Win Butler of Arcade Fire said that “songwriting is reliant on inspiration, which ideally you don’t have that much control over.” More often than not, the uncontrollable urge to put pen to paper and pick up the acoustic is driven by some deeply personal inspiration, some sort of cathartic deliverance in song. Sometimes, however, the inspiration jumps up and grabs the songwriter from an external source.
Although it is hard to imagine, musicians do in fact live normal everyday lives like the rest of us and thus they are equally likely to be bombarded by all the incoming data from the unfurling of the day-to-day world. While it is true that stories from outside the art realm don’t permeate their creative bubbles, every now and again a musician will take enough of an interest in a current event or news story and be moved enough by it to transpose the inspiration into a melody.
Whether the resultant song is an epic lament about a front-page catastrophe, some tender prying at the fabric behind an interesting snippet on page nine, or a tidbit from the annuls of history, is up to the unspooling predestined fate of the songwriting God’s. While David Bowie might have usually avoided politics in a perfunctory sense in his work, he was certainly a man who always had his finger firmly to the pulse of society.
The track ‘Valentine’s Day’, the fourth single released from Bowie’s penultimate record The Next Day was anything but a story about romance and heart-shaped chocolates, behind the ‘Waterloo Sunset’-like riff is a much more sombre tale. The title may well pertain to the Chicago 1929 Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre, but the lyrics are penned in regard to the Virginia Tech shooting of 2007. Placing the incidents together Bowie reveals the long-chartered chequered past that America has with gun control.
More so than regaling the horrific incidents in great detail, Bowie probed at the psychology behind the shooter, with the lyrics stating, “who’s to go […] the teachers and the football stars,” as well as, “Valentine told me how he feels / If all the world were under his heels.” In typical Bowie style focusing on the deeper factors beyond the surface of blunt policy.
Long-time collaborator and producer Tony Visconti stated, “The subject matter is pretty scary. It’s […] about people who acquire a gun and do awful things with it.” In short, asking the question of why American society produces so many people who are willing to perpetrate such atrocities as opposed to simply stopping at the most obvious point.
You can check out the video below chocked with references to NRA iconography including Charlton Heston yielding a rifle above his head and various other shadowy reflections of Bowie’s showing something more sinister than a songsmith.