How David Bowie’s ‘Let’s Dance’ Helped Shine A Light On Racism
David Bowie’s 1983 worldwide smash hit single, ‘Lets Dance‘, reached number one worldwide. Its feel-good sound and catchy guitar brought Bowie a whole new audience. For Australia’s Aboriginal people though, the song has a much more significant effect by shining a light on the country’s racism.
On its surface, Let’s Dance is about just that, dancing. But, in an interview with Mojo years later, Niles Rogers, the song’s producer, explains the track’s deeper meaning, “When David wrote those lyrics, he was talking about the dance that people do in life; the conceptual dance of not being honest. He sings, ‘put on your red shoes and dance the blues.’ Like you’re pretending to be happy but you’re sad.”
Bowie himself was trying to “produce something that was warmer and more humanistic than anything I’ve done for a long time”. While the song isn’t overtly political, it was the video of the song that had a profound effect on the fight against racism, particularly in Australia, where filming took place.
As Stan Grant, a journalist of aboriginal descent, wrote in an article for The Guardian in 2016, “Remember, this was 1983. We were virtually invisible, black faces were rare on our screens. I can’t overstate how stunning it was to see Aboriginal people in a film clip, with David Bowie no less.”
Dance The Blues
The official video directed by David Mallet features an Aboriginal couple who are struggling against Western cultural imperialism. Bowie described the video as a “very simple, very direct” statement against racism. The symbolism of the two aboriginal actors in the video scrubbing the floor with their hands or dragging heavy machinery up a busy street is unmissable.
And nobody was left in any doubt about the video’s aim after Bowie stated around the time of its release, “As much as I love this country, it is probably one of the most racially intolerant in the world, well in line with South Africa.”
The cast and crew experienced racism firsthand while filming the iconic scenes at the small bar in the Australian outback. According to Mallet, some of the bars customers didn’t appreciate the presence of the aborigines who danced in the video. Some of the bars patrons even mocked their dance moves. Some of this mocking was edited into the finished video.
But the video and Bowie’s stand seemed to have an effect. Stan Grant says, “Bowie spoke to the outsider in all of us – and I certainly felt like an outsider. Yet a decade after seeing black faces in the Let’s Dance film clip, I was hosting my own national television current affairs program. In some way, Bowie made that possible.”
David Bowie’s Let’s Dance video had an almost immeasurable impact on racism in Australia. This change in attitude certainly reached the town of Carinda where the video was shot. The hotel now hosts a yearly festival ‘Let’s Dance Carinda’ which celebrates the work of Bowie and their small part in his story.