable of changing society: it is persuasive because it is beautiful and transmittable, acting as wedge to enter the minds of the masses. If Bowie’s work had been overtly political in nature, it would have limited its appeal and audience. It was only after he had your attention with his tunes that he was able to begin introducing radical ideas, but the art came first.
The right could learn a lot from Bowie. As far as one can tell, he didn’t suffer significant professional consequences for his flirtation with the far right; the glowing eulogies scattered throughout the media today is a testament to that. Bowie understood that he needed to continuously change and push his art into new territories if he was to remain influential in the culture at large, a tactic few “conservative” musical acts are willing to embrace.
David Bowie is a refutation to the habitual complaint made by conservative commentators that artists of the right will be punished professionally and financially for their personal views. If your art is truly great, people will overlook just about any of your beliefs. They may even listen to your ideas, even if they are overtly fascist in nature and violate polite opinion.
(Image: David Bowie as The Thin White Duke – Wikicommons)