Monday, April 5, 2010

Was David Bowie Racist?

"Five Years," which my friend Ken Kurson once described as the kickoff song to one of the most important albums of our time (on the occasion of the fifth anniversary of Worth magazine), has probably become my favorite track on The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, but I still get pulled up short by one of the lines:

A girl my age went off her head
Hit some tiny children
If the black hadn't of pulled her off
I think she would have killed them

I guess people really talked like that, but it's jarring to hear a person defined solely by skin color - the child-saving hero doesn't even get the dignity of a gender. The color is the noun.

So that's in 1972. Then, in 1975, Bowie let loose with this:

Sit on your hands on a bus of survivors
Blushing at all the Afro-Sheeners

So now they've graduated from being identified by their skin color to being identified by their hair-care products. I suppose that's progress.

I assume Nile Rodgers slapped some sense into Bowie around the time he was producing Let's Dance, toward the end of 1982. Since 1992, he's been married - apparently happily - to Somali supermodel Iman. (She had previously been married to onetime Seattle SuperSonics star Spencer Haywood.)

That's why I was careful to title this post in the past tense. I love Bowie's music, and I hate to make accusations about people, but those lyrics really punch me in the face every time I hear them.


  1. And then there's "Running Gun Blues," off the "The Man Who Sold The World" album, with its lines about, "I'll break the gooks / I'll crack their heads."
    Yeah, I know it's some sort of Vietnam commentary; it still doesn't cut it.

    The line about Afro-Sheeners never bothered me because, in several decades of hearing the song, I'd never been able to figure it out.

  2. I always thought it was "apple stealers"!

    using "black" as a noun was probably Bowie trying to sound American. "Five Years" is notable for self-consciously American vernacular, like "news guy" and "cop." According to Nicholas Pegg's "The Complete David Bowie," "The adoption of the American abbreviation 'TV' (rather than 'telly') allows a submerged pun on 'transvestite' to accompany the song's other outsiders: 'the black,' 'the priest,' and 'the queer.'"

  3. On the first one, "If the black hadn't of pulled her off," I always thought he was referring to a black maria as in a police van. I dunno.

  4. I really don't think stating a colour is racism, If he were to say stuff along the lines of 'Black/White/Olive men shouldn't have rights or they should all be killed'. Then yes, I would agree. This song, along with many of his others was written in the 70's, it was released in 1972 (Refering to 'Five Years'. Not many people would like to admit it but the 70's society was fairly racist considering racism had just been called upon within the 60's because of the whole Human rights thing, so many people were still fairly racist because it was 'the norm' at that paticular time, do not forget he was born in 1947 and he had obviosly grown up during the 50's and 60's..back then it wasn't 'the norm' to see a 'black' walking in the street, so whether people like to admit it,

  5. Yeah, I gotta say the Five Years line isn't racist at all considering the time it was written in.

    Also, it's "hadn't've", like "hadn't have". You can't use "of" in that context, it doesn't make any sense.

  6. I dunno. He married an African Woman

  7. Is making shanty eyes gesture on the China Girl video racist? I would argue that yes it is.

  8. I thought he was referring to the police, I am sure I've heard the force referred to as "the black"

  9. Of course, he is. He has always been. He married a black but this doesn't change him from not being a racist. Nobody can ever say what he is at this point or were during 80s/90s or the reason got married without knowing him personally, media would never reveal.

  10. Hahahaha you're all a bunch of pussies

  11. "So now they've graduated from being"
    Are you not separating race using the word "They"

  12. Funny how selectively sensitive people can be. Bet no-one here has a problem with comments like the South African vice-president talking about the money "the WHITES stole". Guess it's ok for one race to be defined by their colour and branded a race of thieves. Provided that race is white of course.

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  14. Also the things he treasures about his mother are "Your face, your race"... It always jars for me.