There are two incarnations of David Bowie’s “1984,” which appears on Bowie’s 1974 funk-soul album, “Diamond Dogs.” The song is the connective tissue between Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust period (1972-73) and his Thin White Duke phase (1974-76), and in the two videos of “1984” below, Bowie performs the song as both characters, making the song mean something very different in each case. The result is dimorphic. The same part in two different forms.
David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust, “1984” (1973)
The alien can do this because the alien plays with time. Even though it is actually 1974, not 1984, Bowie, as the alien rock star Ziggy Stardust, doesn’t have to be in real-time. That is, in time physically. Bowie is in the meaning of time regardless of where time actually is, which is at the heart of all science fiction. For Bowie, time is drag, a keyhole (note the black keyhole costume Bowie is festooned in when “Ziggy” is uncloaked on stage).
Wikipedia describes Ziggy Stardust like this: “Ziggy is the human manifestation of an alien being who is attempting to present humanity with a message of hope in the last five years of its existence. He is the definitive rock star: sexually promiscuous, wild in drug intake and with a message, ultimately, of peace and love; but he is destroyed both by his own excesses of drugs and sex, and by the fans he inspired.” This is a classic biography of fame and the way the desire for it corrupts, as is the celebrated 2010 film “The Social Network.”
As The Thin White Duke singing “1984,” Bowie is the year 1984 even before the year came around. While the alien/omniscient Ziggy at London’s Marquee Club warns us that the year is coming, The Thin White Duke in New York informs us that the year has landed, and it has taken residence in his body.
It has been widely reported that between the years 1975-76, Bowie made pro-Fascist remarks, expressing his admiration for Adolf Hitler and his wish to rule the world. Whether or not Bowie was actually a fascist, he performed and aestheticized fascism as identity, as costume; affecting its authoritarian politics as artifice.
In Hollywood movies, aliens are almost always accused of wanting world domination. Their presence is typically about supremacy. Mark Zuckerberg, the inventor of Facebook, has essentially been accused of the same thing in “The Social Network.” If The Thin White Duke is Bowie shedding his mutable, androgynous alien status in order to enter the hardness of the 1980s and its potent male superpower symbolism, Facebook is Mark Zuckerberg’s 21st Century antidote to social dominance and immunity (in “The Social Network,” the seeds of Facebook are sown after Zuckerberg’s girlfriend breaks up with him. In other words, when he is at his most dejected and vulnerable). Zuckerberg can thus be read as a digital and corporate analog to Bowie’s Thin White Duke.
David Bowie as The Thin White Duke, “1984” (1974)
Bowie’s Duke has been derided as “a hollow man feeling nothing,” “ice masquerading as fire” (As the Duke, Bowie claimed to subsist on a diet of “red peppers, cocaine, and milk,” ingredients that could easily be the recipe for fire and ice), “an immoral zombie,” “mad artistocrat,” and “an emotionless, Aryan Superman.” Similar qualifiers have been used to describe Zuckerberg. Bowie, who called his Duke an “ogre,” was not unlike Zuckerberg’s rogue brat in “The Social Network.”
While Zuckerberg, Jewish and middle-class, is not an Aryan Superman, money has enabled him to become a corporate Superman (as Napster founder Sean Parker, played by Justin Timberlake, informs Zuckerberg in the movie, “A million dollars isn’t cool. You know what is cool? A billion dollars.” This takes Gordon Gekko’s “greed is good” 80s ethos in “Wall Street” to a whole new level).
Bowie’s Thin White Duke is addicted to cocaine, jumpy, famous, polished, superior, icy, polymorphous, and is dressed like a character from “The Damned,” the first film in Luchino Visconti’s “German Trilogy.”
Luchino Visconti, “The Damned” (1969)
Like the Nazi character Martin von Essenbeck (Helmet Berger, Visconti’s real-life lover), Bowie is masculine and powerful in a way that is purely symbolic—not physical. Essenbeck’s fascist polymorphism (Essenbeck first appears onscreen in drag impersonating Marlene Dietrich in “The Blue Angel,” which, made in 1930, is considered to be the first major German sound film, and in 1933 was banned in Nazi Germany, though it is reported that Adolph Hitler viewed the film secretly on a number of occasions) suggests that he can do anything to anyone (in the film, Essenbeck is secretly molesting his young cousin and a poor Jewish girl. He later sexually assaults his mother and joins the SS), and that he can be anything and anyone because he possesses the right body at the right time. In a scene that has now become iconic, Essenbeck’s theatricalized subjectivity as Dietrich suggests the permission to perform anything, no matter how scandalous.
While in “Hard Bodies: Hollywood Masculinity in the Reagan Era,” Susan Jeffords argues that the hard body right-wing, masculinist politics of the 1980s were developed into a hard male body equivalent, in “The Male Body,” Susan Bordo points out that “’hardness’ alone is not sufficient to make a phallus, and well-defined muscles are not enough to make a master of the universe. The master body must signify an alliance with the gods rather than the masses, the heavens rather than the earth.’” This is where Ziggy Stardust (the otherworldly alien) meets the fascistic, Aryan God, The Thin White Duke. Translated from Italian, “The Damned,” “La caduta degli dei,” literally means, “The Fall of the Gods.”
Both Bowie and Essenbeck are examples of phallic symbolism. They are not literal hard bodies, but symbolic ones. “Increasingly, masculine power and authority,” explains Bordo, “were seen to derive not from nature, but from God—not a god of procreation like Osiris, but the God of Immortal Forms, Disembodied Spirit, Pure Reason.” The actual penis became less significant and, in some sense was even believed to be an obstruction to male rationality. Potency had more to do with will, and hardness was less about the hardness of an actual penis, and more about having the right kind of “upward-pointing” body.
“The penis’s potential for ‘hardness,’” writes Bordo, “and all that it suggests has been displaced onto the whole male body, where it can function more unambiguously as a symbol of strength, power, and upward aspiration. Where it suggests Prometheus, not Priapus.” Because they possess the right kind of culturally signifying bodies, it hardly matters that Bowie and Essenbeck flirt with androgyny and sexual ambiguity, or that they look like or play women. Both literally and metaphorically, their bodies permit them to be and to exploit other bodies.
Zuckerberg, with his Jewish body, is not endowed with the same cultural privileges. However, his male superiority does fall under the paradigm of male intellect and rationality, particularly if we think of Facebook as the ultimate exercise in the Disembodied Spirit. It is this paradigm of masculinity that allows Zuckerberg to “rule the earth.”
Radiohead released their debut single “Creep” in 1992, an anthem of alienation that “The Social Network” exploits in its trailer (covered by the Belgian choir group Scala & Kolacay Brothers). As the Duke, Bowie was largely derided as a creep too. Using “Creep’s” famous lyric, “I’m a freak/I’m a weirdo/What the hell am I doing here?/I don’t belong here,” as its mantra, “The Social Network” encapsulates Zuckerberg’s invention as the move from material to immaterial exile (In “1984,” Bowie sings, “I’m looking for a vehicle”). Thus Zuckerberg’s culturally representative anomie evaporates—or liquidates, to use the Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman’s term—into Facebook, a vehicle that enables us not to be anything or anyone; or, everything and everyone.
But Facebook also represents Zuckerberg’s sexual, ethnic, and class anxieties about not belonging at the elite and exclusive Harvard and crafting an elite (elite not in usage, but because Facebook endowed him with money, power, and fame) electronic surrogate to treat his disaffection. Likewise, “coming to earth” as the vulnerable alien Ziggy Stardust ameliorated Bowie’s own British export status, an alienation that his Thin White Duke attempted to resolve.
As The Thin White Duke, Bowie, the man, was on the brink of total disintegration. His recovery, both creatively and mentally, is reported to have taken place in Berlin, where Bowie lived (some say hid out) for a time, and, like Visconti, made his own “German Trilogy,” the famous “Berlin Trilogy” with Brian Eno (“Low,” “Heroes,” and “Lodger”).
Bowie’s song “A New Career in A New Town” from “Low” documents some of the themes in Bowie’s life at the time. As does his song “Move On” from “Lodger.”
David Bowie, “Move On” (1979)
Respectively, Zuckerberg sought refuge from his discontent on the internet, not by simply using it, but by designing it in his likeness (God) and bending it to his will (Superman). According to “The Social Network,” Zuckerberg has mixed loneliness, avarice, and resentment, making him simultaneously alien and duke, and turning Facebook into the new egoistic poetry of disaffection. To quote Zygmunt Bauman, “And so we seek rescue in ‘networks,’ whose advantage over hard-and-fast bonds is that they make connecting and disconnecting equally easy.’”
Bowie’s alien in Nicolas Roeg’s 1976 film “The Man Who Fell to Earth” is an amalgamation of Ziggy Stardust and The Thin White Duke. Thomas Jerome Newton, Bowie’s humanoid alien in the film, has the red hair (fire) of Ziggy and the short slicked back white hair (ice) of the Thin White Duke. Newton’s planet, Anthea, is sick, starving for water (the way Los Angeles is starving for water in “Chinatown.” Not coincidentally, The Thin White Duke could easily be a noir character; the kind of mercurial, menacing, and fatalistic noir identity that Martin von Essenbeck symbolizes in “The Damned”).
“The Man Who Fell To Earth” can be interpreted as Bowie’s creative and personal trajectory, for what is Bowie but the ultimate humanoid alien simultaneously corrupted by and corruptor of the earth? At one point in the film, Newton tells his earthly red-haired lover, Mary-Lou (Candy Clark), “If I stay here, I will die,” which really means, if we stay here (in this state) we will die (all of Roeg’s films are arguably about this), for the alien is always warning us about ourselves (see “E.T.“).
Nicolas Roeg, “The Man Who Fell To Earth” (1976)
In The Thin White Duke performance of “1984,” Bowie looks vaguely like Christian Bale playing Patrick Bateman in “American Psycho,” if Bateman were emaciated and being played by the Bale of “The Machinist,” and if Bateman weren’t the classic American 80s hard-hard body. No longer merely symbolic, The 80s male body was largely about indestructibility; the smug and inscrutable ideological armor that housed masculinity and stood for the indefatigability of national identity.
But it’s the 80s soul that’s on display in this performance about the legendary year (in the case of “American Psycho,” it’s the 80s imagination). And, like “The Social Network” (a conduit for the 21st’s), the Duke’s performance of “1984” is affecting and arresting and chilling because it is Bowie commenting on the 80s—singing about them—while being them. It’s the world in a body, just like “American Psycho” is about the world in a (male) body or the male-body world of the 1980s. It is also being inside your body while singing about your body, or singing about your body while being in your body (in the film version of “American Psycho,” Bateman literally revels and luxuriates in his body). And this is also what the alien narrative dramatizes. The alien uses its body to comment on and receive the world.
In an abstract sense, “The Social Network” is about this too—using the technology of Facebook to articulate what it means to live in a Facebook world. It is about using while using, as well as the kind of disembodied body you need to live a Facebook existence (see “Avatar“). Facebook is about us being us right now. “The Social Network” is thus perhaps the closest reflexive example that we have of being thoroughly reflexive. To being, metaphorically speaking, instantaneous. That is, the moment of watching the moment we live in as we live it.
After all, what better account could we find of becoming electronic, of filling up on nothing—of the sentiment, “I don’t belong here” moving from a material world and relocating to an immaterial one—than “1984’s” line, “They’ll split your pretty cranium/And fill it full of air?” Radiohead’s idealistic and in-your-body “Creep,” on the other hand, is still betting on a real place to really belong to in a real way.
When the petulant and detached Zuckerberg is asked at one of “The Social Network’s” deposition hearings if they have his “full attention,” it is a question posed to us, Facebook users. What or who has our full attention? Zuckerberg, distracted by the “rain” outside, turns to face the attorney (us) and answers, “No.” When the attorney follows up with, “Do you think I deserve your full attention? Zuckerberg, bored and seething, grudgingly turns to face the room, and elaborates: “You have part of my attention. You have the minimal amount.”
What could describe Facebook, or the internet age for that matter, more succcintly? On the internet, and because of the internet, we all give and get part of each other’s attention—only part. Only the minimal amount. Jesse Eisenberg then concludes his now celebrated and quintessentially antisocial, egoistic speech by falling silent, again, shooting his competitors a homicidal look, and wryly cocking his head to the side.
David Fincher, “The Social Network” (2010)
This last gesture is eerily malevolent and reminiscent of Michael Myers’ own head tilt in John Carpenter’s “Halloween” just after he’s skewered a teenager to a door (1.31 to 1.46). Both are almost parodies. Spoofs on human behavior.
John Carpenter interviewed by Mark Kermode (1999)
While Myers’ head tilt takes a comic form because he has reacted to something horrific with a surprisingly naïve and human gesture—curiosity—Zuckerberg’s authoritarian scowl takes almost horrific form because he comes across as so utterly contemptuous and callous.
In that same interview with John Carpenter, film critic Mark Kermode calls Mike Myers’ masked face, “the blankest of anti-heroes.” Carpenter provides a definition for Myers’ monstrous apathy: “it’s almost like the comedy-drama mask. It’s just blank. You read into it, as opposed there being anything there. It’s not a personality. It’s a force of nature.” This is as much a description of Zuckerberg as it is of Facebook.
In his first television interview in 17 years, the singer Morrissey launched a scathing attack on Bowie in 2004, saying that he was “showie” and a “business.’” Morrissey claimed that the public only fell in love with Ziggy Stardust, while “the visuals for Ziggy were dreamt up by someone else.” But one could easily say the same thing about Facebook: a social networking phenomenon that feels like it’s ours, that we have claimed as an alternate for ourselves, but whose visuals (codes of conduct, modus operandi) have been dreamt up by someone else (Mark Zuckerberg, who went from being Facebook himself to making a billion dollar empire out of his own alienation, and by proxy, ours. If Bowie’s musical career is a cautionary tale about becoming all business, I’d rather be a business than a social network).
“(He is) not the person he was,” Morrissey goes on to say. “He is no longer David Bowie at all. Now he gives people what he thinks will make them happy.” This switch also charts Bowie’s course from Ziggy Stardust (heaven) to the Thin White Duke (“an ogre” on the brink of disintegration), or, for that matter, our own arc from being not who we were, or how we were—not happiness per say—but a prototype for happiness we can all assert as and on our own.
Simply put, “The Social Network” (Facebook) isn’t significant because we all use it. It’s significant because we are it.
David Fincher, “The Social Network Trailer” (2010)
The following anagrams can be made from David Bowie: Via Web Id Do. Bad Void We I. Part of the anagram for Mark Zuckerberg is Czar.
If 2012 is the new number of the foretold end, the end of the end—as in no more ends at all—”1984″ was the end of one way of living and being in the world, and the beginning of another. That’s why the number still counts. That’s why Bowie—as if he were beaming the year out into the world with his voice, carving it into the earth—chants it eight times as Ziggy. For when it comes to postmodernity, “1984,” like the movie “The Social Network,” is the year that tells time. That tells us where time went.
As the “1984” song lyric informs: “Times are a-telling/And changing isn’t free.” The 80s. The 80s talking to the 60s and 70s. It’s the 80s taking charge of everything before it. Of everything that was. Sponsoring the present. This isn’t Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin,” where things get better—maybe—and where, as Bordo notes, the earth, not the gods, matter. This is: forget about what once was. Forget about existing for free. Forget about time. Forget about stopping, because, as Bowie sings, “tomorrow’s never there.”
Maurizio Nannucci, “Changing Place…” (Peggy Guggenheim, Venice — 2003)
– Masha Tupitsyn