Today, one of the most creative and groundbreaking artists died. Just in case there is anyone out there that thinks he was just an artist and not a revolutionary, here is a paper I wrote about him and the song ‘Afraid of Americans.’ Its not exactly about travel, but it IS about compassion and global awareness– the foundation of any quest for human understanding.
McCulture: “Afraid of Americans” As a Reflection on the Injustice of Globalization
Music critics almost universally dismissed David Bowie’s 1997 song, “Afraid of Americans,” as a last-ditch effort by a flailing rock star to get another bite of the pop-culture money-pie. But the singer, who changed his last name from Jones to Bowie, the revered American fighting knife, slices deep in this song, evoking the horror and injustice of commercial global domination. Bowie once again carves his initials into the framework of music’s ability to shock and enlighten by reflecting and revealing an overlooked societal reality. But this time, instead of a jaunt through an artistic asexual exploration of art and music which he became famous for, Bowie’s song emerges with a political theme: the downfall of global cultural freedoms at the hands of American commercial exploitation. “Afraid of Americans” expresses a profound sense of terror that results from the takeover of the individual by the commercial machine. Bowie deftly weaves his vocals to reflect fear and anger, allowing the audience to experience these emotions, and encouraging them to stand up against exploitation. With this song, which is so eloquently angry and so politically potent, Bowie successfully contradicts his critics, proving himself hungry not for the money-pie, but for global justice.
David Bowie’s most celebrated imprint on pop culture was through his decidedly ambiguous creation of himself in the 1970s. At the time, his demeanor and dress blurred the boundaries not only between man and woman, but also between human and animal as well as human and alien. He created himself as the embodiment of the indefinable by transforming into “self” and “other” simultaneously. The confounding multiplicity of his created personas defied quick analysis. Critics adored it. His avant-garde approach broke ground in a way that defined him as a pioneer who opened the world’s eyes to ways to think, act, and behave more openly. His message was of acceptance and freedom. But then he cut his hair and lost his soul, they said.
When Bowie experimented with Dance and Industrial music on the album Earthling, which contains the song “Afraid of Americans,” he was heavily criticized as being a trend follower instead of continuing to be a revolutionary artist (Baltrush). According to Bowie, the critics’ lack of appreciation wasn’t due a decline in the artist’s creative abilities nor did their criticism reflect inadequacy in the music itself, but instead he felt that their dislike stemmed from the critics’ own deeply rooted prejudices. He explained that in America, “where the abyss between races is really terrible,” there is a parallel aversion to blended music styles (Laban). But noting that drum n bass seemed to attract a multi-racial audience, Bowie expressed a hope that this blended music might actually help to “improve the social level” (Laban). He demonstrates his conviction in music’s powerful ability to enlighten and unite people in his desire to use music to improve a severely divided society. And they claimed he lost his soul.
“Afraid of Americans” exemplifies his drive to improve society on a global scale. Bowie explained that the inspiration for the song came about from seeing a McDonalds being built in Java (Virgin). Instead of the export of fair democratic ideals and the instillation of human rights world-wide, globalization, as he saw it, was dominated by American commercial exploitation. According to Bowie, “The invasion by any homogenized culture is so depressing. It strangles the indigenous culture and narrows expression of life” (Virgin). He believed the globalization of the world was dangerous to what he identified as one of the most sacred aspects of life: expression. Reflecting on his past musical and artistic success, we can see why expression would be such a vital issue for Bowie. His message of freedom and openness catapulted his success and influenced his audience.
While Bowie’s sentiment is rather artistic, the co-writer of the song Brian Eno, expressed a more political distaste. A 2003 Time Magazine piece, written by Eno, succinctly and eloquently lambasts the contradictory nature of American “values”, pointing out that the nation that prides itself on its economic strength, pounds its chest with claims of fair democracy, and asserts supreme morality in its adherence to law and order, is actually a nation with extreme poverty, run by wealthy government puppeteers, which consistently evades global pacts in order to pursue its own interests (Eno). He gave severe criticism of America’s flimsy, counterfeit portrayal of justice and righteousness as it exploits the world in a profit-driven frenzy.
While Bowie is disturbed by an evaporation of culture and Eno derides the hypocritical nature of U.S. policies, sociologists are most concerned with a deepening divide within and among societies that has resulted from globalization. Studies have found that globalized markets have created “consolidated black holes of human misery” (Castells 2), where the gap between the haves and the have-nots is not only growing, but solidifying. In the wake of this disparity is an increase in criminal behaviors which challenge the power of the state, the complexities of which Katja Franco explores in the book, Globalization and Crime (Franco). The growing economic and health disparity and its link to crime create a compounded injustice which seems to eat its own tail. Many researchers would agree with Bowie and Eno that the current state of the world’s global interconnection is a threat to social justice that needs to be corrected.
Listeners feel the palpable intensity of this threat throughout the song- at their most heightened, the vocals evoke a pulse-pounding fear, and at their most subtle; a profoundly sinister warning. “Afraid of Americans” begins with a simple, digital sound, a harmless “doot-doot, dee-doot,” which is then matched by Bowie’s vocals, “uh-uh, uh-uh”: an almost lustful, guttural utterance which sounds like an unclear, slightly forced agreement. In this moment, he aligns the individual with the industrial “threat,” creating the sense of the person morphing into the mechanical. Throughout the song there is a competition between the two for strength, which mirrors the overall theme of the work as the individual and cultural struggle against the dominating, consuming force of commercial oppression.
As the song continues, the lyrics begin to intensify this fear. Bowie sings, “I’m afraid of Americans./I’m afraid of the world./ I’m afraid I can’t help it./ I’m afraid I can’t […]” (Bowie). This chorus, repeated eight times, dominates the four minute and twenty-five second song. His words seem to trail off; the sentence is incomplete — as if the singer has either succumbed or been hushed into silence, representing the individual’s powerlessness to oppressive forces. While these lyrics appear to point the finger at Americans on an individual basis, the overall message is definitely broader and indicts commercial interests as the real target of blame. The lyrics emphasize the idea that Americans are synonymous with commercialization and exploitation.
Even the fierce independence that defines American culture seems to be a product of this insidious commercialization of society. Bowie glimpses into the American psyche, noting, “No one needs anyone./ They don’t even just pretend.” (Bowie). What everyone appears to need however, possibly to fill that void, is something to consume.
In the second and third verses, the lyrics follow ‘Johnny’ and his consumptive drive: “Johnny wants a brain./ Johnny wants to suck on a Coke./ Johnny wants a woman./ Johnny wants to think of a joke” (Bowie). The images of a need to consume, purchase, and sexually exploit are the driving forces of this unwitting being. Johnny is the stereotypical stereotype: the Willy Lowman; the Everyman; he is no one and everyone combined, but he is the “face” of Americans globally: the unemotional, unintelligent consumer. Johnny lacks ambition, depth, and, most importantly, morality.
As the song continues, morality becomes the focus, but not in its revival or redemption; instead morality is explored in its ultimate exploitation. Bowie sings, “God is an American,” and he repeats this eight times — the exact same amount of times he repeats the chorus, “I’m afraid of Americans” in the body of the song. From this repetition, we feel a second “theme” emerging. This shift in focus could have many interpretations. It could symbolize the next wave of global domination: the missionary who aligns truth and salvation with the “American God.” Or it could be seen as a deluded justification for American global dominance, as righteousness is linked with all things American and efforts to globalize are touted as morally-driven instead of profit-centered. Whatever the intention of the “second theme” of the song, the clear impression of the phrase is a threat — sung in a disturbing monotone which evokes a sense of brainwashing. This phrase becomes more and more hushed with each repetition, eventually fading away in step with the beat to end the song, leaving the listener to feel a little hollow and a little horrified.
But sometimes, that disturbing combination of hollow and horrified is what motivates people to action. The song “Afraid of Americans” feels like a call to awareness, a call to protest, a call to create change. That theme is reminiscent of the music of the 60s, but instead of mellow, peaceful acoustics, “Afraid of Americans’” driving industrial sound and paranoid vocals portray a fierce sense of urgency. It is like the urgency associated with suffocation and strangulation; when the relinquishing of a soul is imminent. But here, it is culture and individuality that is struggling for its existence. No, Bowie has not lost his soul. Maybe the negative critics were just hoping for more tambourine.