David Bowie the philosopher: the ideas behind the music

Many people struggled to define David Bowie. For the man himself, though, “a born librarian with a sex drive,” seemed a fitting description.

So it’s fitting that, as well as music and film, he is forever linked with literature and philosophy. Interviews in which he discusses philosophy, spirituality, and other intellectual concerns have littered the tributes paid to him in the days since his death. He once described his perfect idea of happiness as “reading,” and the list of his 100 favourite books includes two philosophical titles — The Origin Of Consciousness In The Breakdown Of The Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes and The Divided Self by R. D. Laing.

Bowie’s hunger for knowledge has made him one of the greatest artists of our time and inspired both his music and his identity…


1984, Foucault and a futuristic dystopia

With lyrics like “They’ll split your pretty cranium, and fill it full of air… You’ll be shooting up on anything, tomorrow’s never there,” Bowie’s track 1984 offers up a vision of a future where identity is suppressed and freedom is a thing of the past.

George Orwell’s influence on the track is clear — Bowie even included Orwell’s famous book of the same name on his top 100 books list and the song was actually written for a never-produced stage musical based on the novel.

Anyone interested in the deeper ideas behind Bowie’s track and Orwell’s novel—including the effect they have on contemporary institutions—should read Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. Using the idea of a prison and Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon prison structure, Foucault shows how surveillance societies control our minds and limit our individualism.


The Berlin Trilogy and the Cold War

The big touchstone for many a Bowie fan is the famous Berlin Trilogy (Low, Heroes, and Lodger), which was recorded in a studio overlooking the Berlin Wall — the defining symbol of the Cold War — in the late 1970s.

Bowie’s surroundings had a profound influence on the trilogy. The title track of Heroes is based on the story of an East Berliner and a West Berliner who meet at the Berlin Wall and try to find a way to be together. The instrumental track Warszawa on Low encapsulates the desolation of the time, while Fantastic Voyage compares the language of Cold War propaganda with an unstable, paranoid depressive (“And the wrong words make you listen… We’re learning to live with somebody’s depression”).

In order to understand this part of Bowie’s catalogue in any depth, it is important to understand the context of the Cold War itself. Luckily, time has given us two game-changing books that reject more traditional accounts of the period.

John Lewis Gaddis’s We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History , published in 1997, offers a more rounded, nuanced understanding of some of the Cold War’s big issues. The book uses previously unseen documents from the Soviet Union, China, and Eastern Europe to show that what we knew then, and what we now know, are very different.

In The Global Cold War , published in 2005, Odd Arne Westad argues that the “interventions” of the Soviet Union and the United States in developing nations during the Cold War were more important than events in Europe; this new view, Westad argues, can help us make sense of conflicts still raging today.


Identity, a girl called Tommy and Gender Trouble

“Crazy, sane, man, woman, robot?” asked Dick Cavett as he introduced Bowie to his talk show in 1974. Bowie’s gender-fluidity would be nothing new now, but in the 1970s he was positively radical (at least for a popular figure).

His performances in everything from makeup to miniskirts defined an era and encouraged a generation to be themselves. His debut album includes a track named She’s Got Medals about a girl called Mary who “changed her name to Tommy.” As for his own gender, Bowie refused to categorize himself.

And philosopher Judith Butler would understand why Bowie’s disregard for pigeon-holing was of such importance. In Gender Trouble , Butler argues that gender is not simply a question of what society makes of our sex organs, but rather that it exists only in the acts that express it.

Butler concludes that rethinking how and why we impose categories so rigidly on human beings can only make society a better place—a notion that Bowie would have no doubt agreed with.

Image from the American Library Association’s READ Campaign, 1987.