“There’s a starman waiting in the sky
He’d like to come and meet us
But he thinks he’d blow our minds…
—David Bowie, 1972
Forty years ago, David Bowie told an interviewer, “I’d love to enter politics. I will one day. I’d adore to be prime minister.”
Rock stars have gone into politics, in Bowie’s Britain and around the world. But it was never a serious ambition for this particular rocker, whose death Sunday at age 69 shocked a world that Bowie had proven could be changed by more than elections and economics. Like his intellectual icon, the unruly and unconfined socialist George Orwell, Bowie eschewed ideological predictability for boundary-breaking expeditions along the frontiers of cultural change.
David Bowie declared himself “apolitical.” Yet he taught us how to rebel.
Bowie abhorred the corruptions of empire (he famously rejected designation as a commander of the Order of the British Empire, along with a knighthood), and he had no taste for rigid partisanship, saying in the fall of 1977 (even as his song “‘Heroes’” was heard as an anthem of global liberation), “The more I travel and the less sure I am about exactly which political philosophies are commendable.”
Melody Maker’s cover story in that season when punk rock was ripping it all up had Bowie rejecting his own outrageous statements of the past (“I am not a fascist”) and offering the sober explanation that “The more government systems I see, the less enticed I am to give my allegiance to any set of people, so it would be disastrous for me to adopt a definitive point of view, or to adopt a party of people and say ‘these are my people.’”
On the occasions when Bowie did adopt a definitive point of view—as when he expressed opposition to the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence—his stances could be frustrating for those who came to recognize that the man whose music so frequently celebrated insurrection did not always rush to the barricades. Bowie played benefits for Tibet House. His songs called out militarism and nuclear madness, wars of whim, and surveillance states. Yet he never engaged in antiwar and civil-liberties activism with the precision and energy of his most brilliant collaborator, Brian Eno, who in the 2000s emerged as an outspoken critic of British Prime Minister Tony Blair and American President George W. Bush.