I think about a world to come where the books were found by the golden ones, written in pain, written in awe by a puzzled man who questioned, "What are we here for?" All the strangers came today and it looks as though they're here to stay.

-David Bowie "Oh! You Pretty Things"

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Interpreting Modern Love: A Simulblog

The following blog post is a simulblog. Chad P of Political Jesus and I decided to both write our interpretation of the song "Modern Love" by David Bowie. His blog, also titled "Interpreting Modern Love: A Simulblog" can be read here. Any similarities between these posts are strictly the result of the same likemindedness that has fueled the friendship between Chad and myself. I will not see Chad's blog until both blogs are finished and published, and Chad will not see mine.

I was really excited when Chad suggested that we write a simulblog about the David Bowie song "Modern Love." First of all, I think we all have to agree that David Bowie is fantastic. Second of all, there's a sense of continuity in thought between the various works of David Bowie over the year, something of a constructive understanding of the universe. Third of all, I understand that Cavemen Go is only as good as the community that surrounds it, and a simulblog such as this is, in and of itself, an act of community.

Just by looking at the title "Modern Love," I get an impression of what this song means. David Bowie is reflecting on what he thinks love looks like here and now, or there and then, considering the song was released in 1983. (I was born in 1982, so I guess David Bowie is ruminating about what love looked like circa the time when my parents were constructing a family. I suppose I'm more connected to this question than I had originally imagined.) The song is qualified, however - the song is not titled "Love," but "Modern Love." It is love situated in a particular place and time. This, of course, makes me wonder where we find David Bowie's vantage point regarding "Modern Love." Does he consider himself part of this modernism? Or does he find himself as something of a pre-modernist or post-modernist?

I've written a couple of similar blogs under the column heading of "Pop Deconstruction," and I'm sure that there are those among you who would assume that I will lump David Bowie in the same camp with me, a postmodern kind of iconoclastic individual, simply because I love David Bowie and I want something in common with him. I believe that you would be correct with the assertion, but only superficially. I believe that I am motivated more by an understanding of the works of David Bowie than by my need to think of us as alike. Let me be a little less vague and say it straight: David Bowie's "Modern Love" is a description of the face of modern love from the critical and also self-critical perspective of a post-modern thinker.

Much of "Modern Love" describes a bland day-in/day-out habitual existence. The spoken first words say, "I know when to go out and when to stay in. Get things done." This line screams of the gospel of American Protestant productivity. (Is this an American song, then? David Bowie is British, but the album was recorded at the Power Station in New York in 1982.) Follow rules. Stay productive. Earn money. Give a tenth of it to the church, and show up for Sunday service. This is your duty to "God and man." But is there not also a hint of the first wave of the over-medicated American lifestyle? Bowie sings, "I catch the paper boy, but things don't really change. I'm standing in the wind, but I never wave bye-bye." The protagonist feels isolated and powerless, incapable of reaching out and making a real connection with another individual, passionless. He drinks too much coffee in the morning, his way of giving into the unbearable monotony of existence, buttressed by anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications, perhaps cholesterol medicine as well, and then whiskey and sleeping pills to prevent insomnia. Our protagonist is a zombie. "There's no sign of life."

The chorus of "Modern Love" is potentially heretical. It seems, at this point, like David Bowie himself is describing his response to this kind of thoughtless, passionless existence. He says that he will never fall for modern love, which "walks beside" him and "walks on by" him, his only purpose to get "to the church on time." The gospel of "Modern Love" is a gospel of unfeeling obedience in hope of some sort of salvation. All of life passes the modern individual by, because all this individual is concerned with is getting to church on time. The idea of life as getting to church on time seems to terrify Bowie. It makes him party, makes him revolt against this sheepish behavior which masquerades itself as the highest good for humankind. Regarding putting ones trust in sluggish humankind and the God that supports this type of living, Bowie continues to revolt. He despises confessions and he despises the religion that enslaves and essentially destroys the heart. His final verdict: He doesn't believe in modern love.

Much of the American Christian public would just ignore David Bowie as an atheist, an unbeliever. Is there truly no religion for Bowie? Is there truly no belief? I think many would rather focus on the fact that Bowie's beliefs are not orthodox, and ignore the truly fruitful question: What are Bowie's beliefs? Much of Bowie's works of the previous decade (the 1970s), showed a strong religious and almost messianic dimension. The song "Starman" from the album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars paints a picture of some divine being who wants to enter into a relationship with humankind, who does not shun passion and sexuality, but incorporates it into the religious experience. The Jewish and Christian scriptures speak of a God who created humankind, but Bowie pushes us to prove that there is life on this planet. In songs like "Life on Mars?" from my personal favorite Bowie album, 1971's Hunky Dory the question, "Is there life on Mars?" should almost certainly be read, "Is there life on Earth, the kind of life that is worth saving?" The descriptions of sailors fighting in the dance hall and lawmen beating up the wrong people suggest that there is not.

If you ask me, a religious person myself, I think that Bowie's criticism of "Modern Love" is not impossible to incorporate into the life of a religious individual. One need not kill the religious impulse in order to be a postmodern, critical individual. Certainly, his criticism is harsh, making it difficult to bow, to follow doctrine, scripture and tradition, to be a loyal and obedient sheep. But is a sheep really a good model for religious individuals, particularly Christians, to follow? The creativity that Bowie admires and elevates on Hunky Dory offers a positive answer to the negative criticism of "Modern Love." Who could ever imagine a creator God without the power of creativity? Who could ever imagine a humankind cast in such a God's image without the power of creativity? David Bowie challenges us to look to individuals like Andy Warhol ("Andy Warhol") and Bob Dylan ("Song for Bob Dylan"), to reinvent ourselves and the world around us. And what better models could we take. If you do happen to get to church on time, perhaps you'll learn about an individual named Jesus who is called the Christ or the messiah, an individual who was anything but a sheep, whose creativity, for better or worse, changed the entire world.

What is the answer to "Modern Love"? Post-modern love, a love that shuns neither passion nor sexuality, that appears in different forms in different people, that values creativity, and thoughtful retooling of existence. Was it Jesus or P-Funk who once said, "The kingdom of heaven is within"? (Trick question. Some version of this statement has been said by both parties at various times.) If the highest command of "Modern Love" is to get to the church on time, then we have clearly missed the point. When you get to that church, you'll be the same passionless individual who is so incapable that he cannot even wave to the paperboy as he passes by, who can neither connect with a person nor a personal God. David Bowie's postmodern love prepares us for life-changing relationships, and casts us as interesting and original individuals, the "Golden Ones" of "Oh! You Pretty Things," rather than mindless sheep following a shepherd because we're not smart enough to do anything else. If the kingdom of heaven is within, then the tools of a strong heart and mind and the ability to enter into a relationship with the divine are how you get there.

As for me, I'm with Bowie. I don't believe in modern love either. I do believe that the song "Modern Love" is a fantastic and thoughtful song. I think it might be time for me to find out what Chad thinks. Come join me.


  1. I love it! I love how we both ended the piece, with "I don't believe in modern love!" You totally took it in a different direction than I did, but I totally track with this interpretation as well! Kudos! And kudos to Bowie!

  2. I didn't even think of the whole wedding thing, even though it was how I interpreted the song the first time I ever heard it. Good thoughts.