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Music / Earthling

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"God is an American."

Earthling is the twenty-first studio album by David Bowie, released in 1997 through RCA Records in the UK and Virgin Records in the US. It is also his first self-produced album since 1974's Diamond Dogs.

Although Bowie's plan to record a series of sequels to 1. Outside fell through the cracks, that didn't mean the English rock chameleon was down for the count. Rather, he took the style he had built up on that album and reconfigured it for the second half of The '90s. Born from the vestiges of an aborted project to modernize and re-record a number of his old hits with a few new pieces thrown innote , Earthling continues the industrial influences (in particular Nine Inch Nails) from its predecessor but orients them in a more commercially accessible, danceable direction (though not without its own share of ambient leanings here and there), essentially being "David Bowie meets Drum and Bass".

Nine Inch Nails' then-only member, Trent Reznor himself, would later remix the last of Earthling's singles, "I'm Afraid of Americans", and star in its music video, which became Bowie's first in over a decade to see heavy rotation on MTV. The four singles prior to it were "Telling Lies", "Little Wonder", "Dead Man Walking" and "Seven Years In Tibet".

"Telling Lies" was notably the first work by a major popular music artist to be released over the internet, being officially available for download in three different versions, released on September 11, September 18, and September 25, 1996. The campaign was launched by a promotional activity on an online chat in which he and two impersonators tasked fans with identifying the real deal through an inversion of Two Truths and a Lie, in which the real Bowie would tell factoids about himself and the impersonators would tell equally-convincing fibs before asking the chat to vote on which Bowie they thought was the real one. The real Bowie came in third. The three versions wouldn't be available physically until the CD single and 12" single releases on November 4, both of which would offer the full lot of them on one package; until then, the digital versions were collectively downloaded by over 300,000 people, which in 1996 was beyond impressive.


  1. "Little Wonder" (6:02)
  2. "Looking for Satellites" (5:21)
  3. "Battle for Britain (The Letter)" (4:48)
  4. "Seven Years in Tibet" (6:22)
  5. "Dead Man Walking" (6:50)
  6. "Telling Lies" (4:49)
  7. "The Last Thing You Should Do" (4:57)
  8. "I'm Afraid of Americans" (5:00)
  9. "Law (Earthlings on Fire)" (4:48)

"And I'm gone, like I'm troping on angels"

  • Alternative Dance: Bowie's big foray into the genre, in the form of drum & bass mixed with industrial rock and ambient music. He had previously played around with it on Black Tie White Noise and 1. Outside, but here he dived into it full force.
  • Animal Eyes: The latter half of the "Little Wonder" music video depicts Bowie with bright yellow cat eyes.
  • "Back to Camera" Pose: The album art depicts him standing over a green field while doing a Reverse Arm-Fold with his back to the camera. According to collaborator Reeves Gabrels, the cover was intended to reconnect Bowie with his homeland of England, having lived in the US for roughly 23 years by that point; fittingly, Bowie's back is emblazoned in a Union Jack.
  • Boom, Headshot!: "Seven Years in Tibet" starts in the immediate aftermath of a Tibetan monk being fatally shot in the head, with an old woman holding his blown-out brains while asking the monk if he's somehow okay.
  • Concept Video: "I'm Afraid of Americans" pays homage to Taxi Driver by seeing Bowie flee the "Johnny" of the song, who may or may not be a figment of his paranoid imagination.
  • Continuity Nod: The "Little Wonder" video incorporates a Ziggy Stardust lookalike into its action, while in a more subtle example the young fellow in the Union Jack coat looks suspiciously like Bowie did when he first started recording in the mid-1960s.
  • Costume Porn: The Alexander McQueen-designed frock coats hail from this era.
  • Eagleland: "I'm Afraid of Americans" is Type 2, depicting America as depraved, dysfunctional, and something to be feared rather than admired.
  • Epic Rocking: "Dead Man Walking", "Little Wonder", "Seven Years In Tibet".
  • Expy: Trent Reznor described his character in the "I'm Afraid of Americans" music video as an imitation of Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver, noting that this stemmed from the film being a direct source of inspiration for the video. The key difference is that where Bickle was impulsive, attention-seeking, and hugely ambiguous in morality, Reznor's character in the video is a more clear-cut villain, stalking Bowie with visible intent to cause harm.
  • Eyepatch of Power: Bowie at the start of the "Little Wonder" video, a possible nod to his "Rebel Rebel" performance on the Dutch version of Top of the Pops back in 1974.
  • Face on the Cover: A notable subversion— Bowie is present on the cover, but is standing with his back to the camera.
  • Ghibli Hills: The album cover depicts Bowie gazing at a lush, pastoral field ahead of him.
  • Gratuitous Panning: The outro of "Little Wonder" and some of the synth beats in "I'm Afraid of Americans" jump around the left and right audio channels.
  • Iconic Outfit: The Union Jack coat on the cover could be considered the costume most commonly associated with 90s-era Bowie.
  • Lighter and Softer: Is this compared to the very bleak and very violent Rock Opera 1. Outside— but not by much.
  • List Song: "Looking for Satellites" starts off like this.
  • Little People Are Surreal: The music video for "Dead Man Walking" prominently features a little person with a gash in his head feeling around a room with a large rack of beef ribs.
  • Loudness War: Earthling is the first Bowie album to suffer from this trope, coming in at just DR7; later Bowie albums would continue to be compressed, with only 'hours...' surpassing this album in dynamics (even then, it only marginally exceeds it, at just DR8).
  • Madness Mantra: "God is an American, God is an American, God is an American..."
  • Major Injury Underreaction: Well in this case, Major Dying Underreaction. From "Law (Earthlings on Fire)"
    In a house a man drops dead
    As he hits the floor he sighs, "What a morning"
  • Mythology Gag: The artwork for the "Little Wonder" single, also repeated as its visual representative in the liner notes and the CD tray art, is an edited Kirlian photograph Bowie had taken of his fingertip and a crucifix around the time of Station to Station; a hand-written note on the original photo states that it was taken to test the effects of cocaine on Bowie's "aura" (in actuality coronal discharges, which can be emitted by any piece of matter and aren't related to anything spiritual; Bowie was just really into the occult in the mid-70's).
  • New Sound Album: While still consisting of abrasive, electronic-driven art rock in the vein of 1. Outside from two years earlier, Earthling is much more danceable and less brooding, owing to Bowie taking influence from Britain's drum & bass scene.
  • One-Word Title: The album title.
  • Performance Video: "Seven Years in Tibet" mixes videotaped footage of Bowie performing the song live with images from the album liner notes and Tibet manipulated with video editing effects.
  • Protest Song: According to Bowie, "I'm Afraid of Americans" was written as a "sardonic" critique of corporate globalization, which he characterized as a form of colonialism.
    "The invasion by any homogenized culture is so depressing, the erection of another Disney World in, say, Umbria, Italy, more so. It strangles the indigenous culture and narrows expression of life."
  • Rearrange the Song: "I'm Afraid of Americans" was originally recorded during the Outside sessions and included in Showgirls as "I'm Afraid of the Animals", featuring considerably different lyrics (among other things lacking the first verse and mentioning "Dummy" and "the animals" instead of "Jonny" and "Americans"). The song was rewritten and re-recorded for its inclusion on Earthling.
  • Reverse Arm-Fold: Bowie strikes this pose in the cover photo, gazing at a green field.
  • Shout-Out:
    • To Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs of all things! Bowie wanted to pen a song that incorporates the names of all seven dwarfs within the lyrics. This would become "Little Wonder".
    • The formatting of the title text on the album cover evokes that of Talking Heads' 1983 album Speaking in Tongues; Bowie was a noted fan of Talking Heads and previously covered their music during a 1979 BBC Radio show.
  • Spoken Word in Music: Most of Bowie's vocals in "Law (Earthlings on Fire)" are spoken rather than sung, save for the lines "with the sound, with the sound, with the sound of the ground" and "earthlings on fire."
  • Surreal Music Video:
    • "Little Wonder" mixes together various video editing techniques to provide an ethereal portrait of Bowie and a Ziggy Stardust lookalike frantically wandering around and beneath New York City, including scenes of living severed eyes and Bowie becoming a floating, ghostlike figure in a subway tunnel.
    • "Dead Man Walking" combines unnervingly abstract art installations, a little person and a rack of beef ribs, and Bowie and Gail Ann Dorsey mucking about in a longcoat and a demon costume, respectively.
    • "I'm Afraid of Americans" starts in a grounded, everyday manner, but gradually grows more and more weird as Bowie's character continues to get wrapped up in his paranoia, culminating in a vision of Jonny carrying a cross down an alleyway alongside a dark parade.
  • Through the Eyes of Madness: The "I'm Afraid of Americans" music video shows that Bowie's character isn't exactly right in the head, with his paranoia leading him to see visions of people pointing guns at one another— and at him— across the streets of New York. The video only gets stranger and more disjointed as it goes on, encouraging the viewer to ask how much of it is actually real.
  • Time Title: "Seven Years in Tibet" is named as such after the 1957 novel of the same name, tying in with its lyrics about the killing of a Tibetan monk; incidentally, the song released 40 years after the book did.
  • Title Track: "Law (Earthlings on Fire)". Also a subversion of Title Drop— Earthling is mentioned, but in plural form.
  • Translated Cover Version: A Mandarin version of "Seven Years in Tibet" was recorded for the Hong Kong release of the album, which features the track on a bonus CD single. It was later included on the DVD release of 2002's Best of Bowie as an Easter Egg.
  • Wearing a Flag on Your Head: The album cover depicts Bowie in a Union Jack longcoat designed by Alexander McQueen; according to collaborator Reeves Gabriels, the outfit was intended to reconnect Bowie with England after having spent much of his life outside of the country. Biographer Nicholas Pegg also described the coat as a nod to the turbulent history of the Union Jack's meaning since the start of Bowie's career in The '60s, up to the "Cool Britannia" movement associated with Britpop (which was at the height of its popularity when the album released in early 1997).
  • Wham Shot: Occurs 2 minutes 40 seconds into the video for "I'm Afraid of Americans". Bowie catches a taxi to leave New York to escape a stalker named Jonny (played by Trent Reznor), only to have the taxi operator licensee's name change to Jonny.
  • Whole-Plot Reference: The music video for "I'm Afraid of Americans" is an extended homage to Taxi Driver, featuring similar themes of urban paranoia and violence on the streets of New York; Trent Reznor even described his character in the video as an expy of Travis Bickle. Incidentally, the poster for Taxi Driver was done by the same painter as the cover for Bowie's earlier album Diamond Dogs.