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I'm Afraid of Americans

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"I'm Afraid of Americans"
Bowie I'mAfraidofAmericans.jpg
Single by David Bowie
from the album Earthling
A-sideVersions 1–4 (12")
B-sideVersions 5–6 (12")
Released14 October 1997 (1997-10-14)
RecordedAugust–October 1996
StudioLooking Glass, New York City
Genre
Length
  • 5:00 (album version)
  • Various (single remixes)
LabelVirgin
Songwriter(s)
Producer(s)
David Bowie singles chronology
"Seven Years in Tibet"
(1997)
"I'm Afraid of Americans"
(1997)
"I Can't Read"
(1997)
Music video
"I'm Afraid of Americans" on YouTube

"I'm Afraid of Americans" is a song by English musician David Bowie, released as a single from his album Earthling on 14 October 1997 through Virgin Records. The song was co-written by Bowie and Brian Eno and originally recorded during the sessions for Bowie's 1995 album Outside; this version was released on the soundtrack of the 1995 film Showgirls. The song was then remade during the sessions for Earthling with his then-current band, guitarist Reeves Gabrels, pianist Mike Garson, bassist Gail Ann Dorsey and drummer Zack Alford. The remake was recorded between August and October 1996 at Looking Glass Studios in New York City and featured rewritten lyrics, overdubs and transposed verses. An industrial and techno track, it presents a critique of America through the eyes of a stereotypical 'Johnny' and is characterised by drum patterns, synthesisers, various loops and vocal distortions.

Following its release on the album, Virgin Records issued the song as a maxi-single in North America only with six different remixes. The remixes were mostly created by Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor, continuing his and Bowie's association following the Outside Tour; the 'V3' mix featured Ice Cube while the 'V5' mix was created by Photek. Reznor subsequently appeared in the music video, which reflected the song's theme of a frightened European in an American city. A top 20 hit in Canada, the single peaked at number 66 on the Billboard Hot 100 and spent 16 weeks on the chart. It was the final Bowie single to chart on the Hot 100 until 2015. Reznor's 'V1' mix has since appeared on several compilation albums.

The song has received positive responses from critics and biographers. Rolling Stone named it one of the 30 most essential songs of Bowie's catalogue in 2016. Some American commentators later acknowledged the significance of the lyrics in the late 2010s. Bowie performed "I'm Afraid of Americans" frequently on his concert tours, from the 1997 Earthling to 2003 A Reality tours. Live performances have been released on numerous live albums.

Overview[edit]

Writing and recording[edit]

"I'm Afraid of Americans" was written by David Bowie and Brian Eno and originally recorded during the sessions for Bowie's 1995 album Outside. According to biographer Chris O'Leary, recording took place in late 1994 at Mountain Studios in Montreux, Switzerland and the early weeks of 1995 at the Hit Factory in New York City.[1] Titled "Dummy", it featured different lyrics, such as "I'm afraid of the animals" instead of "Americans".[2] Eno recalled in 2016: "I remember [David] recording 'I'm Afraid of Americans' and saying, after one of the early takes, 'No, [the 'Dummy' character's] got to be more self-doubting than that.'"[1] This version was intended for release on the soundtrack for the 1995 film Johnny Mnemonic but was instead released on the soundtrack for the 1995 film Showgirls.[1][2]

During the sessions for his next album Earthling (1997), Bowie decided to remake the song with his current band—guitarist Reeves Gabrels, pianist Mike Garson, bassist Gail Ann Dorsey and drummer Zack Alford.[1] Bowie stated: "That was something that Eno and I put together, and I just didn't feel it fit Outside, so it didn't go on it. It just got left behind. So then we took just the embryo of it, and restructured it with this band."[3] Recording for the remake took place between August[1] and October 1996[4] at Looking Glass Studios in New York City with engineer Mark Plati, who had extensive experience there.[5] Plati and Gabrels were credited as co-producers while Bowie himself mostly self-produced.[6] Regarding the remake, Plati explained: "We pulled things off several different reels to make this new composite. It was quite a clean-up job, not the most enjoyable."[1] Bowie revised the lyrics, changing "Dummy" to "Johnny", and transposed verses while the band provided additional overdubs. Gabrels stated that he added fuzz boxes "until I ran out".[1]

Composition[edit]

'I'm Afraid of Americans' was written by myself and Eno. It's not as truly hostile about Americans as say 'Born in the U.S.A.': it's merely sardonic. 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, the erection of another Disney World in, say, Umbria, Italy, more so. It strangles the indigenous culture and narrows expression of life.[7]

—David Bowie in a press release announcing Earthling

In an interview with Mojo magazine in 1997, Bowie described the song as "one of those stereotypical 'Johnny' songs: Johnny does this, Johnny does that".[8] The absurdist lyrics present a critique of America, in line with Bowie's 1975 track "Young Americans".[9][10] Commentators have insighted similarities between the song's titular 'Johnny' and the 'Johnny' of the Lodger track "Repetition" (1979);[1][2] while the 'Johnny' of the former craves objects of status through self-entitlement, the 'Johnny' of the latter emotionally abuses his wife due to his lower status.[11] The song concludes with the revelation that "God is an American",[2] which biographer Marc Spitz considers an "ironic jingoism".[10]

Musically, reviewers have categorised it as techno,[8][12] with author James Perone writing that it mixes various industrial and techno styles of the 1980s and 1990s.[9] The Guardian's Caroline Sullivan found the melody reminiscent of Bowie's "Ashes to Ashes" (1980), with a "perky jungle percussion loop", ultimately creating "a most singular fusion of rock and drum & bass".[13] Characterised by drum patterns, synthesisers, various loops and vocal distortions, O'Leary writes that the remake retained the original's "'laughing' hook" and "synth hook pinging around an E octave". Both the original and remake are also in the key of F major.[1] Biographer Nicholas Pegg calls the remake "darker" and "funkier" compared to the original,[2] while Spitz compares the track's "loud/quiet/loud anthem[ic]" quality to the Pixies.[10] Perone notes the musicality as "richer" than other Earthling tracks.[9]

Releases[edit]

The original version of "I'm Afraid of Americans" was released on the Showgirls soundtrack on 26 September 1995.[1] Earthling was released on 3 February 1997[5] on CD and LP formats through RCA Records in the UK,[4] Virgin Records in the US,[14] and Arista Records and its parent distributor BMG elsewhere.[15] "I'm Afraid of Americans" was sequenced as the eighth and penultimate track, between "The Last Thing You Should Do" and "Law (Earthlings on Fire)".[16]

Trent Reznor in 2005
The CD maxi-single featured various remixes by Trent Reznor (pictured in 2005), who subsequently appeared in the song's music video.

Virgin issued "I'm Afraid of Americans" as a maxi-single in North America only on 14 October 1997, where it was backed by six remixes;[17][18] the 'V3' mix featured guest vocals from rapper Ice Cube while the 'V5' mix was created by producer Photek.[2][19][20] The project was instigated by Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor, continuing his and Bowie's association following the Outside Tour. Reznor, who stated that he "tried to make it a bit darker",[2] stripped the production to its roots to create what biographer David Buckley calls "an eerie, psychotic track".[5] The ending result is an almost 40-minute project that, in Bowie's words, was "not just a remix [but] almost...an album piece in itself. I was absolutely knocked out when I heard what [Reznor] had done. It was great."[2] Commercially, the single reached number 66 on the Billboard Hot 100 and remained on the chart for 16 weeks, becoming Bowie's biggest hit in the country since "Day-In Day-Out" ten years earlier.[5] It was the final Bowie single to chart on the Hot 100 until the release of "Blackstar" in 2015.[1][11] It also stayed in the Canadian top 50 for six months.[5]

Reznor also starred as the titular 'Johnny' in the Dom and Nic-directed music video,[10] which was shot in New York City in October 1997 during the American leg of the Earthling Tour. Regarding the choice of Dom and Nic, Bowie explained that the duo were "making very interesting, quite hard-edged British videos at the moment. I felt it was important that it retained that outsider's perspective of America, you know."[2] The video depicts Bowie as a man who is chased around the streets of New York by a stalker portrayed by Reznor,[7] reflecting the song's theme of a frightened European in an American city.[1] Discussing his character, Reznor stated: "They wanted a kind of Taxi Driver feel to the whole thing. That's kind of what it's based on. That's why I'm in my Travis Bickle outfit!"[2] According to Spitz, the video received heavy rotation on MTV, a first for Bowie in over a decade.[10] It also earned Bowie a nomination for Best Male Video at the 1998 MTV Video Music Awards.[5]

O'Leary states that while the track has no "definitive" version, Reznor's 'V1' mix is the most recognisable,[1] which has appeared on the compilation albums Best of Bowie (2002),[21] Nothing Has Changed (2014),[22] and Bowie Legacy (2016).[23] The Showgirls version, 'V1' mix and Plati's "Original Edit" were included on the bonus disc of the Earthling expanded edition in 2004.[4][24]

Reception and legacy[edit]

Reviewing Earthling on release, Mojo's Andy Gill considered "I'm Afraid of Americans" the "most direct" track on the album.[8] In another review for Rolling Stone, Mark Kemp acknowledged the song as "a stuttering rocker" that "seems detached from the other songs".[6] Upon release of the single, Billboard writers Larry Flick and Shawnee Smith praised Reznor's remix as an improvement on the "already deeply moody and largely sharp" original. They further opined that the Ice Cube remix could provide a successful foray into a hardcore hip hop album.[25] Reviewing the maxi-single for AllMusic, Christian Huey criticised it as "too derivative of Downward Spiral-era Nine Inch Nails" to please Bowie's fans. He argued that it acts better when viewed as a Reznor project rather than a Bowie one. He nevertheless praised Reznor's work on the remixes as well as Photek's contribution.[17]

In later decades, Pegg describes the track as "terrific" while Spitz considered it Bowie's finest single since 1984's "Loving the Alien".[2][10] Following Bowie's death in 2016, Rolling Stone named "I'm Afraid of Americans" one of the 30 most essential songs of Bowie's catalogue.[7] That same year, Ultimate Classic Rock placed "I'm Afraid of Americans" at number 23 in a list ranking every Bowie single from worst to best, calling it the best song on Earthling and Bowie's best song in over a decade, further commenting: "It would be another decade and a half before he was this good again."[26] A year later, Consequence of Sound placed "I'm Afraid of Americans" at number 66 on their list of Bowie's 70 best songs, writing:[27]

Many aging rock stars may have been sunk by toying with industrial electronic or having a song feature in the Showgirls soundtrack, but David Bowie excels in even the most theoretically ill-fitting suits, looking sleek and charming. He’s telling tales of humans in ruin, of futility and idealism, and while the original version that appeared in the schlocky midnight movie was afraid of 'the animals,' the eventual final take changed it to 'Americans,' an electro-crunchy slab of sardonic delight.

In 2017, Vice's Jill Krajewski commented on the song's relevance during the presidency of Donald Trump, stating: "'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 [era we live in today]."[11] She argued that the "working-class everyman" ('Johnny') were responsible in sharpening the political divide and widespread hate on the internet, presenting a sense of unease living in America as she concludes, "I am afraid of Americans".[11] The same year, Lior Phillips of Consequence of Sound opined that "The title is a picture-perfect distillation of what it means to live in this world."[27]

Live versions[edit]

Following its release, Bowie performed "I'm Afraid of Americans" frequently on concert tours and television appearances.[1][2] He first performed the track ahead of Earthling's release on 9 January 1997 at his fiftieth birthday concert in New York City with the band Sonic Youth.[28][29] The song then made regular appearances throughout the Earthling Tour later that year.[30] A July performance was released on Look at the Moon! in 2021 as part of the Brilliant Live Adventures series (2020–2021),[31][32] while another performance recorded in New York on 15 October 1997 was released on LiveAndWell.com in 1999,[2] which was officially issued as part of Brilliant Live Adventures in 2021.[31][33] Another live version from the Hours Tour was released in 2021 on David Bowie At The Kit Kat Klub (Live New York 99) as part of Brilliant Live Adventures.[31][34]

Bowie performed the song again at Howard Stern's forty-fourth birthday concert in 1998.[29] Bowie's 25 June 2000 performance of the song at the Glastonbury Festival was released in 2018 on Glastonbury 2000.[35] Another live version, recorded at the BBC Radio Theatre, London on 27 June 2000, was released on the bonus disc accompanying the first releases of Bowie at the Beeb in 2000.[2][36] A performance from his 2003 A Reality Tour was included on the A Reality Tour DVD (2004), and later on the A Reality Tour album (2010).[37]

Track listing[edit]

All tracks are written by David Bowie and Brian Eno.

CD and 12": Virgin / 7243 8 38618 2 (US)[19][20]

A-side:

  1. "I'm Afraid of Americans" (V1) – 5:31
  2. "I'm Afraid of Americans" (V2) – 5:51
  3. "I'm Afraid of Americans" (V3) (with Ice Cube) – 6:18
  4. "I'm Afraid of Americans" (V4) – 5:25

B-side:

  1. "I'm Afraid of Americans" (V5) – 5:38
  2. "I'm Afraid of Americans" (V6) – 11:18

Personnel[edit]

According to biographer Chris O'Leary:[1]

Charts[edit]

Chart (1997–98) Peak
position
Canada (Nielsen SoundScan)[38] 14
US Billboard Hot 100[39] 66
US Modern Rock Tracks (Billboard)[40] 27

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o O'Leary 2019, chap. 10.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Pegg 2016, pp. 128–129.
  3. ^ Considine, J. D. (October 1997). "David Bowie: The FI Interview". Fi. pp. 36–41.
  4. ^ a b c Pegg 2016, pp. 430–433.
  5. ^ a b c d e f Buckley 2005, pp. 441–455.
  6. ^ a b Kemp, Mark (20 February 1997). "Review: Earthling – David Bowie". Rolling Stone. Archived from the original on 2 June 2021. Retrieved 21 November 2021.
  7. ^ a b c Edwards, Gavin; Weingarten, Christopher; Spanos, Brittany; Newman, Jason; Vozick-Levinson, Simon; Johnston, Maura; Doyle, Patrick; Sterling, Scott; Greene, Andy; Sheffield, Rob (11 January 2016). "David Bowie: 30 Essential Songs". Rolling Stone. Archived from the original on 11 April 2021. Retrieved 26 September 2021.
  8. ^ a b c Gill, Andy (March 1997). "David Bowie: Earthling". Mojo. Archived from the original on 17 April 2021. Retrieved 21 November 2021 – via Rock's Backpages (subscription required).
  9. ^ a b c Perone 2007, pp. 118–123.
  10. ^ a b c d e f Spitz 2009, pp. 370–371.
  11. ^ a b c d Krajewski, Jill (20 January 2017). "David Bowie's "I'm Afraid of Americans" Has Become An Unfortunate Reality in the Age of Trump". Vice. Archived from the original on 28 February 2021. Retrieved 30 November 2021.
  12. ^ Rapp, Allison (3 February 2022). "How David Bowie Successfully Ignored Critics on 'Earthling'". Ultimate Classic Rock. Archived from the original on 17 February 2022. Retrieved 22 February 2022.
  13. ^ Sullivan, Caroline (31 January 1997). "David Bowie: Earthling (RCA)". The Guardian. p. 39. Archived from the original on 21 November 2021. Retrieved 21 November 2021 – via Newspapers.com (subscription required).
  14. ^ "Artists & Music" (PDF). Billboard. 11 October 1997. p. 18. Archived (PDF) from the original on 7 March 2021. Retrieved 25 November 2021 – via worldradiohistory.com.
  15. ^ Trynka 2011, pp. 494–495.
  16. ^ O'Leary 2019, Partial Discography.
  17. ^ a b Huey, Christian. "'I'm Afraid of Americans' [US] – David Bowie". AllMusic. Archived from the original on 22 November 2021. Retrieved 24 November 2021.
  18. ^ Pegg 2016, p. 786.
  19. ^ a b "I'm Afraid of Americans" (CD single notes). David Bowie. US: Virgin Records. 1997. 7243 8 38618 2 8.{{cite AV media notes}}: CS1 maint: others in cite AV media (notes) (link)
  20. ^ a b "I'm Afraid of Americans" (LP single notes). David Bowie. US: Virgin Records. 1997. 7243 8 38618.{{cite AV media notes}}: CS1 maint: others in cite AV media (notes) (link)
  21. ^ Erlewine, Stephen Thomas. "Best of Bowie – David Bowie". AllMusic. Archived from the original on 27 November 2021. Retrieved 30 November 2021.
  22. ^ Lukowski, Andrzej (12 November 2014). "David Bowie – Nothing Has Changed". Drowned in Sound. Archived from the original on 12 August 2017. Retrieved 11 August 2017.
  23. ^ Erlewine, Stephen Thomas. "Legacy – David Bowie". AllMusic. Archived from the original on 8 May 2019. Retrieved 15 April 2021.
  24. ^ Earthling (reissue) (CD booklet). David Bowie. US: Columbia Records/ISO. 2004. CK 92098.{{cite AV media notes}}: CS1 maint: others in cite AV media (notes) (link)
  25. ^ Flick, Larry; Smith, Shawnee (18 October 1997). "Singles: Rock Tracks" (PDF). Billboard. No. 109. p. 80. Retrieved 30 November 2021 – via worldradiohistory.com.
  26. ^ "Every David Bowie Single Ranked". Ultimate Classic Rock. 14 January 2016. Archived from the original on 24 July 2021. Retrieved 19 September 2021.
  27. ^ a b Phillips, Lior (8 January 2017). "David Bowie's Top 70 Songs". Consequence of Sound. Archived from the original on 20 September 2021. Retrieved 19 September 2021.
  28. ^ Sandford 1998, pp. 340–350.
  29. ^ a b Pegg 2016, pp. 601–603.
  30. ^ Pegg 2016, pp. 603–605.
  31. ^ a b c "David Bowie Brilliant Live Adventures Six Album Series Kicks Off October 30". Rhino Entertainment. 2 October 2020. Archived from the original on 16 September 2021. Retrieved 19 November 2021.
  32. ^ Kreps, Daniel (29 January 2021). "David Bowie's 'Brilliant Live Adventures' Series Continues With 1997 Festival Gig". Rolling Stone. Archived from the original on 29 January 2021. Retrieved 29 January 2021.
  33. ^ "Brilliant Live Adventures Part 3 – LiveAndWell.com". David Bowie Official Website. 11 December 2020. Archived from the original on 11 December 2020. Retrieved 14 December 2020.
  34. ^ "BLA Part 6 – David Bowie At The Kit Kat Klub (Live New York 99)". David Bowie Official Website. 17 March 2021. Archived from the original on 17 March 2021. Retrieved 17 March 2021.
  35. ^ Collins, Sean T. (5 December 2018). "David Bowie: Glastonbury 2000 Album Review". Pitchfork. Archived from the original on 11 July 2019. Retrieved 14 March 2020.
  36. ^ Erlewine, Stephen Thomas. "Bowie at the Beeb: The Best of the BBC Radio Sessions 68–72 – David Bowie". AllMusic. Archived from the original on 2 July 2018. Retrieved 10 March 2020.
  37. ^ Erlewine, Stephen Thomas. "A Reality Tour – Davis Bowie". AllMusic. Archived from the original on 18 August 2017. Retrieved 11 August 2017.
  38. ^ "David Bowie Chart History (Canadian Digital Songs)". Billboard. Retrieved 27 January 2022.
  39. ^ "David Bowie Chart History (Hot 100)". Billboard. Retrieved 30 November 2021.
  40. ^ "David Bowie Alternative Airplay Chart History". Billboard. Retrieved 30 November 2021.

Sources[edit]