“Heroes”

i can remember standing by the wall(mart).

I can remember
Standing, by the wall
And the guns shot above our heads
And we kissed as though nothing could fall
And the shame was on the other side
Oh, we can beat them, forever and ever
Then we could be heroes, just for one day

We’re nothing, and nothing will help us
Maybe we’re lying, then you better not stay
But we could be safer, just for one day

— David Bowie, “‘Heroes'”

First as irony, then as tragedy, then as farce? David Bowie’s song “‘Heroes'”—it’s not in scare quotes for nothing. Are the protagonists in the song really heroes at all, even just for one day? Who knows?

The ambiguities of the song, however, seem utterly lost on Walmart and its advertising agency. They just released your typically superficial corporate trauma-nod to the workers on the front lines of a social crisis. It’s a kind of recycling of the adoption of Bowie’s song as an anthem about rescue workers at 9/11. That original use of the song itself seemed to lose the scare quotes and go irony free. Now, Bowie’s ambiguous song is put to use again, even more absurdly. This time, the heroes are those “essential workers” during the coronavirus pandemic. In the Orwellian doublethink of our times, these “essential workers”—the low-wage employees of Walmart in this case—are in fact treated as the most disposable. They must keep working if the existing system is to continue to function. Heroes? Of course. But also, in the smug, condescending tone of this ad, “Heroes,” which is to say suckers. We love you, the Walmart ad says, as we watch you dying.

The ad features an instrumental section of the Bowie song playing in the background as CEO Doug McMillon proclaims, “I’ve always seen your spark, your dedication and humanity.” Which, you can almost hear him mutter under his voice, I’m perfectly glad to exploit. I mean, would this fellow ever raise wages for the inspirational work his employees at Walmart are doing? Improve working conditions? Stop the gender and racial discrimination for which his company has been sued? Stop spying on workers? Make sure all temp employees had health care insurance? Do they give a hoot about the destruction they’ve left in their wake in communities across America?

If you listen right, the soundtrack—Robert Fripp’s crying guitar feedback, Dennis Davis’s drums, Brian Eno’s synth, George Murray on bass, Carlos Alomar on rhythm guitar, Bowie himself on piano and various synth effects, and Toni Visconti’s production—asks those questions. The effort to summon the ghost of 9/11 through the subtle use of an instrumental section of “Heroes” also calls up other thoughts to. The music hints at the lie being told, the cover up underway, as corporations such as Walmart desperately urge all of us that life doesn’t have to be the way it’s been, that life could be different, even radically different. “Thank you for keep us safe and for being our light…for always doing your part,” McMillon says, laying into the word always. Meanwhile: “We can beat them, forever and ever,” Bowie sings in your head, if you know the song.

First as irony, then as tragedy, then as farce? What comes next? As the CEO lays it on thick, the music points to what is really going on. It does so frantically if you want to hear it, see it. Bowie and his band point at who the villains really are, and what the heroes really could be capable of doing if they just rejected the condescension and need to control and exploit them.

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