David Bowie as Political Philosopher: Memory, Capitalism, and Berlin with Tiffany Naiman
David Bowie’s first single from his album The Next Day (2013), “Where Are We Now,” asks one to consider the performative possibilities of traces, of fragments of memory. Memory, of course, is not confined to the past, it reaches forward to be performed in the present. While most of the journalistic output about this song has treated it as a solely personal narrative, there is another interpretation, one that has a larger historical meaning. Through analysis of the instrumentation and vocals in the song, in conjunction with the images of Berlin shown in the music video for “Where Are We Now,” this talk considers the work the sonic and visual traces do to transmit a rare moment of political commentary from David Bowie, concerning post-wall Berlin.
David Bowie’s musical works have always been accompanied by powerful visual components, whether carefully designed stage shows, eye-catching album covers, or videos that contribute additional meaning. Indeed, Bowie had been pairing his songs with the moving image since 1967, over a decade before MTV made it commonplace. After a decade of silence, Bowie released “Where Are We Now” on the Internet simultaneously with the video. He did not just release an audio single because the video had to exist in order to fully understand Bowie’s riddle of a song. Aurally, the track itself is most certainly referencing his now famous Berlin Trilogy: Low (1977), Heroes (1977), and Lodger (1979). However, visual cues given in the video are often of Berlin post 1989. Thus, the song is not entirely a self- referencing piece of nostalgia. Rather, Bowie uses personal memories of his time in Berlin to illuminate and question the transformation of the city, which is linked to the radical change that swept across Berlin when the wall came down and global capitalism took hold.
Tiffany Naiman is the Director of Music Industry Programs and an Assistant Teaching Professor at UCLA’s Herb Alpert School of Music, as well as a lecturer in the Musicology department. She is a scholar of popular music, temporality, and disability studies. She currently serves as co-chair of the LGBTQ Study Group of the American Musicological Society. Tiffany has developed specialization as a David Bowie scholar and her work is published in Blackstar Rising, Purple Rain (Duke University Press, 2024), The Bloomsbury Handbook of Popular Music Video Analysis (Bloomsbury, 2019), David Bowie: Critical Perspectives (Routledge, 2015), and Enchanting David Bowie: Space/Time/Body/Memory (Bloomsbury, 2015).
Tiffany is also a DJ and electronic musician performing under the moniker NeonGray; the experimental film and music Programmer for Outfest Los Angeles; manager of musical artist Cusses; creator of a multiplicity of club nights and one-off musical events in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Philadelphia; and an award-winning documentary film producer. Tiffany serves on the boards of FEMME HOUSE, The 100 Percenters, and Theatre Exile.