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פ.י.מ.פ.

Analyzing Bowie: This is Not America

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In 1984, Bowie was contacted and asked to provide the theme song for John Schlesinger's new movie, The Falcon and the Snowman. The movie is based on the true story of two American youngsters, one a government contractor and the other a small-time drug dealer, who were caught after they sold government secrets to the Soviets. The motive for their treason was the contractor's disillusionment with America, after he was exposed to CIA shenanigans and realized how dirty they are playing. The straw that broke the camel's back for him was finding out that the CIA was involved in an attempt to overthrow the democratically elected government of Australia, in the political crisis of 1975. Bowie, who became a resident of Australia in recent years, was surely aware of this open sore, and was quite enthusiastic about the movie. And he provided a record worthy of that enthusiasm.

Once again, we see that Bowie's best work in the mid-eighties came when he relied on others to provide the seed of his creation, in the subject matter of the record as well as in the music. In this case, the music is provided by the Pat Metheny Group. Known as a fusion jazz artist, Metheny decided to take this opportunity to make a straight pop record and created a rather simple tune. All Bowie had to do was to write the lyric and sing it, and the end result is an eerie and disconcerting tune about America, that came out in January 1985 and floated around the American psyche just as it was in its height of Reaganist patriotism and pomposity. 

This is not America
Shalalalala

The line "this is not America" appears in the movie, uttered by a Mexican policeman who arrests one of the protagonists and reminds him that he is not entitled for the rights an arrested man would have in the US. It is not an important line in the plot, but this is the line that Bowie chose for his theme. Once again, he displays his ability to take a theme from the movie and turn it into a more universal message. And also, as we shall see, a more personal one.

A little piece of you,
The little peace in me,
Will die
(this is not a miracle)
For this is not America

The opening verse expresses the disillusionment that the heroes feel with their home country when they discover its ugly side. The poetry is pretty straightforward, except the backing vocals that play on the title and sing "this is not a miracle". What miracle are they talking about?

Blossom fails to bloom this season,
Promise not to stare too long
(this is not America)
For this is not the miracle

We begin to realize that Bowie is not really singing about the heroes of the movie, but about himself. He was part of that post-war generation English kids who grew up to idolize America, to believe in the miracle of the American dream. While previous generations of artists usually espoused quasi-Marxist views and saw capitalist America as the death of the human spirit, the rock'n'roll kids saw the capitalist-Marxist conflict as a thing of the past and focused not on the world of work (as both capitalists and Marxists did) but on the world of play. This was the first generation of working-class kids that had leisure time on their hands, and they began to define the world in terms of leisure and not of work. The utopia that pop envisioned is of a free pluralistic world where different cultures busy themselves creating beautiful things and inspire each other to reach new heights, and it was America, the land of the free and the home of many different cultures, that became its best representative. Bowie was one of the main people who helped develop this ideal, and by the eighties he saw it defeat and supplant Marxism in the liberal mind. But the victory was sour: the fall of Marxism was seen by many as proof that capitalism was right, and the decade was ruled by conservative leaders that pushed heartless capitalist agendas that took the spirit out of everything he believed in. And America, once the land of miracles, became the main exponent of this travesty.

There was a time,
A storm that blew, so pure
For this could be the biggest sky
And I could have the faintest idea

Bowie uses the bridge to convey his sadness over the shattered American dream. As long as he had America as an ideal, he had an idea where his art and spirit were going and the sky was the limit. Now that the purity of the dream was contaminated, he feels like we lost our moral compass.

This is not America (No)
This is not
Shalalalala

Snowman melting from the inside
Falcon spirals to the ground
(this could be the biggest sky)
So bloody red, tomorrow's clouds

Bowie now uses the title of the movie to convey the same idea. Falcon and Snowman were the code names of the two traitors as they were dealing with the Soviets, their treason coming after the American dream turned sour for them as well. But The Falcon and the Snowman was an anomaly in mid-eighties American cinema, which was filled with unabashedly patriotic movies about the righteousness and might of America. The US in the mid-eighties was successful, prospering and powerful, and all its enemies were cowering before it. America at large was oblivious of the collapse of its dream, and mostly didn't want to know.

A little piece of you,
The little peace in me
Will die
(this could be a miracle)
For this is not America

There was a time,
A wind that blew, so young
For this could be the biggest sky
And I could have the faintest idea


The consensus about 'This is Not America' seems to be that it is pretty enough, but a tad boring and lacking of any drama. I don't think those critics have been listening well enough. What we are listening to here is a man mourning the death of his dream, questioning what he always believed in. When you hear it this way the fine vocal performance glares with all its poignancy, and fits perfectly with the atmosphere created by Metheny's music. In the mid-eighties, Bowie was struggling to find new themes to sing about. 'This is Not America' is a portent of what was to come.

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