Monday, January 11, 2016

Loving the Alien: On David Bowie, Imbricated Time, and the Crusades

There are so many things I should be working on right now, but I can't stop thinking about David Bowie and his passing. As I wrote elsewhere, his music has inflected so much of my life and has been a constant source of inspiration. So many, many fond memories are tied to his songs in some way.

But one of the biggest surprises for me as a lifelong fan was when I discovered his song "Loving the Alien," while researching pop culture references to the crusades. I was working on an exhibit for Robbins Library entitled The Crusades and Western Cultural Imagination, and was amazed to find a Bowie song that talked about holy war, templars, saracens, and the cyclic nature of cultural and religious violence. It was a song that, it seems to me anyway, imbricates cultural moments as a gesture of both frustration and near despair over how little things seem to have changed—especially in terms of how religious fervor is so frequently harnessed for violent ends.

The first version I encountered was the stripped down arrangement performed on the Reality Tour, and it nearly brought me to tears. I will confess that the original music video, by contrast, baffled me to the point of weeping laughter. Though, having just watched it again, I think it's a deliberately unsettling response to contemporary events and to the concept of religion's capacity to inspire violence and oppression. . . consider the moment when he stands as a crusader caught on fire, for instance. But that's the thing I perhaps love most about Bowie as an artist: his ability always to unsettle me as an eager listener and receiver of his work. I love the fact that I oftentimes don't "get" (or sometimes even like) what he's produced on a first, second, or seventeenth listen or viewing. It's always signaled to me that he was unafraid to take his art in directions that ran the risk of alienation and failure. And that, just as much as the songs and albums I've come to adore and cherish, never ceases to inspire me in my own work.

As he said before he performed "Loving the Alien" on the DVD performance from the Reality Tour, he felt that the 2003 arrangement was "the way it should maybe always have been done," and so I'll share that version with you here. I think it's worth noting the cultural moment in which this arrangement was performed too: Dublin, 2003. Just two years after 9/11 and just months after the invasion of Iraq, a war that—based on erstwhile quotes from President Bush, patches worn by certain members of the U.S. armed forces, and many other examples—was regularly feared to be a form of crusading. Given that, this particular arrangement can—and perhaps should—be viewed as a powerful response to its cultural moment. A call, perhaps, to remember that history—as some unknown person once said—tends all too often to rhyme.

RIP, Mr. Bowie. You are so very missed.