The Great I Am: Magic, Fascism, and Race in David Bowie's 'Blackstar'
Blackstar addresses the tension between David Bowie’s avowed attraction to ideologies of blood and soil, and his equally committed obsession with African American musical forms and tropes.
On 20 November 2015, David Bowie reemerged, without prompting or necessity, with a new single titled ★ and approximated by the more pronounceable "Blackstar". The work (let’s endow the quintessential art-rocker with the pretentious labels to which he’s entitled) is a gnarled, nervy journey, nearly ten minutes long, incorporating percussion which merges krautrock and jazz, pagan poetry, dissonance, melismatic singing, sugary strings, and swirls of soulful sax shifting from the sassy to the spectral. "Blackstar" is a surprising salvo, all the more provocative for the fact that it’s come on the heels of a late-career renaissance that has followed the stately and respectable routes favored by the veterans of the vanguard (see earlier post-millennial albums like Heathen, Reality, and The Next Day). Bowie’s legacy has already carved into our collective consciousness with the firmness of an epitaph etched into a headstone.
Nevertheless, "Blackstar", which convincingly recalls the uncanny mix of experimentation and melodicism of classic Bowie, challenges the perfectly reasonable expectation that Bowie’s "late-career" (the term connotes decline as surely as the proximity of pop music’s perennial enemy, "age") can be safely ignored as the pallid products of senescence.
Many analytically inclined Bowie watchers (and, as this essay and its comments section can testify, there are many) will surely fixate on how the song returns to the Dame’s longstanding obsessions with the otherworldly, whether its origin is the darkness of space or that of occultism. These are themes that appear and reappear throughout Bowie's work from nearly the very beginning of his discography (see "Space Oddity" and the whole of The Man Who Sold the World). Even the pentagram symbol which serves as Blackstar’s true title (★) betrays an awareness of the power of a symbol at the center of numerous spiritual traditions, including Satanism, Rosicrucianism, Gnosticism, and Wiccanism.
Moreover, the song’s video, an object already surrounded by a cloud of commentary, is laden with images which invite speculation. Bowie at first appears with a veil rendering sightless as Eli, while he conducts a cosmic ritual, which jolts the video’s various earthbound bodies to form magic circles and shake in ecstasy. Bowie thus behaves as a medium and magus, channeling astral energies for ends that are downright terrestrial, in an update of that shamanic Starman who landed on earth to "let all the children boogie" in the early seventies. However, the main lyrical and thematic motifs of "Blackstar" cannot be entirely separated from Bowie's complicated relation to race, that is, how his appropriation of black American musical traditions like jazz, R&B, and soul inhabits his corpus alongside an imperious Eurocentrism informed by esoteric traditions, which has led to famous flirtations with fascism’s gestures, if not its ideas.
Bowie assumes, in the second half of the single, the guise of a dark sun standing in stark contrast to illuminating and shimmering orbs. He sings "I'm not a whitestar / I'm a blackstar", and enacts through this announcement a searching, triumphant, even swaggering confrontation with the whiteness of the whitestar, which is paralleled with and repudiated along with the popstar, the pornstar, the filmstar. What is it that unites all these disparate identities? First, it is evident that each title lies at an intersection of power and profit and that the bearer of the stellar sobriquet benefits while standing on this unholy crossroads. Second, it seems that either as a result of his conscious chameleonism or the contingencies of his career, Bowie has himself performed all of these roles to a degree.
In interviews, Bowie his disowned his '80s period, that during which he achieved the height of his success as an international popstar, as his Phil Collins phase. He has more recently discarded another time-honored trappings of conventional popstardom, the live performance and the concert tour, both of which quintessential and current Bowie producer, Tony Visconti, says will likely never happen again. With regards to what can reasonably regarded as his major contribution to the development of rock star iconography, the creation of the sexually charismatic Ziggy Stardust, Bowie has displayed a similar distaste. During an interview with Russell Harty, the latter petulantly insisted on looking back to Ziggy, even though Bowie himself had no interest in revisiting the crass carnality of a figure who long served as shorthand for the entire glam rock era. Indeed, in "Blackstar" itself, Bowie rejects the status of whitestar and several other astral identities under its umbrella, with not only a mantra-like insistence, but also a doggedness that seeks to dispel all doubt, as if to exorcise the past commitment.
Bowie in the guise of the blackstar, who proudly, even joyfully plays other to power, recalls his Thin White Duke character of the mid-to-late '70s, who represented Bowie’s desertion of the rock scene whose firmament he’d already successfully scaled, but which he’d always seemed askew in anyway. The album, which served as the vessel for Thin White Duke, 1976’s Station to Station, acted out, both sonically and thematically, a willful descent from the well-lit mainstream of contemporary culture and commercialism. Station to Station signaled a turning away from the Hollywood whose values Bowie seemed to celebrate and ape, not without cynicism, in the previous year’s Young Americans.
The psychological ravages resulting from Bowie's LA period, the paranoia and displacement resulting from his Hollywood lifestyle and its attendant addictions, filled him with an atavistic yearning for something like a holy homeland, a Heimat as the Germans call it. This longing was not dissimilar to that which spurred fascism’s dark dream of burning the earth to ash to then recreate it as the lost Nordic heaven which, of course, never existed in the first place. Bowie did not help his case by making it plain that his fascination with Germany encompassed not only a love of the kosmische and krautrock groups at the heart of Berlin’s musical avant-garde, but also of the recent totalitarian past to which these groups were trying to forge a countercultural alternative.
Ironically, Bowie rooted his yearning for Old Europe born of the deracination he felt in America, in music, which melded his beloved krautrock rhythms with a rock ‘n’ roll boisterousness, and grounded the two atop a firm foundation of funk. "Station to Station", the title-track at the album’s head announcing the arrival of the Duke himself, manifests this tension between these seemingly contradictory sources. Motoric rhythms give way to a melody both celebratory and martial, a toast to the vigilant soldiers who stand guard for an imaginary West. This section itself gives way to a piano-and-guitar stomp, which, while it reports the coming of the "European cannon", cannot conceal the good ole party rock boogie that serves as its very American backbone.
We can conceive of "Blackstar" as a way of addressing this tension between Bowie’s avowed attraction to ideologies of blood and soil and the esoteric myths at the margins, and his equally committed obsession with black American musical forms and tropes. While "Blackstar", like Station, draws from the deep well of traditional arcana, supernaturalism, and magic, it is arguably the case Bowie is also attempting, through the song's dualistic value system and the vantage point he adopts within the same, a realization, through performance, of a (particular aging white rocker’s) conception of blackness, one quite different from that associated to dark arts, grey cowls, and blood-red Baphomets. This is the blackness which Bowie plundered to become the ‘plastic soul’ practitioner of Young Americans; he was fully cognizant that while he was committed to recreating the style of soul music, he produced "the squashed remains of ethnic music… written and sung by a white limey".
While this may sound like a white man’s fetishization of blackness and black music, we should remember that Bowie has discussed his own relationship to American music and culture in general in similar terms. He has spoken of his entire approach to rock ‘n’ roll as an Englishman’s inauthentic effort to provide an outsider’s commentary on "fundamentally an American thing…with an intrinsic American value" by mimicking the genre’s gestures to theatrical extremes. The logic of Bowie’s plastic soul permeates all of Bowie’s efforts; he uproots the objects of his enthusiasm, be they Kabuki, Crowley, or Kabbalah, from the traditions which they emerged from, and artfully integrates them into his vision, which itself always already contains previously assimilated cultural products.
This logic, of course, may produce and has led to unstable and unsettling admixtures, like the exemplarily disquieting Station to Station, which, although it retains a skeleton of funk and R&B sounds like the score of a horror movie about a European vampire searching for answers in a haunted library of grimoires and Gnostic Gospels. "Blackstar" is a return to the esoteric elements so central to Bowie’s work, which nevertheless attempts to jettison whatever remaining traces of fascism may have haunted them since the facile Nietzscheism of "The Supermen".
Indeed, in "Blackstar", the very hierarchy embraced by that early ode to overcoming the mere mortality of the meek is caricatured as so much comic book banality and cast aside in Bowie’s throwaway line "I’m not a marvel star." This casual dismissal carries a punch by virtue of its very insouciance. Bowie can’t be bothered to countenance the whitestar’s avatars seriously; they’re nothing but nuisances. This attitude parallels the lack of interest Bowie has expressed in those pestering parts of his past he’d rather get along without, such as the oft-mentioned greeting he gave to fans crowding to receive him at Victoria Station, and which many continue to identify as a Nazi salute. When interviewers bring these talking points up, he usually responds by diminishing those cringe-worthy moments with sarcasm and self-mocking, thus vanquishing them by not taking them, or himself, too seriously.
In "Blackstar", the whole litany of derision directed at the sort of star he isn’t, which is also the self-affirmation of the titular blackstar, is delivered with a delight mingled with cheekiness. The joy Bowie expresses in his cataloguing the whitestar’s weaknesses contests the imperious solemnity of both his Thin White Duke persona and of fascism in general. This is the kind of seriousness which is terrifying when actually endowed with power, but utterly unthreatening and ridiculous when cloak-carrying Satanists confer it upon themselves.
There is also a line in which Bowie, as the blackstar, tells a potential convert to his mysterious species of spirituality, that he will take their passport, shoes, and sedatives. This line evokes the concept, which emerged with '60s feminism, of consciousness-raising as a means of eschewing society’s myriad opiates for the sake of finding common cause with one’s oppressed community. It's not irrelevant that the blackstar refers to this imagined interlocutor he enjoins to take up a new life as "boo", a now globally used term of endearment of African American provenance. There's a familiarity between blackstar and boo, which undercuts the distance of traditional divisions between priestly and secular spheres, separations that persist even in some of the newest new religious movements.
This is especially subversive when coupled with the fact that the blackstar also takes up a moniker like that of the God who met Moses on Mount Horeb, the "the Great I Am". If Freud is to be followed, Moses was originally a devotee of Pharaoh Akhenaten’s cult of a single Sun-God known as the Aten, and the faith he brought to the Jews an extension of this early Egyptian form of monotheism. In the variant of Atenism Moses brings to the Jews, however, the depiction of God as solar disk disappears and the origin of God as the object of a sun cult concealed. The Sun God becomes an unrepresentable and hidden God, a deus absconditus. The beaming, bright sun becomes a dark sun, a blackstar.
Nevertheless, while the song’s protagonist is aware of his own divine status, and even dismisses any other aspirant to this holiness as a "flash in the pan", paltry when compared to his own permanence, he has the easy, unthreatened confidence of true transcendent power. The blackstar stands in in stark contrast to the terrestrial and temporary power of the filmstar, the pornstar, the popstar, or the "gangstar", whose mandate comes from threats and employments of violence. He is capable of talking the piss out of others and himself, because he is the "starstar", the star to which these other stars refer, he is the dark sun the whitestar seeks to outshine in order to impose an order on the earth, but the blackstar is all gleeful subversion. The blackstar embodies freedom in the face of all the fascisms great and small, which can hide in plain sight because they don’t provoke parades of brownshirts: the pop music establishment, Hollywood, the porno-industrial complex, and, of course, the state itself, with its passport checks and borderlines.
What the blackstar represents is paralleled in the music that surrounds him, the irrepressible faux-gospel that greets his presence and the raunchy woodwinds and rhythm section that rally around him as he stands tall against false idols. It is no accident that midway through "Blackstar" the music turns toward the vocabularies of gospel and R&B to make manifest the blackstar’s creed of freedom. However, Bowie is not seeking to present any essence of black musical culture here, if such a tidy thing can even be conceptualized. We are, after all dealing with a master ironist. Instead, he is recreating that liberation felt by a young, white, working class Briton born in Brixton, who, along with many others like him, was electrified and transformed by African American art forms created an ocean away.
What such music represented to many British musicians of Bowie’s generation, who, according to Tony Visconti, all had "a hidden desire to be black", was an exit from an ossified Old World and into something artistically exciting and less stratified, or, as Bowie himself put it, "a way of getting out of London that would lead me to America." In the blackstar, Bowie has created a supernaturally gifted opponent to all constricting practices and institutions, an embodiment of radical subversion who proclaims he was "born the wrong way round" with more than a hint of chutzpah.
Bowie has also surrounded this godly underdog with sounds inspired by the music, which has an emancipatory dimension for him and has deeply shaped his own trajectory. Our own encounter with the blackstar in this way can be construed as a plastic soul reenactment of the moment when a young David Jones heard the disembodied, unmistakable voice of God as Little Richard singing "Tutti Frutti". Like the blackstar, Little Richard’s voice meant freedom, but was also endowed with an unearthly power, and so Jones listened when it commanded him to pick up the sax en route to an imaginary America, and thus, became David Bowie.
Rahm Bambam's "reflection" on pop & culture inhabits an uncomfortable space it wishes it didn't, somewhere in the crack dividing triviality and depth. Just like everybody else's. He writes and lives... both in the most superficial way...near a European capital, whose borrowed light he basks in, while ruminating on his own marginality.