There are a number of songs from the 80’s (or as I like to call it, the Golden Age) that cause me to break into spontaneous dance whenever I hear them on the radio. David Bowie’s “Modern Love” is one of them. It is catchy, brilliant, and timeless. But one question I have asked myself over the years is, “what does it mean?” So, to answer this question, I have enlisted Justin Tiemeyer (a friend and scholar) from Caveman Go to help me sort it out. The result is a simulblog. One interpretation here, another at Justin’s site http://cavemengo.blogspot.com/
First, the lyrics to Modern Love:
I know when to go out. I know when to stay in. Get things done
I catch a paper boy, but things don’t really change
I’m standing in the wind, but I never wave bye-bye
But I try, I try
There’s no sign of life. It’s just the power to charm
I’m lying in the rain, but I never wave bye-bye
But I try, I try
Never gonna fall for Modern love – walks beside me
Modern love – walks on by
Modern love – gets me to the church on time
Church on time – terrifies me
Church on time – makes me party
Church on time – puts my trust in god and man
God and man – no confessions
God and man – no religion
God and man – don’t believe in modern love
It’s not really work. It’s just the power to charm
I’m still standing in the wind. But I never wave bye bye
But I try, I try
(chorus again, but with a slight change)
God and man – *I* don’t believe in modern love
It appears to me that in this song, Bowie is lamenting the current state of romantic love in the post-Nietzsche era. If one takes Nietzsche’s philosophy seriously, it collapses beneath its own sadness. For many, God was the linchpin holding many institutions together, including marriage. Of course, if “God is dead,” then why must we bother to do things the “old fashioned” way?
Bowie admits here to being at an impasse. At one hand, he understands intellectually what is happening. He knows, “when to go out,” “when to stay in,” he “Get(s) things done.” But somehow, that isn’t enough. He recognizes that even out in the world, new knowledge and new philosophies of the “modern” era, which were supposed to make things better, make humanity thrive and reduce all evils, have really done nothing. This is shown by his catching the paper boy and noticing that things don’t really change. “Standing in the wind” becomes a metaphor for meaninglessness, but still, he can’t just let go of the things that seem of worth to him. Like love.
Although he tries again and again to convince himself that love is just an illusion and meaningless, something inside him can’t let go of the idea that love is real and more than just bodies colliding.
It appears that when he tries to go out and look for “modern love,” everything he finds is meaningless. All of the rituals like casual sex, late nights at bars and clubs, unwillingness to commit to another, have no “sign of life,” they are “just the power to charm,” but ultimately not fulfilling to him. His lying in the rain is his folly for indulging it, but he can’t seem to stop this meaningless ritual anymore than he can stop hoping that there is something more.
Bowie proclaims he will never fall for “modern love.” There must be something more. And yet “modern love” is his constant companion in these days. And yet for all of the time he has invested in it (him, her), he is easily walked away from. And this feeling makes him want to run to “the church on time,” which is a way of referring to getting married. And while the thought of marriage terrifies him, and makes him give himself to excess, he can’t deny the power it has to make him feel secure in his world (faith in God and man). But then Bowie remembers that faith in God and man is questionable. The confessions of church are growing more and more irrelevant to Europe at this time. Religion itself is fading into the background. And Religion is the major hold-fast against the encroachment of the empty “modern love.”
His change up in the next line about “its not really work, its just the power to charm,” implies that love used to be something that took hard work and was worth working for. Now, all that is required for a romantic hook-up is some kind of superficial chemistry. It’s meaningless, but like Solomon, he can’t throw in the towel. There is something about love. The way it used to be. Something good and right and meaningful that simply must not be thrown into the cellar of a bygone era.
Bowie stands in defiance with Nietzsche, but against Nietzsche’s philosophy. He will not treat love like nothing. I don’t believe in Modern Love either.
The new way of doing romantic relationships seems