Stan Grant: How David Bowie's Let's Dance shone a light on Australia's Indigenous struggle
It was 1983 and I was at university when I first saw the film clip. Here was a music superstar featuring my own people, putting Indigenous faces on a world stage.
The song was Let’s Dance, the singer David Bowie.
While the clip, shot for the most part in the small western New South Wales town of Carinda, was described by its co-director David Mallett as “intentionally anti-racist”, the song itself wasn’t overtly political. But it contained a message that resonated with us: when all is against you, what else can you do? “Put on your red shoes and dance the blues!”
As he said at the time, “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.”
Bowie plucked two Aboriginal performers from obscurity – Terry Roberts and Jolene King – to feature them in his clip. As King told Fairfax in 2013, “[The clip] showed the rest of the world that there are Indigenous people here in Australia, and that we’re not this textbook carbon copy of someone standing there with a spear; that there are modern Aboriginals, and this is one version [of them].”
There are confronting scenes: King scrubbing floors with her hands, and Roberts barefoot, dragging heavy machinery up a busy city street.
The symbolism was unmissable: Indigenous struggle and suffering against the prosperity of white Australia. Bowie himself summed it up to ABC’s Countdown as “a direct statement about integration of one culture with another”.
A world of ideas was opening up to me; university had awakened my political consciousness, I was questioning my country and my place in it, and David Bowie was as powerful a teacher as any of my lecturers.
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.
Bowie had always been important to me. I can’t remember the first time I heard him, but I also can’t remember a time when I didn’t listen to him. The first song of his I recall was the strange little ditty The Laughing Gnome: “Ha ha ha he he he, I’m a laughing gnome and you can’t catch me”. Not his greatest moment, but I loved it as a boy.
Later I wore out my cassettes of Hunky Dory and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust, and fell in love with songs like Changes, Life on Mars and Starman. In my teens I briefly formed a band with fellow Bowie devotees, inspired by the punk and new wave music scene.
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.
For my birthday last year my wife bought me the complete Bowie vinyl collection. Today, like so many, I am profoundly sad.
As he wrote in his first hit song, Space Oddity: the stars look very different today.