From Cold War Alcoholism to Post-9/11 Patriotism: The Repurposing of David Bowie's '"Heroes'"

Curator's Note

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.


Hi Zack This is such a great choice. I’m so glad someone decided to post about David Bowie. I really like how you framed the different performances of the song and the historical contexts that occur each time its recontextualised. I also think that in light of his passing, the cultural moment of the performance takes on a really interesting and different energy, with Bowie himself becoming the hero. Lots of food for thought here related to my ongoing work. Thank you.

Hi Leanne- I love the posthumous twist you've added here, and I think you're spot on. I suppose one main difference in this most recent recontextualization is that it's been prescribed for/onto Bowie rather than by him, as in the previous reinterpretations. Thanks for your thoughts, and for piquing my interest in your work - I look forward to exploring!

Thank you! I can't take full credit for that one! As I was writing the reply to you, an add featuring "Heroes' came on, so it reminded me of the most recent turn in the life of the song. I'm glad you thought it added something to the discussion and didn't detract from it!

What an interesting trajectory — from ironic, to iconic, to earnest anthem. Now I'm trying to think of other examples that do something similar.... What immediately comes to mind are instances in movies/musicals of a lighthearted song moving from carefree to grave when repeated in a different moment of a narrative. (And of course we could find the same sort of device in, say, opera). I'm thinking of the two incarnations of "The Glory of Love" that bookend the movie Beaches, or the two versions of "I'll Cover You" in Rent. In each of these instances, an originally optimistic, forward-looking song becomes something mournful after a death. But these don't capture the same sense of the sarcastic becoming the sincere that Zack finds in Bowie. (I also have to note, since I just commented about Baz Luhrmann in response to Leanne's post, that 'Heroes' got the Baz treatment in Moulin Rouge's Elephant Love Medley.... )

Thanks for the comments, Mike. Your connection to theater and opera is especially salient - the ways in which musical motifs representing certain characters are reprised and reframed absolutely allows for the kind of drastic shift in tone discussed in the post. Those types of recontextualizations are contained within a fixed narrative, of course. However, there is perhaps something to be said for the ways in which songs such as "'Heroes'" shift within the more fluid contexts of cultural and historical narratives. Food for thought - thank you!

Bowie's music is certainly an interesting - and unsurprisingly - unique case I think. I always had that same thought about RENT, so I'm glad I'm not alone in it. I'd completely forgotten that "Heroes" was in the medley until you just reminded me. Do you think that any recontexualisation using the music of an artist that has died naturally gathers greater value and resonance? Could we term that earnification?

This is a great example of recontextualization, thank you Zack. Did '"Heroes"' shifting in response to "the more fluid contexts of cultural and historical narratives," or in response to the shifting needs of an aging Rockstar desiring to remake himself in response to those shifting contexts? Perhaps I'm betraying a certain cynicism, but couldn't we also read this as the work of an opportunistic musician doing whatever to stay in the limelight, even if that means "selling out" his earlier works? Given that Bowie retained a certain cache even through all of this would seem to undercut that reading, but it's worth asking. I also have to wonder if there were different audience responses to these recontextualizations? I'm thinking of Fiske's reworking of popular culture to stem from the site of audience reception and use rather than at the site of production (2010). It seems like we could reread Bowie's rereading/recontextualization of his own songs through the framework of Fiske's definition of popular culture, but with Bowie himself as the audience putting his own song to use to respond to his embedded needs (I'm thinking of Fiske on his own use of the "New Newlyweds" gameshow, though he's of course not the creator of that show as well as the audience doing the recontextualizing). All that is to say, what do we learn from Bowie's shifting interpretation of his own song , both about Bowie and the social context in which he finds it makes sense to shift the meaning of the song?

It may be cynical, but your claim is certainly a valid one, Aaron - and there is at least an ounce of opportunism here (if not more). Your comment has me thinking back to the post-9/11 pop landscape, where Bowie peers such as McCartney, Mellencamp, Springsteen, et al. penned songs to mark the cultural moment. None of these really stuck. At best, they became new favorites within the artist's already dedicated fanbase (Springsteen), in others, the songs were generally panned. In Bowie's case, a song already revered as a 'classic' simply gets imbued with new cultural meaning. That is, it's already cleared the hurdle of familiarity (and now I see some connections to Leanne's post).

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