Advertisement
Noisey

David Bowie’s “I’m Afraid of Americans” Has Become An Unfortunate Reality in the Age of Trump

The silently raging working-class everyman helped usher Donald Trump into the White House. His name is Jonny.

by Jill Krajewski
Jan 20 2017, 10:36pm

Twenty years ago, David Bowie made his last appearance on the Billboard Hot 100 before his death with a lyric that's now an international refrain: "I'm Afraid of Americans." It's a sarcastic – at times seething – narration of capitalist pop culture ruled by man's desire for pussy, cars, and Coke. Fittingly, an early version of "I'm Afraid of Americans" first appeared on the soundtrack of the bloated, critically-panned Hollywood sexploitation that is Showgirls in 1995. "I'm Afraid of Americans" has a darker resonance today not through its chorus, but in a context that gives it unnerving prescience: a snapshot of the disaffected American that sexist tanning bed Donald Trump baited to rise to power, self-appointed alpha-male-in-chief.

Bowie found a permanent home for "I'm Afraid of Americans" on Earthling in 1997, a warped guitar-heavy album with jungle and industrial currents that Nine Inch Nails added to for its gut-punching single mix and music video. He explained "I'm Afraid of Americans" in a press release announcing Earthling: "I was traveling in Java when the first McDonald's went up: it was like, 'for fuck's sake.' The invasion by any homogenized culture is so depressing," Bowie said. "It strangles the indigenous culture and narrows expression of life." Bowie repeats "I'm afraid of Americans / I'm afraid of the world / I'm afraid I can't help it / I'm afraid I can't" less in earnest and more to mock the rise of American homogeneity.

Now, I am afraid of Americans. I have Jewish family in the Southwest, and the thought of the next steps in the chain from anti-Semitic tweets to swastika graffiti is upsetting as hell. Men are being radicalized online at an alarming rate, hating women all while stewing in sexual frustration or braggadocio, their male insecurity the perfect recruitment tool for white supremacists clinging to a sense of being alpha in their jobs, homes, and country. Given more than 60 million people voted to put Trump in the White House, there lies a more widespread red flag responsible: the silently raging working-class everyman. His name is Jonny.

Between Showgirls and Earthling, Bowie reworked the antagonist in "I'm Afraid of Americans" from the faceless "dummy" to a man named Jonny. "Jonny's in America / Jonny looks up at the stars / Jonny combs his hair down / and Jonny wants pussy in cars." Jonny's American dream shifts from self-consciousness to self-entitlement back and forth, craving a series of objects of status: A plane. A woman. A Coke. Even just to think of a joke to show his worth. It's a spiritual continuation of the Jonny character Bowie introduced on "Repetition" off Lodger in 1979, unsatisfied with his status, wishing he had a Cadillac instead of a Chevy, and taking it out on his wife through emotional abuse.

Today, Jonny transcends being a character, or even being confined to a man. They're in America, selfish destructive potential hidden in plain sight. They're not "grab her by the pussy," they're "she's asking for it." They don't identify as alt-right, but will laugh off a joke that they're a deplorable. They're not making racist Facebook posts, but internally blaming people of colour for their lack of success. They're the beat that builds into a guttural, disorienting jackhammer at the end "I'm Afraid of Americans," confounding the state of things with emotion. They are the seeds for the growth of a Trump age. Just as Bowie updated his initial lyric from "I'm afraid of the animals" to "I'm afraid of Americans," so has our understanding changed of who we need to hold to account over the next four years: our families. Our neighbours. Ourselves.

Jill Krajewski is a Canadian. Follow her on Twitter.