I was never a hardcore David Bowie fan, I was born a bit too late for his explosive breakthrough and heyday in the 1970s. Sure, I could hum along to Ziggy Stardust, but it was the film roles that I would really associate with the man. He was delectably villainous as Jareth the Goblin King, tormenting a young Jennifer Connelly, in Jim Henson’s “The Labyrinth” (Henson, another childhood icon of my generation who was gone to soon). Later would come his zany but crucial cameo in “Zoolander” (“It’s a walk-off!”), and most recently, as Nikola Tesla in “The Prestige”, a man with whom he shares many adjectives, such as eccentric, innovative, visionary.
Whenever a well-known artist passes, it presents an opportunity for him or her to be introduced to a whole new slew of audiences, albeit appreciating his or her work via a wholly different mode of listening: one which is only possible with the knowledge that the voice emanating from the speakers would never be heard live again, would never utter another word or sing another note again.
It was while in this mode that I came across the music video for “Let’s Dance”, his 1983 hit, which also happens to be the year of my birth. This was 80s Bowie, less make-up, baggier pants, and a poppier beat completely at home in that decade. I didn’t really hold any political expectations for Bowie, (especially if compared to more vocal rock peers Bono and Bob Geldof), but the “Let’s Dance” music video was a revelation.
Set in the outback, the video has Bowie performing in a rural pub, standing near its entrance playing a guitar (his only other companion is the upright bass player) – more of itinerant musician than star of the stage. The pub denizens are ordinarily clad, hot and sweaty more from a hard day’s work than from a rock concert, but they sway appreciatively to Bowie’s beat. But they neither look at Bowie, nor does Bowie try to call attention to himself: there is nothing to distinguish him from the hoi polloi, and he doesn’t seem to want that distinction anyway.
The hoi polloi happens to consist of Caucasian working-class types and Australian Aborigines, dancing, drinking, grinning. It is the latter group that we follow for the rest of the video as the next scene has them walking across the wide outback. They come upon a pair of red shoes (“Put on your red shoes and dance the blues”, Bowie sings), and they cajole the girl in the group to put them on. When she does, a bomb goes off and a mushroom cloud becomes visible in the distance – there is an apocalypse in the horizon.
The red shoes are next seen on the stockinged feet of a factory supervisor. One of the Aboriginal men is now a factory worker, and he is ordered to manually lug around machinery. The girl who had put on the red shoes, in turn, is now a maid scrubbing the floor of a mansion, as the red shoes (presumably now worn by the lady of the house) strut pass her. Their hardship and the precariousness of their situation is made all the more clear as the pair is transposed on to a busy avenue, where motorists condescendingly eye them as they continue their work.
Is there no rest of weary minimum wage worker? At first it seems that there may be so: the pair is able to buy jewelry, have credit cards, and vacation at the beach. In a scene where they eat at a posh restaurant, a Caucasian, tuxedoed maître d’ waits on their table in a curious dislocation of class and ethnic roles.
But the group snaps out of the vision, and the audience is snapped back to the outland. The red shoes are taken off the girl’s feet and vehemently trampled upon by the entire group in a rejection of what the red shoes stood for or was offering them. They resume their trek and pause for a while on a promontory overlooking Sydney Harbour. There is less yearning than there is a distancing, which is affirmed by a shot of the couple dancing atop an isolated massif. The twain shall never meet in the final montage (80s-style, of course), which contrasted the vast outback and the crowded metropolis, the Aboriginal peoples and the trappings of modern life.
Romantic primitivism? In a certain light, perhaps. But two historical circumstances reveal an enriched subversive reading of this music video. First is the video’s temporal placement. The 1980s was the decade of Thatcher and Reagan, of the reign of Wall Street and incredible wealth for those shrewd enough to be able to play it. A rejection of the materialistic, consumeristic call of that time was simply out of place, and all the more notable as the video came out in the first half of the decade, when everything was still coming up roses (or stock options). The video was also dismissive of the accepted “truth” that low-wage work was a viable ticket out of poverty, a mantra that is still being repeated now in the age of labor flexibility and contractualization.
Those messages are clear enough, but what about Bowie’s proposed solution? “Let’s sway under this serious moonlight,” Bowie sings, and indeed, the idea of dance as serious resistance during serious times is not original to the late twentieth century, or to rock n’ roll. Dance had been employed thus here in Mindanao and elsewhere, and to not-so-trivial consequences. These religio-political dance phenomena have already been substantially treated in historian Macario Tiu’s “Davao 1890-1910: Conquest and Resistance in the Garden of the Gods”, but nevertheless very little is still known about it.
Its earliest manifestation was as the Dance of Lavi first recorded by American colonial authorities in 1905 in Mandaya/Kalagan areas. It was said that among these groups a belief in a god called “Lavi” spread, and that dancing and ritual must be performed, and new communities must be built to welcome the arrival of Lavi. Exactly how militant or anti-American this Dance of Lavi was is yet to be uncovered by historians, but restless natives gathering en masse and working themselves into a dancing frenzy would always be a cause for concern for any colonial master. Indeed, American officials took no chances – not after the assassination of Davao District governor Edward Bolton 1906, and because many of them were veterans of the Indian Wars in the States, where a similar dance of resistance, known as the Ghost Dance, spread across different Native American nations and had to be violently repressed. The Dance of Lavi was likewise banned and its leaders arrested, but this trend persisted until 1909 and spread from eastern Mindanao to the west among the Subanon in Dipolog.
These dances of resistance were but one style of response to emerge from the Davao region at this time. Based upon our research, we saw that other groups chose other paths. The Pantaron Manobos withdrew ever deeper into that mountain range, hence they were able to maintain and develop many of their traditions largely out of reach of the colonial centers. The Tagabawa Bagobo would hone their political savvy by creating a complex leadership structure that American officials were never able to fully figure out (though they thought they did). Lowland, Christianized Davao residents would follow their brethren to the north and rise in outright armed revolt, which was what happened in 1909. We have only begun to scratch the surface of these different strands that have been tightly woven together into an astounding tapestry of creativity and defiance – a fitting legacy for Davaoeños and all Filipinos.
Heartbreak and personal challenges may bring out the poets among us, but it is political conflict and adversity that bring out the ingenious in both the individual and the mass. Bowie said, “let’s dance,” but he also invited us to “rebel rebel”.