imomus (imomus) wrote,

The pop dictators

Check these two videos -- Bryan Ferry's 1978 single Sign of the Times and Philip Jap's 1983 video for Save Us.

Both seem to be embracing or pastiching the iconography of demagoguery, framing themselves in an authoritarian symmetry that's part-Nazi, part Citizen Kane. Both videos feature eagles and a phalanx of models (a play on "fashion" as "fascism"). The artist becomes Moseley, Mussolini, Hitler as filmed by Leni Riefenstahl.

We see this meme in the Nietzschean strut of Queen's Freddie Mercury ("we are the champions of the world") or Bowie's comeback heil at Victoria Station in 1976. It's British glam rockers who embrace the fascist aesthetic most openly, and make explicit the link between fashion, rock music, mass media, crowd control and fascism. (This was also, of course, the subject of my first album, The Man on Your Street: Songs from the career of the Dictator Hall.)

Here's David Bowie talking to Kurt Vonnegut in September 1976:

VONNEGUT: You've often said that you believe very strongly in fascism. Yet you also claim you'll one day run for Prime Minister of England. More media manipulation?

BOWIE: Christ, everything is a media manipulation. I'd love to enter politics. I will one day. I'd adore to be Prime Minister. And, yes, I believe very strongly in fascism. The only way we can speed up the sort of liberalism that's hanging foul in the air at the moment is to speed up the progress of a right-wing, totally dictatorial tyranny and get it over as fast as possible. People have always responded with greater efficiency under a regimental leadership. A liberal wastes time saying, "Well, now, what ideas have you got?" Show them what to do, for God's sake. If you don't, nothing will get done. I can't stand people just hanging about. Television is the most successful fascist, needless to say. Rock stars are fascists, too. Adolf Hitler was one of the first rock stars.


BOWIE: Think about it. Look at some of his films and see how he moved. I think he was quite as good as Jagger. It's astounding. And, boy, when he hit that stage, he worked an audience. Good God! He was no politician. He was a media artist himself. He used politics and theatrics and created this thing that governed and controlled the show for those 12 years. The world will never see his like. He staged a country.

In April 2007 Bryan Ferry expressed similar sentiments to the German newspaper Welt Am Sonntag. "My God, the Nazis knew how to put themselves in the limelight and present themselves," he said. "Leni Riefenstahl's movies and Albert Speer's buildings and the mass parades and the flags -- just amazing. Really beautiful." Ferry told the paper that he calls his studio in west London his "Führerbunker".

So why did this 1930s fascist meme re-appear in the mid-to-late 70s? It was partly a reaction against the leftism of the 1960s counterculture -- what better way to shock a ragged, liberal hippy than to dress up as a Nazi? -- and it was also certainly a kind of cocaine-induced megalomania.

I think Adam Curtis gets it right in his excellent documentary series Century of the Self when he describes how the emphasis on self-actualization in the 60s and 70s reached a paradoxical tipping point.

Experiments with EST and other techniques had encouraged an "inner direction" so thoroughgoing that the "inner directed" reached the absolute core of themselves and found it empty. Endless changes and emptiness are big Bowie themes; strip away the last skin of the onion and there's nothing left but a frail, broken person ready to embrace religion, drugs, the occult, and a consumerist-spectacular version of fascism. Encouraged to locate their true selves, says Curtis, the hippies went so far into the self that they came out the other side, into the waiting arms of Thatcher and Reagan.

Here's the part of Century of the Self where Curtis shows us how "inner directives" (self-oriented creative people who seemed, in the 60s and early 70s, natural allies of the left) unexpectedly embraced right wing politicians as the 80s arrived. It was a message that had been apparent for some time in pop music, where the proposition "You can be whatever you want to be!" was answered -- surprisingly -- with "Okay, then I want to be Hitler!"

Who knew that individualistic libertarianism would lead to a celebration of authoritarian dictatorship, and celebration of the self to mass rallies? Perhaps George W. Bush stated it most clearly: "I'm all for a dictatorship, as long as I can be dictator."

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