“Sometimes the answers just come in the mail.
And one day you get that letter you’ve been waiting for forever.
And everything it says is true.
And then in the last line it says: burn this.”
—Laurie Anderson, “Same Time Tomorrow”
At the end of one of my synchronicity chains this last week is a video, “Let’s Dance,” by the late great David Bowie. I’ve shared it recently, so I won’t link it again here, but I want to talk about it more. In doing so, I want to talk about it in a strange way, as a complex spiritual sign, as if the whole video were being taken up and spoken as a spiritual message. I don’t necessarily want to assert that the video was originally intended to be that message, only that like any message, like any set of words, it can be taken up and given new meaning according to the context in which it is spoken. In other words, I only mean to say that it can be used to mean what I am saying here, not that Bowie or the director intended it to mean what I say here.
First, let me just talk about the video on its own terms. The central conceit of the video is the red shoes which promise to dance the blues away. They appear like a miraculous object in the middle of the verge around the urban center first, but are also glimpsed on the feet of a European woman and in the window of a shop featuring high-end luxury goods. The video focuses our attention on the experience of a group of aboriginal youth, the ones who discover the shoes in the verge, and through following the movement of the red shoes we discover how these youth develop an understanding of the European luxury culture.
Initially the shoes appear as nothing but pure promise, luxury and pleasure itself. The young aboriginal girl dances the shoes and in her dance gives birth to a European world that the aboriginal youth are drawn toward. As they move into this European world, they discover that they can engage with that world only by becoming a laborer within it. They toil as maids and factory workers, surrounded by the luxuries that drew them to the European world, but unable to access them. They can admire the luxury goods on Europeans, they are surrounded by cars, but these objects remain beyond their reach.
Throughout this unfolding drama, we have Bowie the singer appearing in a bar, his playing enjoyed by elderly aboriginal men and women unmarked by signs of wealth. That singing Bowie appears in several points throughout the video as a luminescent solar head, blazing over the landscape through which the aboriginal youth move. The ambivalence of Bowie the musician, Bowie the rich European, is highlighted in his presence within the factory scene as a member of capitalist elite and in the destruction of the radio that opens the video, a destruction that we experience in reverse, rewound from broken radio to whole radio.
I want to dwell on that reversal. The destruction of the radio and its subsequent reversal functions as a pair of question marks, bracketing off the video from the world that it reveals and explores. It establishes from the outset the problems inherent in musical fame, the way in which it is complicit with the luxury culture that attempts to ensnare the aboriginal youth into a working class dependency even as it attempts to reveal the realities of that seduction to them.
What does it mean when a spirit answers an arc of work and meditations with “Let’s Dance”? Well, it means a lot more than just the video, I know, but it means the video, too. What does it mean, then, to speak “Let’s Dance” as a statement of what the spirits are after, what they are trying to relay? They suggests the urbane spirits that circulate in so many esoteric practices and their interest in luxurious forms of dress, for one.
If those spirits are the aboriginal youth, then it suggests both that the relationship to luxury began on the part of the spirits but that it is also a relationship which they themselves are attempting to put into question. It says something like “Well, this was all very interesting but it is all turned to shit, hasn’t it? Maybe it’s time to try something else.” It is the release from old bonds and the search for something new.
I can’t help but read this video alongside the interpellating voice of “Blackstar,” the spirit who takes the place of the suffering singer and “bravely cried,” positing itself according to a series of negations with a sole affirmation “I’m a blackstar” as counterpoint (full lyrics here):
“How many times does an angel fall?
How many people lie instead of talking tall?
He trod on sacred ground, he cried loud into the crowd
(I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar, I’m not a gangstar)
I can’t answer why (I’m a blackstar)
Just go with me (I’m not a filmstar)
I’m-a take you home (I’m a blackstar)
Take your passport and shoes (I’m not a popstar)
And your sedatives, boo (I’m a blackstar)
You’re a flash in the pan (I’m not a marvel star)
I’m the Great I Am (I’m a blackstar)
I’m a blackstar, way up, on money, I’ve got game
I see right, so wide, so open-hearted pain
I want eagles in my daydreams, diamonds in my eyes
(I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar)
(I’m a blackstar, I’m a star’s star, I’m a blackstar)
I can’t answer why (I’m not a gangstar)
But I can tell you how (I’m not a film star)
We were born upside-down (I’m a star’s star)
Born the wrong way ‘round (I’m not a white star)
(I’m a blackstar, I’m not a gangstar
I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar
I’m not a pornstar, I’m not a wandering star
I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar)”
This presence manifests by distinguishing itself from so many of the trappings with which it has, presumably, become associated: porn, pop, crime, and film, the substance of so much of our culture which it is the task of art and ritual to transmute, to illuminate. In a similar fashion, the voice speaking with “Let’s Dance” distinguishes itself from the alienating commodification of life and desire, affirming in its place a mode of life that is at a tangent to it, moving through it only by becoming entangled with it first. Philip K. Dick’s trash heap, again.
There is here, too, a question of the mimetic dimensions of spiritual intelligence and consciousness, and of the primacy of the feminine in negotiating that domain (it is the aboriginal woman who wears the shoes and destroys the radio). Of course, it isn’t all about the feminine, what with you the musician-sun of Bowie nourishing the story along like the sun above the earth giving light.