From Personal Angst To A Mass Hysteria: David Bowie’s ‘I’m Afraid of Americans’
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:
This article is originally published in the blog post called Black Star within the section, Silent Age, at: grotron.ink