on corporate misuses of david bowie’s song.
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— David Bowie, “‘Heroes'”
Maybe we’re lying, then you better not stay
But we could be safer, just for one day
David Bowie’s song “‘Heroes'” is not in scare quotes for nothing. Are the protagonists in the song really heroes at all, even just for one day? The ambiguities of the song, however, seem utterly lost on Walmart and its advertising agency. In response to the coronavirus pandemic, they just released your typical superficial corporate trauma-nod to the workers on the front lines of a social crisis.
What’s fascinating about the adoption of Bowie’s song by Walmart in response to covid-19 is that it’s a kind of zombie move, a reflex effort to equate the pandemic with 9/11, when another set of workers were portrayed as heroes. It was then, during 9/11, that the song seemed to lose the scare quotes and go irony free from Bowie’s original 70’s version.
Now, with covid, during a new national trauma, Bowie’s tune is put to use again, but in a way that wears thin, that seems heartless and almost like a sick joke, and that also begs the question: why did he place quotation marks around the song’s title?
The “heroes” in Walmart’s tv spot are the so-called “essential workers” of the coronavirus pandemic, but in the Orwellian doublethink of our times, the “essential workers”—the low-wage employees of Walmart in this case—are in fact treated as the most disposable. Heroes? Of course. But also, in the smug, condescending tone of this ad, also “‘Heroes’.” Which is to say, from Walmart’s perspective, the workers are in fact the opposite of heroes. They are suckers. We love you, the Walmart ad says, as we watch you dying. How romantic.
Yet other ideas about “‘heroes’” can’t help but sink their quotation-mark hooks into the ad. 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, inhumanely. After all, 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? Does he give a hoot about the destruction Walmart has left in its wake in communities across America?
If you listen right, the soundtrack—especially Robert Fripp’s crying guitar feedback—asks these questions. It rises up dissonantly under the music and then out over it with a wail of pain and protest, making one wonder: perhaps this isn’t a straightforward song about triumph over tragedy, of heroes risking their lives to stock the shelves for happy customers. Perhaps instead, Fripp’s ghostly guitar proposes from just behind the CEO’s zombie-9/11 hero worship, this is a scam. Maybe this “heroism” is even a kind of eroticized death wish, delivered with a sadistic smiley face.
In a way, Fripp’s guitar lines become yet another set of quotation marks around “‘Heroes,’” His haunting guitar lines like fingers grasping the concept of heroism and holding it up for inspection, swooping around it with a cape on, questioning it intensely, almost desperately, as if to suggest that the heroism of “‘Heroes’” is the song’s ability to step away and detach from the concept, to alienate it and probe it while simultaneously swandiving into and around the experience of sudden courage in the face of terror.
Just for one day. Forever and ever. The music hints at the lie being told in the ad even as the ad tries to use the music to associate its exploitation of workers with 9/11. All built out of David Bowie’s koan of a song, delivered with at once straightforward sincerity and a kind of twisted-up self-loathing and disgust.
The use of “‘Heroes’” in the ad prevents the cover up underway from fully achieving its effect. Something else bleeds through: not just a cry against the cynical appropriation of the song by Walmart, but also the song’s other levels of suggestive meaning. As corporations such as Walmart desperately urge workers to keep working, and all of us to keep shopping, an alternative glimmers up: what if the essential heroism of the essential worker is not to sacrifice herself in the face of viral infection, illness, and death? What if the heroic choice is instead to resist or refuse orders? What if not just for one day, but forever? Maybe, just beyond the quotation marks, life could be better, different, even radically transformed.
“Thank you for keep us safe and for being our light…for always doing your part,” McMillon says, laying into the word always.
Meanwhile, if you know the song playing instrumentally behind the CEO, Bowie’s voice echoes in your head: “Oh, we can beat them, forever and ever. Then we could be heroes, just for one day.”
First as 1970s irony, then as 9/11 tragedy, now as coronavirus 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. Bowie and his band seem to jump up and down musically, pointing 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.
“Maybe we’re lying, then you better not stay
/ But we could be safer, just for one day.”