From Cold War Alcoholism to Post-9/11 Patriotism: The Repurposing of David Bowie's '"Heroes'"
by Zack Stiegler — Indiana University of Pennsylvania
May 03, 2016 – 00:00
The most commercially successful product of David Bowie’s fertile Berlin period, 1977’s ‘“Heroes”’ underwent multiple recontextualizations. Perhaps more explicitly than any other composition within Bowie’s Berlin trilogy, ‘”Heroes’” is a product of its cultural environment, the epicenter of the Cold War. The lyrics detail a romance divided by the Berlin Wall, the partners deluding themselves through the haze of alcoholism that their love can overcome the cultural and physical obstruction between them (the title’s ironic quotation marks are a nod to that delusion) (Seabrook 2008).
Over the years, performances of ‘”Heroes”’ inched the song away from its stark Cold War origins, instead becoming an anthemic expression of forward-looking hope and optimism. Introducing the song during his Live Aid performance in 1985, Bowie dedicated ‘”Heroes’” “to my son, to all our children, and to the children of the world.” Two years later, Bowie performed the song in front of the Wall in West Berlin, days before Ronald Reagan made his plea to Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.” Most recently, ‘”Heroes”’ became a song of resilience and perseverance following the attacks of September 11, 2001, as well as an homage to the attacks’ emergency responders. Here again, the reframing of ‘”Heroes”’ is Bowie’s doing, having performed the song at the benefit Concert for New York City in October 2001. Following that performance, 9/11 remained the song’s dominant cultural referent; preceded in the set by 1997’s “I’m Afraid of Americans,” Bowie often prefaced ‘”Heroes’” by telling audiences on his 2003-2004 Reality tour that “This is the other side of that same story, this one’s for you.” Like all art, popular music is at least in part a product of its socio-cultural environment. As the dynamics of that environment shift however, artists have opportunity to reframe their previous works to more adequately suit the changing cultural context. The most common recontextualizations tend to occur outside of the original artist’s control (parodies, remixes, mashups, use in film, television, and advertising for example). Over the course of nearly four decades, Bowie asserted his creative agency in continually repurposing ‘”Heroes”’ to suit the cultural moment of performance, however contradictory that may have been to the cultural context of its composition.