Love Is Lost, Hello Steve Reich Mix for the DFA (2013)

David Bowie never failed to surprise. He was always on the move, oft having made striking and unpredictable artistic choices, leaving the bewildered public in his wake. Yet, perhaps the most striking move of his career was the release of The Next Day in 2013. It was recorded over a two-year period in secrecy, and released on the 8th of March, 2013, after a decade of silence following his brush with death during Reality Tour. Initially what was thought to be a pinched nerve in a shoulder turned out to be something far more serious: an acutely blocked coronary artery which required an emergency treatment and forced him to cancel the rest of the tour. According to his long-time collaborator, Tony Visconti, Bowie completely disappeared from the view for a year after the incident. Once the connection was re-established, Visconti met Bowie with some regularity, yet music was never mentioned. Then, in 2011, out of the blue, Bowie shocked his old friend by asking whether he was interested in producing a demo: Like everyone else, Visconti accepted by then Bowie’s retirement as an unstated fact. The result of their two-year long effort was The Next Day, which is oft hailed as one of the very best albums in his extensive discography.

‘Love Is Lost’ is one of the five songs issued as singles from The Next Day. The single contains the original version and the remix called ‘Hello Steve Reich Mix for DFA’ by James Murphy of DFA Records. Whilst the original song is an incredibly dark and intense post-punk rock with haunting keyboard and oppressive drum, it is also something of an enigma: One is absolutely overwhelmed by the sense of regret and guilt expressed by the song without knowing the source of these feelings. In this regard, the experience of listening to ‘Love Is Lost’ is the same with that of reading The Waste Land: After listening to Eliot’s reading for the first time, Virginia Woolf was left with ‘strong emotions’ without knowing their names. Whilst Bowie’s song is only four minutes long, and it assumes a far simpler form, as is always with Bowie, the appearance is deceptive: It is far more complex than it first appears. Fortunately, James Murphy’s remix offers more than a clever repackaging of the music: It offers a clear path to approach this enigmatic piece, even though it is only one of many ways to appreciate it. It features a looped sample from the new recording of Steve Reich’s ‘Clapping Music’ performed by Murphy and his collaborators, as well as a sample from Bowie’s ‘Ashes To Ashes’. It is over ten minutes long, yet it contains a considerable intricacy, and thus is easily one of the most thoughtful remixes of Bowie’s numbers. It begins with the sound of an euphoric audience cheering and clapping in praise of a performer. Yet, the lavishing ovation soon turns into an oppressive demand, relentlessly beating down the object of this obsessive attention. Thus, the first minute of the remix signals one thing clearly: Murphy is seeking the source of the song’s intense affections in Bowie’s illustrious career. This is at once an obvious, and almost required, approach. The artwork of the album features the famous album cover of ’Heroes’ (1977) with a striking altercation: Bowie’s face is obscured with a white square which cradles the album title printed in a simple and bold typography. The first single from the album, Where Are We Now?, which preceded the release of the album itself, also features Bowie’s picture taken from a live performance during the 1970s, possibly from his Young American period, with yet another altercation: the picture is presented upside-down, a clear indication of a critical engagement with his own past. Then, again, the hollowness of fame and the success is a recurring theme for Bowie, most explicitly expressed by the song, ‘Fame’ (1975). One can conclude thus that the self-criticism and the relentless challenge to one’s belief-system and comfort-zone are a few of the constant activities of David Bowie, and there is no surprise that he is at it again, albeit with a noted graveness in its tone. Murphy makes his case by inserting the timely sample of ‘Ashes To Ashes’ to a devastating effect. Judging by the commentaries on the song’s lyrics, it is by far the most widely supported reading of one of the most grave songs written by Bowie in his later years. And the music video directed and released by Bowie himself appears to validate this view.

The music video directed by David Bowie was released in 31 October, 2013. It was filmed at his Manhattan apartment with the aid of photographer Jimmy King and Bowie’s constant guardian Corinne Schwab, with whom the artist credited his return to sanity during his Berlin era. Although much has been made of the production cost of twelve US dollars and ninety-nine cents spent for the purchase of a USB drive to store the film, this statement is rather misleading if one takes it literally: The film features two wooden puppets produced by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop as major characters, and surely they did not come for free. Therefore, what this background information reveals to us is not how casually the video was made. Rather, it shows how important this song was for Bowie. Not only was the song one of the five songs cut for singles, it spawned two distinct versions of music videos, each of which features two distinct versions of the same remix. This is an unprecedented engagement with a song by the Englishman: Whilst he set and raised the standard of music video direction repeatedly, never had he released two official music videos for one song. Whilst the ‘original’ remix, ‘Hello Steve Reich Mix for DFA’, lasts a little more than ten minutes, the Bowie version of the video features the edited remix, which is about four minutes long. The music for Bowie’s film is subtly different from the ‘original’ remix: It is not simply cut short to fit the movie. Case in point: The clapping music at the opening of the film is altered in such a way that it ends much earlier, yet the transition feels absolutely natural. Also, the story about the production suggests how Bowie approached his filming project. Despite the quality of the film, the ad-hoc nature of the production reflects the burning intensity of his creative urge. It is noted that the film was directed and edited during the weekend before its release, and the trio spent a mere seventy-two hours to complete the project. All of this background information suggests that Bowie acted on an inspired moment without delay. Whilst we will never know how long he planned and prepared for the direction of the film, once he decided on the concept, it appears, he simply could not sit still. And the result is a beautiful short film that haunts the audience long after the viewing.

The film starts with a shot wherein Bowie obsessively washes his hands in a sink. He makes awkward glances to the audience, thereby inducing shame and embarrassment upon the audience by turning them into accidental violators of his private space. Various shots of hand-washing reappear for a few times, further re-enforcing the sense of guilt. Whilst these shots do not come close to the creative feat represented by the scene wherein Ryan Gosling’s Julian washes his hands after the confrontation with his brother’s killer (Only God Forgives, Nicolas Winding Refn, 2013), as we shall see later, there is much more in common between these two films than one might initially think. This scene is followed by the apparition of two revered characters from the past: The Thin White Duke, as well as the Pierrot of ‘Ashes To Ashes’, join the hand-clapping. The reference to Bowie’s illustrious career is not limited to them: The camera briefly captures the poster of ‘Heroes’ as it glides through the empty room. Then, suddenly, Bowie, encaged within the dark figure of the Pierrot in black, is thrust in front of the lidless eye. With The Thin White Duke lurking eerily in the background, the dreaded atonement begins. His face is projected upon a blank mask of the dark Pierrot, tortuously encaged behind the painfully visible wireframe. His otherworldly appearance readily reminds us of the Major Tom, or its ghost, yet the claustrophobic nature of this apparition echoes another song from Scary Monsters, that is, ‘It’s No Game’, one of Bowie’s more politically explicit numbers. As the film progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that the ghost of Major Tom is summoned for a tribunal wherein his missteps are judged, and the shortcomings exposed. In this terrifying process, The Thin White Duke eventually assumes the role of a stark judge, who repeatedly, and mercilessly, interrogates him: What have you done?! What have you done?! The cinematic tribunal continues to the bitter end wherein Major Tom crumbles and diminishes under the weight of shattered conscience, which burns him alive with the shuddering flame of remorse, shame, sorrow, and despair.

As noted earlier, most viewers interpret this song as the story reminiscent of Citizen Kane: The tale of a successful yet hollow public life haunted by the yearning for the lost innocence of youth. This autobiographical interpretation of the song went so far as for some to claim that the song is about a very specific event from Bowie’s youth: his break-up with Hermione Farthingale, whom he met through Lindsay Kemp. When the pair split, the artist was twenty-two years old, and this experience affected him quite badly, as heard in the number from the album, David Bowie (1970), ‘Letter To Hermione’. Sources state that Farthingale left the relationship to join the shooting of a film, Song of Norway (Andrew L. Stone, 1970), and Bowie is seen in a T-Shirt printed with the title of this very film in another music video, ‘Where Are We Now?’, the first single from The Next Day. Whilst there might be some truth to this autobiographical interpretation of the song, and there is nothing particularly wrong about Bowie indulging in nostalgia, both the song and the movie betray this theory: The gravity and the intensity of this kind simply cannot be inspired by a wistful meditation of the unfulfilled promise of youthful love that ended more than four decades ago. Considering the fact that it was Farthingale who initiated the dissolution of their partnership, however heartbreaking at the time, their break-up simply cannot warrant the fear and trembling that haunt the song and the film. To bring the imposing figure of The Thin White Duke to lead a tribunal to examine the failure of youthful love would be a hyperbole, if not an absurdity.

Whilst Bowie’s film does not disclose the source of the guilt and shame expressed, the second music video gives us something to ponder. It is directed by Barnaby Roper, and released on 14 November, 2013, separated only by a few weeks from the release of the first film. Unlike the Bowie edition, this film lasts over ten minutes, thereby covering the entire length of the track. It is not known when Roper began the preparation of the project, and thus there is no way of knowing now whether Bowie saw the unfinished film, or the completed one for that matter, before he embarked upon his own project. Roper’s version is almost entirely relied upon computer graphics, and thus it marks a stark contrast to Bowie’s low-tech, yet emotionally urgent, direction. Roper’s movie begins with a beautiful abstraction: the picture of clapping hands turns into a flower-like symbol, quickly multiplying and forming a rhythmic mandala. Then some forms appear: At first they form a web of pollen or dust, then quickly developing into something more complex yet familiar. The figure that resembles the human eye appears. As if to emphasise the subjective nature of what follows, our vision is guided through the interior of the eye itself, which demonstrates an incredibly complex structure made up by small waves. Then, in a white-out space, the wireframe begins to form some shapes. At the beginning, it is not clear what might become of it, for it repeats the process of shaping and collapsing in a short interval. Yet, suddenly, like sub-atomic particles appear to collapse into an empirically cognisable state, some familiar forms begin to emerge: various and incomplete parts of the surface of human bodies. It is at once breathtakingly beautiful, yet an unnerving process to watch, for these parts are jagged, fractured, paper-thin pieces which suggest the hollowness of the final forms that may or may not be materialised. The jarring repetition of the emergence of forms and their dissolutions continues until the sudden burst of images in full-colour images into our cognition in the form of a human eye, most likely a close-up of Bowie’s. Then, out of the fog, a young naked woman appears, followed by a nude of a young man.

By then, we have seen more than half of the film. Up to this point, the film has been a dance of abstraction, which is well-suited to the mix inspired by Steve Reich, and thus this sudden emergence of life-forms is all the more striking: It draws a parallel to a scene from a ground-breaking Japanese animated film, Ghost In The Shell (Mamoru Oshii, 1995) wherein the ‘rebirth’ of the main character, Major Motoko Kusanagi, is depicted with an intriguing mixture of futuristic vision and the ancient mythological tale of ‘creation’ wherein ‘our beginning’ takes place by the ‘marriage’ between the transcendent (some sort of deity) and the immanent (earthly being, mostly represented by someone who is human and female). Oshii manages to express the ambiguity of human existence in the scheme of so-called ‘evolution’ of the species, as well as his ambivalence toward the implications of the technologically materialised transcendence of ego: For the director, the ‘overcoming’ of ego also means the dissolution of ego and subjectivity. Whilst acknowledging the allure of the ‘higher order’, Oshii also questions whether it is permissible for us humans to seriously consider such a transcendent state as a realisable option. It is the sentiment expressed by Rebecca Goldstein in her book, Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity (2006): Goldstein resists Spinoza’s method of overcoming the fear of mortality through amor dei intellectualis, or his philosophical love of deus sive natura, and the contemplation of sub specie aeternitatis, by stressing the importance of struggling with the fear and trembling for our finiteness, living through the actuality of this quintessential human condition. Whilst there have been countless variations in the pursuit of defying the ‘constrains’ of human conditions, both natural and institutional, our desire to transcend ourselves is generally boiling down to the desire for immortality. Whilst some philosophers sought to come to terms with our mortality by accepting it, for the most part, humankind has consistently demonstrated the refusal to ‘go gently into the night’. As religious ‘solutions’ to this age-old fear of death lost its credibility in the wake of modernity, it is widely considered that the only solution to this existential angst is to attain immortality by technological means. In this sense, ‘our’ rebirth as a cybernetically enhanced human being is a step toward this universal goal: Humankind finally takes a concrete step away from the cycle of life, death, and re-birth, and each individual moves toward the attainment of immortality as someone who stands above the Nature by means purely devised by humankind itself.

Of course, things are seldom as simple as such a statement suggests. As Ghost In The Shell tells us, our ‘enhancement’ also means the deeper, existential, dependency to technological means, and this total reliance on technology, which is subject to the influence of politics and market, not to mention the inherent fallibility, both human and technical, threatens to render us disposable. Yet, facing the prospect of fulfilling ‘our destiny’ of attaining immortality, we pay little or no heed to these concerns. The majority of humans seldom consider the implications of our actions: We rarely, if at all, consider seeing beyond the probability and the means to attain the fulfillment of desires. Thus, despite Oshii’s ambivalence toward this particular approach and the world-view which sustains it, Kusanagi’s rebirth nonetheless induces a great exhilaration in the audience. Roper’s short film first appears to follow the footstep of the Japanese: It begins with the depiction of dust-like particles dancing without any discernible pattern or purpose, only to form points whose connections begin to morph into unfamiliar shapes. Curiously, as soon as wireframe begins to form curvy objects, the viewers begin to find familiar forms, that is, the figments of a human body, as if to confirm our inherently anthropocentric limitation. Yet, the process which follows the emergence of human forms in this film does not induce the kind of exhilaration as expressed in the opening title of Oshii’s masterpiece. Whilst the rebirth of Kusanagi takes breath away with the sense of witnessing the creation of a new state of being as the result of a drastic cybernetic ‘enhancement’ of the human species through the combination of a sophisticated robotic body and a human brain, the emergence depicted here is strictly formal and abstract until a full-coloured image of Bowie’s eye bursts into the scene. It is a lengthy, uncertain process of push and pull between the emerging order and its collapse into the chaos, the repetitive process which impresses the fragility, not the creative force. In addition, the entire process of the emergence in Roper’s film is in fact the reverse of Kusanagi’s rebirth. In Ghost In The Shell, when the white cover of her body breaks into pieces, what we see is the face of a sleeping beauty, with her dark eyelashes and luminous skin. As the white cover scatters like petals of cherry blossoms in the air, there emerges a fully developed body of a young woman, whose staggering capabilities has already impressed the audience in the opening scene. On the other hand, Roper’s lovers come into being through the assemblage of fragile, irregular, paper-thin pieces. In short, their existence is completely made up by the surface: Even when they appear as models resembling marble sculptures, one cannot help but suspecting their fragility and hollowness. They are, in short, shells without ghosts.

Our angst soon becomes ‘reality’: The vision of the lust and embrace becomes the subject of distortion, fragmentation, and, finally, a total annihilation. The overall effect is staggeringly dark. What begins as a universal story of ‘our beginning’ wherein the ‘first humans’ embrace to start the procreation of species ends in the total destruction, rendering them back into thin, fragmented, hollow pieces before blasting them away into nothingness. Although this is no Paradise Lost, it is clear that this is Bowie’s perspective of ‘where we are now’, and perhaps more importantly, what has not yet come to pass: the dire state of current affairs and the prospect of catastrophes, environmental or otherwise, that awaits future generations as the results of ‘human progress’, both of which are arguably the logical consequence of Industrial Materialism (If not familiar with this term, please read my essay on The Big Short, which is found in the section called The Promised Land in the page, Shadowplay). In the various states of visual distortion during the sequence depicting the embracing couple, the fragments from ‘Ashes To Ashes’ repeatedly appear. These flashbacks are not there to suggest Bowie’s preoccupation with his personal past: One must recall that Major Tom wished the planet Earth and its inhabitants ‘to grow’ despite his personal low. Even then, remorse was not entirely personal: Whilst he denounced his stardom and the accompanying addiction, he was also lamenting his inability to better the world he inhabited in ‘Ashes To Ashes’. Due to his sharp intellect and coolness on stage, it is easy to forget a more idealistic side of Bowie: He began his career as a musician in the 1960s, once being a student of a known Buddhist master, then living in a commune for a brief time. Major Tom, Bowie’s first alter-ego, was introduced in the Briton’s first hit song, ‘Space Oddity’, the song which aptly expresses the despair that many felt as ‘The Summer of Love’ arrived at its conclusion. Awakening alone in an indifferent universe, he shudders with the realisation: The planet Earth is blue, and there is nothing ‘I’ can do. When Major Tom returns for the third time in ‘Love Is Lost’, his mind was not so much on the lost love in his youth: Bowie was revisiting the rude awakening from the youthful, and naïve, optimism. The striking difference here is the degree of guilt and shame he felt for himself and humanity: The violence with which the lovers are interfered represents what he sees as the destructive side of modernity by which humankind dreams of becoming the replacement of ‘God’. Whilst he had been clear-sighted enough to know his own naïvité, the sorrow, the guilt, and the shame expressed in ‘Love Is Lost’ shows that he never completely lost his youthful tenderness of heart. Still, what sets him apart from the most is his sober and sharp intellect: His grasp of dialectic is such that, as we can see in his interview during the ‘Heathen Tour’ in Paris, he was fully capable of articulating his assessment of the current state philosophically. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TajCh41y17I Whilst Bowie manages to conduct the conversation with a certain degree of lightheartedness, the subject he discusses, albeit with a broad stroke, is quite serious. With ‘Love Is Lost’, Bowie confronts the source of isolation and alienation he spoke of in the aforementioned interview. It is isolating to see why and how we are heading to the wrong way, and it is alienating to realise how and why one is unable to influence the course of events. Despite finding a way to successfully cope with such affections, these ’slightly negative’ feelings never left him. And, in ‘Love Is Lost’, he chose to confront them, and atone his ‘sins’ by conducting his own stark tribunal. When the brief infatuation with the euphoria of the time in his youth ended, Bowie found himself as a powerless observer of humanity’s continuing self-destruction.

This is where Bowie meets Refn: Despite the difference in their respective subjects of ethical interrogations, they share the uncompromising attitude in their tribunal of conscience, which is at once personal and collective. The intensity and the sincerity of their fear and trembling, and their willingness to stand on trial, reflects their keen understanding of their respective personal places within the dialectic: Like the notion of ‘German Guilt’, if one is serious and sincere, one must accept one’s place and the accompanying responsibility within a collective story as a part of it. One needs not, for example, be a whaler to be guilty of driving cetaceans into extinction: If one is Japanese, even if one is strongly opposed to such a violence, one must admit one’s responsibility as a part of this particular Form of Life. Refn confronts the Western Geist through the interrogation of its fear and trembling originating from the oft neglected sources of guilt and shame that invite reckonings. The subjects of tribunal are: religious hypocrisy and colonialism (Valhalla Rising); Racism, Neo-colonialism, and ruthless instrumentalism (Only God Forgives); and the relentless obsession of ‘beauty’, which is in fact the necrophiliac objectification that destroys both the subject and the object of desire (The Neon Demon). These films are starkly forceful: They simultaneously express vengeance, retributions, reckoning, and a very few willing subjects for atonement. In this sense, these films are cinematic representations of the Judgment Day: Each film confronts sins and crimes committed by the Form of Life from which Refn emerged. Naturally, the most significant feature of the trial is the fact that it is initiated by himself: Refn, like One-Eye (Valhalla Rising), Julian (Only God Forgives), and Gigi (The Neon Demon), is a willing defendant. He is ready to atone as someone who partakes in the Western Geist. Whilst one is not entirely clear of his motives in doing so, despite his public image, judging from these movies, his engagement with the critique of modern Western Form of Life is sincere. The fact that his main characters are either angels of retribution (One-Eye and Bangkok Police Chief) or the sinner in need of atonement (everyone, including One-Eye, Julian, and Gigi as the only willing participants) suggests Refn’s seriousness. He understands the notion of ‘sin’ precisely in a Dostoyevskian sense: It is the atonement of the ‘sins’ that matters. As Wittgenstein noted in his lecture on ethics, an ethical judgment is absolute, and thus it transcends the limit of our linguistic, that is, conceptual, capacity. Whilst Wittgenstein does not state his judgment on the system of judiciary, if one takes his statement about ethical judgment seriously, one must agree with Dostoyevsky: The determination of the crime and its punishment is not essential; the recognition of the sin and the subsequent atonement is. For Raskolnikov to atone his sins, actions such as turning himself in to the system of criminal justice and serving his time in a labour camp are simply irrelevant. What matters is that he appreciates the graveness of his sin in its full extent: taking the life of another being. Only when Raskolnikov atones for his sins, he becomes the subject of redemption (One must note: redemption is not the same as forgiveness). This process is exactly what Refn and his sinners must go through. And that is exactly to which Bowie subjects himself in his music video.

Perhaps the tragic secret disclosed in these cinemas is that Wenders’ angels are never meant to find a repose. The ones who suffer the poetic conscience, in the end, cannot be heard in a world deafened and blinded by the constant neurological command ‘to be happy’ and ‘to be yourself’. Like the cursed prophet of Troy, they stand alone in silence. And like Helen, they stand on the wall, awestruck by the sight of destruction they involuntarily helped commence.

The videos reviewed here can be found at:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dOy7vPwEtCw https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VpXleysIs90

I'm Afraid of Americans (1997)

It may come as a surprise that David Bowie’s sardonic ‘anti-anthem’ with the provocative title, ‘I’m Afraid of Americans’ (1997, Earthling), is one of the most covered songs from his extensive discography. It is covered more than iconic hits such as ‘Rebel Rebel’, and almost as much as ‘Ziggy Stardust’. It was originally co-written with Brian Eno for his ambitious concept album, Outside (1995), yet not included in the final release. It was eventually re-written for the next album, Earthling, and became its most successful song. The list of musicians who have covered it includes: Swiss band with Turkish roots, Mizan; Boston alternative band, Amber Spyglass; NY industrial hip-hop group, Tackhead; one-woman post-industrial electronica project, Knifesex; and Nine Inch Nails led by Bowie’s deep collaborator in the 1990s, Trent Reznor. It proved to be one of the most popular pieces for live performances as well, and Bowie himself played it regularly on stage, most notably for his 50 Year Anniversary Bash in NYC, wherein he sported his (in)famous Union Jack jacket and let it all out with Sonic Youth without losing an ounce of his cool.

As these eclectic line-up of covers attest, ‘I’m Afraid of Americans’ exhibits a remarkable adaptability and transcends musical boundaries with unexpected ease. The sheer diversity of genres and styles to which this song is adopted is quite awe-inspiring. Mizan stunningly fuses a Middle-Eastern element with Hard-Rock to express crippling angst under the stark shadow of the global empire. (Their music video is also exceptional; it envisions a Matrix-like world without a hope for the final redemption.) Amber Spyglass offers a significantly slowed-down, Low-Fi, and darkly original interpretation, which sounds like a song for the post-apocalyptic world performed by ghosts. Knifesex expresses a futuristic vision with the voice of a distressed humanoid, perhaps inspired by Ava (Alicia Vikander) from Ex Machina (Alex Garland, 2015). Nine Inch Nails plays it like their own in front of a rapturous audience. Sonic Youth joining Bowie on stage looks and sounds absolutely in their element. And Tackhead transforms it into a wryly intelligent anti-capita/imperialism Dub with a noted emphasis on Bowie’s acerbic humour. These iterations show one thing: the song is deceptively simple, yet aesthetically accomplished. In effect, ‘I’m Afraid of Americans’ is an artistic equivalent of a great invention; one can develop and implement it in order to create an accomplished work of one’s own.

The same must be said about the official music video produced for the song; beneath the deceptive simplicity lies a quite nuanced observation of ‘America’ and its inescapable effect on us. The video, directed by Dom and Nic, features the V1 Mix by Trent Reznor instead of the original version. By far, the V1 remains the most popular installment amongst listeners and musicians; most of the covers are interpretations of the V1, not the original. This fact would have not bothered Bowie; the V1 was indeed his choice for the music video, and his intuition proved correct, for the involvement of Reznor proved to be pivotal to the overall success of the film. It features Reznor as a stalker, Johnny, who haunts Bowie in the streets of Manhattan, NYC. Notwithstanding Reznor’s dismissive assessment of his contribution, Nine Inch Nails front man renders this dangerously unhinged paranoid character with alarming authenticity, and the menace he poses is such that the entire premise of the story becomes believable. As he chases down Bowie on the streets, it is Bowie who becomes helplessly gripped with fear and paranoia. As the story progresses, it becomes impossible to distinguish the actual event from Bowie’s hallucination. The way in which the fantasy spills over reality in this video, despite its short duration, is cinematically effective; the way the film uses the loss of boundary between the actual events and its subjective experience is something Christopher Nolan would have been quite happy with. Most notably, toward the end, the film even approaches what Nicolas Winding Refn achieves in Only God Forgives; the mixture of surreal imagery with subtle yet effective disjunction of the passage of time elevates the vision of mere insanity to a deeper, poetic truth. And, last but not least, Bowie plays his part excellently; perhaps this is the Starman’s finest acting in his numerous music videos. Overall, this is an exceptional flick, and it has been playing an essential part in enhancing the song’s enduring appeal.

There is little doubt that a part of the fascination with ‘I’m Afraid of Americans’ originates from its provocative title and lyrics. Whilst some might be offended by its observation of American Form of Life, Bowie’s song sets itself apart from numerous songs on this global empire. For example, Prince’s ‘America’ (Around the World in a Day, 1987) offers a scathing criticism of implicit racism; he condemns the crippling condition in which many African Americans are imprisoned, as well as the very notion of Pax Americana in which America imposes ‘Law and Order’ as it sees fit as the ‘World’s Policeman’ (Ronald Reagan). It was, and still is, one of the most direct and intelligent criticisms of American Form of Life expressed by any art-form to date, and Prince cannot be praised enough for his brilliancy, his intelligence, and his utter fearlessness in his confrontation with the problems which most Americans choose not to acknowledge. Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born in the USA’ (Born in the USA, 1984) expresses the utter hopelessness experienced by an impoverished white blue-collar. The pictures offered by these artists are absolutely bleak; there is no sense of self-determination in the lives of minorities and working-class, and thus, for them, America is far from the land of the free. The same despair is expressed by Lou Reed’s ‘Men of Good Fortune’ (Berlin, 1973), which deems both rich and poor doomed, albeit in their own separate ways. Nine Inch Nails’ ‘Heresy’ (The Downward Spiral, 1994) unleashes a hell-fire of rage against Christian Fundamentalism in the USA, and their concept album, Year Zero (2007), condemns the utterly destructive nature of American Form of Life. And Bob Dylan’s ‘With God on Our Side’ (The Times They Are A-Changin’, 1964) highlights the dubious nature of patriotism, and its serious consequences. All of these songs composed and performed by American artists can be properly called ‘anti-anthems’; they take issues with specific aspects of American Form of Life, and challenge the narcissistic ‘unity’ under the flag, the move which still resonates with the protest most recently taken up by the likes of Colin Kaepernick. ‘I’m Afraid of Americans’ is very different in this regard; contrary to the initial impression, Bowie’s song is not an anti-anthem per se, despite there is a room to be interpreted as such. Whilst he touches on some issues based on his observation of American Form of Life, he is not pressing against Americans on specific issues. The song maintains its satirical and sardonic tone throughout, and the lyrics don’t really point to anything concrete enough to formulate a clearly defined statement about America. The only consistent mood of the song is his ‘fear’ of Americans, and his ‘fear’ of the world, yet we do not know just how and why he fears them until we watch the music video.

Before going into the heart of the project, we must retrace how the narrative is constructed in this short film to fully understand the story. The film starts with the scene wherein Bowie notices the presence of Johnny, the stalker. As he starts to calmly walk away from his shadow, he realises that Johnny has some unwelcome intent against him. Seething with violent contempt, Johnny relentlessly chases Bowie until he suddenly, and suspiciously, abandons the pursuit. During the first escape from Johnny, however, Bowie is now taken over by an overwhelming fear; he has already ‘encountered’ an African American man shoving a pedestrian before pulling out a ‘gun’ and shooting him. The problem is that there is nothing to warrant Bowie’s reaction; the film shows that the man merely makes a gesture of shooting with his hand, and thus, in truth, he is unarmed. And, a moment after the ‘incident’, the film confirms Bowie’s loss of sanity by showing the same man merely jogging the street; the entire event of aggression and violence has never taken place. This narrative of double delusions is consistently followed to the very end; as Bowie runs from random ‘gun violence’, New Yorkers worryingly look on a mad Englishman running away from them in a complete frenzy. And, as his fear intensifies, Johnny reappears out of nowhere, chasing after him with a sinister look. Eventually, Bowie takes refuge in a yellow-cab and breathes a sigh of relief. Yet, despite the appearance, it is clear that he is not out of the woods. When he jumps into the cab, NYC was still basking in the afternoon light. Yet, when the car speeds away, the night has already fallen and the streets are blurred with numerous artificial lights. By the time Bowie realises that he became a captive of Johnny, who suddenly resurfaces as a taxi-driver, we find ourselves in the dead of night.

We have seen this method in a more sophisticated and powerful form by Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives (2013) in which he masterfully demolished the boundary between his audience’s subjective experience and his protagonist, Julian’s; by accentuating the entire film with subtle disjunctions, Refn transforms his cinema into a dream experienced by his protagonist and the audience. The end result is stunning; it feels not only natural, but real, just like the way memory of actual events and fantasy becomes indistinguishable in sleep. Though it is not as absorbing as Refn’s masterpiece, given the briefness of the project, the way ‘I’m Afraid of Americans’ manages to benefit from the same concept is highly praiseworthy. In this film, the unnatural progression of time itself represents Bowie’s descent into madness. The film ends with Bowie being subjected to a barrage of bullets fired by Johnny. Then, suddenly, there is no Johnny; in a deserted street, the vehicle quietly rests without damage. As Bowie staggers in disbelief, the procession of a strange cult descends upon the scene; a man in front holds a stake with the skull of an extraterrestrial creature, followed by a dozen ‘pagan’ worshippers, including the ‘homicidal priest’ from an earlier scene. Then, Bowie finds himself face-to-face with Johnny again; Johnny is at the centre of this strange procession; carrying a large cross on his shoulder, Johnny knowingly grins at Bowie as he continues his journey into the endless night.

As viewers' comments on YouTube attest, the most obvious way to interpret this film is to see it as a commentary on America’s obsession with guns, and for good reasons. The USA has the highest gun ownership in the world, and the number of fatal shootings, that is, homicides, suicides, and fatal accidents, has been consistently and remarkably high relative to other developed nations. Every time a mass shooting occurs, calls for tighter gun control are resisted, and thus virtually no progress for public safety has been made. Given the facts and data, it is difficult to make a tangible justification for hyper-armament of ordinary citizens in America (If in doubt, check the links I shall provide at the end of this article as a starting point of your inquiry). Failing to see any practical benefit, one must conclude that America’s relation to firearms is indeed an obsession. Bowie does not fail to offer several forms of American infatuation with guns in the film, most explicitly represented by a man in a trench coat who makes a young woman engage in oral sex with his ‘gun’, that is, a hand covered with a latex glove. It appears that Bowie is hitting the tendency amongst some who uncritically equate lethal power represented by firearms with masculinity; the image of an older man casually commanding a younger woman to worship his sex really brings a point home. It is a given that such an obsession is borne out of paranoia; paranoia over the loss of ‘control’ in sexual relations; paranoia over personal safety; and/or angry suspicion over the government’s conspiracy to undermine what Americans like to call ‘freedom’, whatever that means (Whilst the Supreme Court supports the view that the Second Amendment safeguards individuals’ right to bear arms for self-defence, there is no telling what the notion of ‘self-defence’ might mean to these ‘individuals’; after all, this is the country which invented the notion of ‘preemptive war’ during George W. Bush’s presidency).

Whatever they worry about, the object of their concerns does not make sense unless one is gripped by the same fear; whilst the scenarios they fear happening are not entirely impossible, studies do not support their case for ‘more guns’ in America. Untrained citizens obtaining firearms are more likely to make their families and communities susceptible to injuries and deaths from firearms they own than deterring violent crimes. As for the conspiracy theory about the government restricting or abolishing one’s ‘freedom’, it is downright paranoiac. Modern democracy is based on the check and balance of power in so many ways that it is implausible, to say the least, that a faction of the ‘powers-that-be’ would successfully orchestrate comprehensive measures that scrap civil liberty unchallenged. Still, such fear, at least for the ones who suffer such symptoms, is real, more real than anything else, and thus, it dictates how one perceives and experiences the world wherein one also acts as an agent, however irrational one might be. Unfortunately, such a mistrust of the government runs deep in America; one can trace it at least back to the Civil War and its aftermath, yet it is more likely that its origin should be found at the very beginning. The ideological feud between Federalists and anti-Federalists, as well as religious elements of the newly founded republic’s mistrust of Founding Fathers’ Enlightenment agendas, vividly illustrate the mutual mistrust amongst the members of the young Republic. And, for some, one’s constitutional right to bear arms means that one might rise against one’s own government to safeguard one’s ‘freedom’; like Ahab, regardless of the prospect of failure (the USA boasts the world’s most powerful military after all), such an individual would confront the Leviathan and die, rather than conform and compromise one’s ‘freedom’, whatever it might mean. And thus, one must conclude that the current political polarisation in the USA is nothing but a manifestation of the paradox existing from the very beginning: various contradictions which survived the formative period of the young republic are coming back to haunt America with great urgency, and its stress is displayed in full both behind the closed door in Capitol Hill as well as on TV and Live Twitter Feed.

The problem with a persistent lack of trust in society is that it destroys the ground on which members of a given society engage with one another in good faith, and thus breeds conspiracy theories of all kinds. Once one goes down this path, there is no chance of retaining objective perspective of the world, and its effect is the destruction of ground on which rational exchange can occur amongst citizens. As we have seen in recent years, American society has lost its cohesiveness; the gulf between different factions of society has widened to the point where one can no longer expect to conduct an open and constructive dialogue with someone who holds a different world-view from oneself. As Bill Moyers noted many years ago, the behaviours of the American public in ‘political arenas’ are that of hooligans; they root to their ‘team’ to ‘win’ and shout down, and/or beat down, their ‘enemies’. Needless to say, such an attitude is not only directly an affront to democratic principles, but also apolitical; as Hannah Arendt noted, being political means that one must be disinterested in one’s personal stake in the issues at hand. In this sense, the culture of paranoia destroys the very basis of civic society. In a hostile climate such as this, only demagogues and charlatans thrive; the public shows little or no interest in serious debates on policies when other ‘more interesting’ things are dominating air-waves and front pages of tabloids. And, as history is any evidence, the fire of fear and paranoia stoked by a few imposters quickly spreads, and leaves scorched earth in its wake; it is both terrifying and fascinating to see just how humankind repeatedly falls for such a transparent and crude scheme. Given that America is overloaded with lethal weapons, including the weapons of mass destruction, there are indeed plenty of reasons to fear what our paranoid neighbour might decide to do next.

It is true that fear and paranoia have been a permanent feature of our psyche, and they have shaped the course of human history in regretful ways, yet their influence in modern society is particularly precarious due to the enhanced capacity for self-destruction and the alarming ease with which it can be enacted.  We developed the capacity to destroy the possibility of life on Earth (perhaps with a very few exceptions), and the world is still resting on the fragile equilibrium articulated by the doctrine of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction), the term first coined by John von Neumann. And, as seen in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strange Love or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), the world governed by Nash equilibrium is a terribly precarious place; a single insane individual who believes a far-fetched conspiracy theory bred by paranoia can indeed enact MAD by starting a chain reaction within the system. In this context, the 'firearms' shown in this video can be understood as a metaphor for the destructive power humankind acquired through technological advances made through the process of modernisation and industrialisation of our society since the Industrial Revolution. And, America in the 1990s was the sole surviving champion of Industrial Materialism that led us to this point. Therefore, given the paranoid tendency of American Form of Life, as well as the sheer firepower Americans possess, there are plenty of reasons to be afraid of Americans who might trigger an apocalypse in a literal sense.

If this is all Bowie has to say, then ‘I’m Afraid of Americans’ belongs to the ranks of anti-anthems. Fortunately, Bowie saw a little further than his illustrious contemporaries. There is one point that makes the perspective expressed both by his song and his music video invaluable. By focusing on the culture of paranoia, instead of specific aspects of American Form of Life, he portrays how fear and paranoia swiftly infect all of us. As Hermann Göring cynically noted at the Nürnberg Trials, fear is the most effective manipulative tool (He noted that it only takes a government to announce the threat of foreign attack in order to secure public support to start the war), and the fear of Americans can just as powerfully distort our experience as the fear of the world championed by demagogues. In ‘I’m Afraid of Americans’, it is clear that both the hunter and the hunted are paranoid. Yet, as the story progresses and Bowie’s paranoia deepens, one starts to question whether Johnny is a part of Bowie’s fantasy; the feared stalker appears from nowhere at least three times in this short film, if one excludes his initial appearance. Our first encounter with Johnny seems ‘natural’ thanks to the camera work of the opening sequence; the camera approaches the back of Bowie standing on the street, reading a paper, and thus, the opening sequence enforces Johnny’s perspective upon viewers in order to impress the actuality of his existence.

Yet, the state of affairs is neither simple nor natural in this film; since the front page of the paper is dominated by the article on Johnny, Bowie is preoccupied with the thought of paranoid stalkers threatening his personal safety. Sensationalist ethos of media subjects us to the constant stream of alarmist contents, and its potentially negative effects have been bitterly contested. In this context, it is plausible to think that Johnny is Bowie’s fantasy from the very beginning. Regardless, real or imagined, Johnny, himself a paranoid, instills enough fear to Bowie’s mind, and the rest of the film documents the Englishman’s free fall into the abyss of madness. Therefore, it becomes plain that, just by virtue of having to do with a paranoid Form of Life that is America, one becomes quite paranoiac on one’s own. Paranoia based on fear or certain obsessions can spread swiftly with little or no resistance, for the sense of danger plays an important role in one’s survival. Yet, if untempered by critical and objective interventions by open dialogue and reason, unfounded fear, ironically, endangers one’s well-being by provoking one to engage in destructive behaviours. Since paranoia undermines good-faith in one another, it shreds the social fabric into pieces by destroying the necessary trust in one another for a society to function. A group which loses such an equilibrium is sharply steeped toward violence, and in turn destabilises the wider community with which it interacts. Whilst it is neither fair nor reasonable to hold America as the sole cause of global paranoia, it does get itself in the sharp spotlight due to its influence and destructive power it possesses. And thus, the USA is at once the subject as well as the object of paranoia; regardless of one’s attitude toward America, whatever Americans decide or merely are inclined to do is closely watched due to its consequences. And it certainly does not help that America itself is beholden by a culture of paranoia; by realising that there are enough Ahabs in America who can influence the outcome of major political decisions, one cannot help but to become paranoid about anything they might decide to do.

That being acknowledged, paranoia of any form is dangerous; it effectively confines each of us within one’s own personal echo-chamber. If one stays too long within it, one becomes completely insane, as deftly shown by Denise Papas Meechan’s short, Freckles (2016), which tells us the story of Lizzie (Jenn Halweil), who believes that she is repulsive and alone because of her freckles, a physical feature which in fact has nothing to do with her isolation; she is alone because of her compulsive obsession to the contemporary standard of physical beauty, resulting in her belief that she is repulsive, which in turn makes her painfully awkward toward others she encounters. She acts as if she is the only person who ever existed with freckles, and she alienates everyone around her owing to her insecurity. As senseless as her belief is, her suffering is genuine, and as her angst intensifies, she becomes a dangerous time-bomb waiting to explode with rage against the world. It is a condition which cannot be sustained, and anyone who finds oneself in such a condition eventually meets a violent end, either by harming oneself or others. In order to escape such an alienation, one oft allows oneself to be swept away by the first shiny thing one finds, and joins a band of fanatics. Still, finding one’s life meaningful by feeling ‘one with people’ does neither ensure the correctness of one’s world-view nor eludes violent ends. It simply means that one is entombed within another echo-chamber, albeit larger and more crowded than before. Locked in a distortion chamber wherein each member becomes emboldened by having company, one becomes ever more unhinged, as one’s interaction with the world becomes increasingly confrontational. Bewildered by the growing gulf between one’s belief and reality, internally one becomes more fanatical, and externally more hostile. And this is precisely the course taken by Johnny, the American; first appeared as a paranoid stalker, he then lashes out by wildly firing a military assault rifle against an alien subject he abducted, and then finally reappears as a member of a religious cult, carrying a cross in the dead of night.

Bowie’s ‘I’m Afraid of Americans’ is unique in that, in mere five minutes, it demonstrates not only how paranoia spreads, but also how paranoia transforms from a strictly personal alienation to a form of mass hysteria. And it is the point where the dream of a mad Englishman becomes an embodiment of what should be called ‘poet’s madness’. Whilst the entire story shown in the flick could be Bowie’s hallucination born out of fear, it is an illuminating, if not prophetic, vision. Like the works of many visionaries before him, ‘I’m Afraid of Americans’, filmed almost twenty years ago, offers uncanny insight into our present moment in history wherein he is sorely missed.

The video reviewed here can be found at: https://vimeo.com/51377976

And start learning more about gun violence in the USA by visiting:

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/21/opinion/l21guns.html?r=0

http://www.businessinsider.com/gun-used-to-stop-crime-2013-3

http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-36270215

http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-34996604

http://www.shootingtracker.com/Main_Page

http://everytownresearch.org/school-shootings/ 

http://www.gunviolencearchive.org 

http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2013/jan/18/mark-shields/pbs-commentator-mark-shields-says-more-killed-guns/

https://data.unodc.org/#state:6

Hurt (1995)

‘Hurt’ is the closing song of The Downward Spiral (1994), which sealed Nine Inch Nails’ status as the most important industrial band of the 1990s. It marks a striking contrast to the rest of the album, which is an explosive mix of scorching fury and disorienting pain. The Downward Spiral paints the soul-splitting torment of someone who sees no end to one’s suffering, remorse, and humiliation, with an unparalleled intensity expressed through a raw yet intricate sonic landscape. Some of the afflictions come from front man Trent Reznor’s frustration with American society as he unleashes a hell-fire of rage against what he sees as American Christian fanaticism (‘Heresy’), and others are about his struggle with a crippling self-destructive impulse (‘Mr. Self-Destruct’). Then, after a thirteen-song-long mayhem, you suddenly find yourself sitting face-to-face with Reznor; quite unexpectedly, he opens up and tells us about his heart-wrenching regret, burning shame, and numbing depth of sadness. It is an account of a man who squarely faces the fact that he has hit rock bottom. It is a guilty plea of a person who damages everything and everyone he comes across through his self-destructiveness. Regardless whether one can relate to darkness of this kind, the openness and authenticity with which Reznor speaks to us is immensely moving. Whilst in many regards this song is one of the best works written and performed by Reznor, it soars ever higher in a version recorded in this live performance, which documents one of the most controversial, yet brilliant, live shows to date: ‘Outside Tour’ (1995), wherein Nine Inch Nails and David Bowie performed side-by-side as peers.

It was a stunning decision for both; when the plan was announced, fans of Bowie as well as Nine Inch Nails (or NIN for short) were bewildered by the thought of them sharing a stage. Yet, it was no April Fool's: NIN was to play an opening act for David Bowie to support his North American tour, who was in turn asked by his label to promote his latest effort, Outside (1995). On paper, the tour had the mark of disaster written all over it. To begin with, Bowie’s new output was eccentric — even to his standard. It was never going to become one of his classics; to this day, it comes across as defiantly experimental, and unapologetically avant-guard. It was also a jarring move from Bowie, who established himself as one of the most popular stars of mainstream music during the 1980s. After a hiatus from his stadium rock show, ’Sound+Vision Tour’ (1990), Bowie returned to the chart with Black Tie White Noise (1993), which assured that he was back in business. It saw the reunion with Nile Rodgers (Let’s Dance, 1983) as producer, and, despite the seriousness of some of the songs (‘Jump They Say’ recounts the suicide of his half-brother, Terry, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia), the overall tone of album was quite upbeat, and thus it did nothing to alter the general perception of Bowie as a mega-pop star. After a decade of being in a business of pop stardom, everyone accepted his place on the pedestal. By the mid 1990s, he was regarded as slick, intelligent, and reliable, if not a bit uninspiring.

Then, out of the blue, he dished out a macabre concept album, wrapped in a cloak of esoteric art-industrial-rock. Unsurprisingly, it was received with confusion, suspicion, and bafflement. It followed an emerging trend in popular culture that began in the 1990s; from David Lynch to Sophia Coppola, and Nick Cave to Pain Killer, we saw a surge of work that expressed a fascination for gory violence such as ritual homicide and physical mutilation which, eventually, became a permanent fixture of our culture. Whilst the premise of his experiment was new and ‘up-to-date’, as Outside followed the story of Nathan Adler, a detective pursuing the case of ritual murder in a future dystopian society, there were some recurring themes from his earlier work. Like in Diamond Dogs (1974), Bowie employed William S. Burroughs’ ‘Cut-Up’ method to narrate a post-apocalyptic world. The return of Brian Eno was an obvious nod to the spirit of Berlin Trilogy, which still enjoys the highest critical acclaim amongst his eclectic body of work. Yet, still more importantly, Outside was not a resurrection of the old; it expressed his newly developed philosophical understanding of the modern human condition, which provided a distinct undertone for his later works such as Earthling (1997), Heathen (2002), Reality (2003), and The Next Day (2013). In short, Outside, despite its outward inaccessibility, was an album that marked the beginning of a new phase for the Starman.

His understanding is that, following the revolutions in physics, psychology, and philosophy from the late 19th century to the early 20th century, humankind came to see itself as the flawed replacement of God: our most significant achievement was to invent ways to facilitate genocide. In the wake of two World Wars and the stark shadow of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) that followed, humankind sought to find refuge in new religions, or resurrect old ones, in order to fill the spiritual void created by the alleged ’Death of God’. He observed that, as humanity rushed toward modern idol worship, pagan rituals were on the rise again. Physical mutilation, sacrificial rituals, and aesthetic obsessions of blood and homicide in literature, cinema, and music, according to Bowie, are manifestations of our desire to replicate the worship of Gods. Whilst fascination toward ritual violence has always existed within us and survived in secular disguise (e.g., ritualised violent sexual acts such as S & M), in the 1990s these previously ‘hidden’ phenomena started to invade mainstream culture and finally took hold of the imagination of the masses. If he is right, then, despite our ‘progress’ so far, humankind is not out of the woods; we are as savage and violent as our (more traditionally) religious ancestors, except that we are more efficient in killing greater numbers of people, and more conscious of our spiritual void. Regardless of the correctness of his assessment, Outside offers insightful, if not cryptic, observations of life under industrial materialism and confronts its Geist through art.

The trouble was: Nobody wanted to expect the unexpected from Bowie in 1995; he was already an icon enshrined (or entombed) in the Hall of Fame. During the 1970s, Bowie was a vanguard who was in constant process of charting new territory for himself. Relative to more established names such as The Rolling Stones, Bowie was still a recent phenomenon, a sweeping yet unpredictable force, a star in the making, and, for this reason, audiences were captivated by every move he made. In the 1990s, Bowie found himself in a very different context. The general consensus at the time was: Bowie became a legend, that is, someone to be worshipped for his past accomplishments. Therefore, unlike in the 1970s, Bowie's latest attempt to break free from stifling expectations was not going to be received kindly. In short, Outside never had a chance to be appreciated for its worth, and a tour featuring many of its songs was never going to be welcomed by his existing fans. And, of course, Bowie had to push it all over the edge by deciding to tour with Nine Inch Nails, whose sound and vision were not obviously compatible with that of his own. As Bowie himself recalled later, it was the surest way to commit commercial suicide. His fans were not going to be happy with his latest album, and they were not going to mix with the fans of NIN.

As for NIN, given their popularity and the general trend of the music scene at the time, it was a remarkable decision by them to settle for the supporting role. And, with an extraordinary show of integrity, they took full responsibility of their decision and faithfully fulfilled their role throughout the tour. Since their styles weren't compatible or complimentary with Bowie’s, and as they were the ones with momentum and youthful aggression on their side, they could have become a de facto leader and literally blown their counterpart off stage. Given the conspicuous rise of NIN and their prominence, and the perception problem Bowie was experiencing at the time, if they had adopted the conventional two sets for the tour, they could have lost control of the show from day one. If the events took this turn, it would have been quite damaging for both artists. Bowie would have lost all his credentials for good; as for NIN, given Reznor’s crippling struggle with their sudden rise to fame, crushing the tour would have pushed him over the edge with overwhelming feeling of guilt, rage, and bitterness. It would also have had long-term damage to NIN’s creative path. This tour offered a rare opportunity for a new band to collaborate with one of the most unique artists in the history of modern music. If NIN were to escape the fate of the punk movement, sooner or later Reznor would have to broaden his musical language and take considerable creative risks by evolving his style. Bowing to the audience’s demand and taking over the tour would have pigeon-holed the band to one category, i.e., an industrial alternative, and thus would have had a restricting effect on Reznor; he would have been denied fully harnessing his rich and expansive talent. Interestingly, Reznor’s resolve was put to the test even before the tour began; prior to the tour, there was a discussion as to who should actually play the main set of the tour; quite surprisingly, Bowie was open to the idea of ceding it to NIN. Reznor adamantly refused to consider such a possibility, and steadfastly played a supporting role for Bowie. Whilst I don’t think for a moment that the concerns above were the motivation for the way they staged the tour, understanding the risks they accepted, consciously or otherwise, reveals just how daring this project was.

Fortunately, both Bowie and Reznor had their heart in the right place; they were focused on the creative and artistic side of their collaboration. Having decided to work together, they wished to find a way to create a coherent aesthetic experience for the audience. Thus, they rejected the convention of having two distinct sets to divide the show, which could compartmentalise, or potentially alienate, each other. The motivation behind their decision was their mutual respect; Reznor went on record to credit Bowie, especially his work during the Berlin era, for inspiration, and Bowie in return praised The Downward Spiral as an exceptional work. It speaks volumes when one considers the fact that Bowie never went this far to create a cohesive set with another artist with a distinct style from his. He neither saw nor treated NIN as a mere opening act for him; they decided on everything jointly, on equal terms. If not for their mutual respect for one another, and the desire to work together, neither of them had strong incentives to do another tour at this particular moment in time. In his conversation with Susan Sarandon earlier, Bowie already spoke of his distaste of live-tours. As for NIN, they had just concluded a successful year-long tour, and were completely exhausted. It was the creative challenge that motivated them to go forward with this seemingly impossible idea of conducting a joint tour. Both were critically aware of their differences; as seen in a joint interview with MTV, while Bowie excitedly spoke of their differences as ‘yin and yang’, Reznor described the challenge of having Bowie on his set to perform NIN numbers. As he initially found it intimidating to sing along with Bowie, he was also clearly trying to find a way to perform each others’ songs without losing individuality, and to preserve the aesthetic integrity of each song they performed together. Yet what they came up was innovative and, quite frankly, nothing short of a minor miracle.

They divided the show into three segments in order to create a coherent aesthetic experience for the audience without compromising the distinct characteristics of each artist. Out of twenty-nine songs, NIN played twelve, Bowie seventeen, and they played five songs together. NIN opened the night by playing ten of their songs. Then, they merged the two bands for a part of the middle segment consisting of five songs: three written by Bowie and two by Reznor. This middle segment was opened by Bowie’s ‘Subterraneans’, which was led by Reznor’s saxophone. Subsequently they switched back and forth with each others’ numbers; a few of them were performed by the two bands together. Whilst most of the songs were performed with only minor modifications, the last song of this section, ‘Hurt’, saw a significant reinterpretation, and the result is absolutely stunning. It begins with a mesmerising guitar solo by Reeves Gabrels, perfectly accentuated by the heavy guitar riff by Robin Finck over the loop. It is an imaginative blend of Bowie’s Low (1977) and Nine Inch Nails’ heavy industrial sound. This rendition of ‘Hurt’ is undoubtedly the crowning achievement of their collaboration from ‘Outside Tour’, and marks the beginning of their fruitful creative relationship, which saw many remixes of Bowie’s songs by Reznor, the most famous and important being Reznor’s take of ‘I’m Afraid of Americans’; it was chosen over the original version for the production of its music video, which also featured Bowie and Reznor together. Performing ‘Hurt’ with Bowie was particularly rewarding for Reznor; he later recounted that it was one of the most important moments in his life. His admiration for Bowie, the Berlin trilogy in particular, was such that he was listening to Bowie’s Low daily during the recording of The Downward Spiral. And, more importantly, working with Bowie and his band to render his most intimate song into a new form provided a touchstone for his future experiments, which saw many bold and exceptional results. Upon Bowie’s death, Reznor spoke openly of Bowie’s influence as a reference point; he thinks of the way Bowie betrayed expectations and the risks he took, and uses his example as the way to constantly challenge his own creative path.

Collaborating with NIN and reinterpreting a NIN classic was equally vital for Bowie; it showed different ways to understand his musical language and apply it to a completely different style of music, and thus expanded his creative vision. Like in the 1970s, the 1990s was the decade of adventure for Bowie; it saw many drastic experiments, which includes Jungle beat of Earthling (1997) and Hours (1999), which was not as musically daring, yet quite bold in the sense that it was a part of Bowie’s experiment with cyber world and digital technology. As in the 1970s, his work in the 1990s created some great songs, while some, like Outside, were received with bafflement; we saw a similar reaction to his earlier experiments such as Diamond Dogs (1974) and Young Americans (1975). All the basis for this further development, which culminated in his second golden years starting with Heathen (2002) to his passing in 2016, was laid in his collaboration with Trent Reznor during this tour; by taking up unthinkable, and seemingly unnecessary, risks, Bowie was able to clear the ground for himself to retain his creative freedom. And thus, the significance of this particular reinterpretation of ‘Hurt’ for both artists cannot be overestimated; it crystalised the spirit of the collaboration that marked the new chapter for both of their lives.

For Reznor, his collaboration with Bowie would have a deeper, and more personal, effect: it was also the beginning of his effort to liberate himself from substance abuse. In his response to Bowie’s passing, Reznor graciously recounts how Bowie helped him become sober. During the tour, when they were alone, Bowie would tell Reznor as someone who went through hell: there is a better way, and all this struggle does not have to end in suicide. According to Reznor, the situation was getting out of control during the tour. The worst part was that he was not aware of just how desperate it was becoming. Yet, Bowie clearly saw this, and he reached out to Reznor. Eventually Reznor came through with his effort to overcome addictions, rebuilt his life, and has expanded the scope of his creative output; not only has he evolved his style, but also has adopted different approaches to his music. In the early years, NIN is primarily known for the intense expression of Trent Reznor’s personal truth. Yet, over the years, NIN has adopted diverse approaches to music; whilst the emotional engagement has not lessened, his subjects are no longer limited to his personal, subjective, truth. He has created a post-apocalyptic concept album (Year Zero, 2007) which expresses a powerful political statement against the current US policy on the environment, foreign affairs, and economy. In this album, he made educated speculations on the catastrophic consequences if the liberal capitalist US policy would be allowed to continue for another two decades. He also made an album consisting only of atmospheric instrumental pieces (Ghosts, 2008), not the style for which they are known. He also started to write scores for select films, such as The Social Network (2011), where his joint effort for this film as a co-composer was rewarded with an Oscar. As opposed to early works such as The Downward Spiral wherein the emphasis was on his state of mind rather than the subject of the songs, his more recent work draws the audience’s attention to the subjects themselves; emotional intensity is still there, yet it is a means to convey his message, rather than the end in itself. Reznor’s shift from expression of subjective truth to one of an objective approach toward chosen subjects draws a parallel to Bowie’s development; whilst his classics from the 1970s draws more attention to his state of mind, his later work is more objective, despite that none of the poetics of his earlier masterpieces have been lost. Whilst the former approach expressed his existential angst originating from his alienation to the world burdened by problems of catastrophic proportions such as MAD, the latter is less about his personal feelings regarding the problematic world; it is more focused on expressing his view and understanding of Zeitgeist in a proper sense. Both Bowie and Reznor left subjective, and paranoid, modes of expression in favour of a more objective assessment of the world. And, interestingly, these shifts coincided with overcoming of substance abuse.

After all is said and done, the most beautiful aspect of their collaboration is its uncanniness; when their paths crossed for the first time during the tour, neither Bowie nor Reznor were in a position to realise what their encounter would mean to them. Still, Reznor saw Bowie as an inspiring, though still distant, example; if he were to rescue himself out of the maelstrom of rage and despair, he might, in the future, establish himself as an artist who can withstand all the challenges and burdens that accompany his vocation, and build a meaningful life for himself and others dear to him. It was the first occasion that Reznor saw a faint glimpse of hope in his chosen path. As for Bowie, he clearly recognised Reznor’s struggle and reached out to him. In their joint performance of ‘Hurt’, the aspect of Bildung is all there to see, and is responsible for the sublime height their collaboration achieved: in one of the most cinematic moments of the tour, the set presents its uncanny resemblance with the scenes from Wings of Desire (Wim Wenders, 1987), wherein angels dwell amongst lonely souls in a Berlin nightclub filled with longing, fantasies, and despair. Here, on stage, Bowie appears as if one of Wenders’ Rilkean angels; he is a guardian watching over his fellow artist who struggles to stay above the abyss of self-destruction. He is no longer ‘an alien’ who fell to the hostile world only to become a captive. He is here to reach out to a suffering soul while learning from him as an artist. Whilst his presence is visibly distinct from the rest, he is not separated from them. His voice is as deep and luminous as ever, yet he is here to support Reznor and his song to reach a soaring height. His cool and controlled demeanour is not the result of psychological detachment from the moment; it is his way of being in the moment by giving what he can offer while staying out of the way as needed. It is indeed a small miracle to witness the man who fell to Earth, the one always on the move and who stands apart from the rest, offering a genuine spiritual act of mindfulness, generosity, and compassion while performing a song of guilt, shame, and suffering through self-destruction. For this reason, this act must be remembered not only for its brilliant rendition of one of the most intimate songs by Trent Reznor, but also for its uncanny cinematic resemblance with Wings of Desire: this is one of the rare moments that Wenders’ fairytale is enacted in real life, not only aesthetically, but in its spirit. It is a precious testimony that minor miracles indeed occur.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GfTAQG9raQ4, a live performance at Shoreline Amphitheatre at Mountain View, California.