No, David Bowie was not an American (though he was afraid of Americans, judging from the title of one of his later-career masterpieces). But he was indebted to America and American music like so many of his peers in the British rock scene that you can’t imagine American rock music today without nodding back to the man who, when he passed away January 10 at the age of 69, made rock a safe space for freaks and oddities of all genders, sexual orientations, and points of departure from the norm. David Bowie is an American by right of being so invested in our collective consciousness.
So perhaps it’s no surprise that the song I’m picking to be our new national anthem, at least coming from him, has America all over it. When Bowie released the song in 1975, he was just coming out of the phase that put him on the map (Ziggy Stardust) and about to embark on his Thin White Duke, cocaine-red-peppers-and-milk-diet phase. The song “Young Americans” has the sort of rah-rah feel to it that conservatives love, when they’re not paying attention to the actual lyrics (see Sean Hannity’s use of the Martina McBride anti-domestic violence anthem “Independence Day” if you don’t believe me). The song is a funky slice of blue-eyed soul, something that by all rights shouldn’t work and yet it does. Bowie was not alone in seeing the worth of American musical styles that were lost on the natives, but in this case he’s unique; he’s mainlining on disco and soul.
During the British Invasion of the early Sixties, rock bands from the UK revived the careers and reputations of black blues men, some of whom were long since dead. What Bowie does here isn’t much different, except that the soul music he’s emulating is current, and it’s dominating the charts not otherwise occupied by the Eagles and other soon-to-be “classic” rockers. Black America has a pulse, a steady beat to it that White America would love to ignore (unless it wants to appropriate it for something like KC and the Sunshine Band). David Bowie didn’t have to become a soul singer (hell, he would’ve been fine as Ziggy for the rest of his career, even if he eventually embarrassed himself). But he did, and “Young Americans” is the finest example of that. My personal favorite from that time (the mid-Seventies) is “Golden Years,” but for the purposes of this column let’s go with the song that mentions the country that Bowie loved, the country that inspired him to pen a ballad to a lost astronaut or to the finer points of couture. David Bowie is as American as apple pie, however quintessentially English he may appear. And he will be missed.
Trevor Seigler is a graduate student and TA at Clemson University, currently working on a Master’s Degree in English and looking to pursue an MFA degree in creative writing after graduation. He is a native of Walhalla, South Carolina. Among his favorite authors are Charles Portis, Jonathan Lethem, George Saunders, Barry Hannah, and Thomas Pynchon.