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Time Will Crawl - An Environmental Analysis

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ENSC200 Media Analysis Assignment - 20073649
Media Piece: Time Will Crawl by David Bowie (song)
On April 25th, 1986, the greatest nuclear power plant accident in history occurred in the town
of Pripyat, Ukraine. A flawed reactor design in the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant caused a
massive explosion, releasing a massive cloud of radiation into the atmosphere that resulted in
immediate contamination of the surrounding environment, as well as around 31 direct deaths,
and over 4000 indirect, delayed ones (WHO, 2018). Many of the chemical effects of the
radiation are still being experienced today (Bourguignon, 2016). Chernobyl had a profound
cultural impact, increasing distrust in the government and strengthening the anti – nuclear power
movement (Mulvey, 2006). David Bowie’s “Time Will Crawl” uses writing and musical delivery
to capture both of these themes.
Bowie was recording in Switzerland in April 1986 when he learned of the disaster in fragments
through the radio. He cited the memory of standing outside in the sunlight, anticipating the cloud
of radiation that was sailing his way, as the main inspiration behind “Time Will Crawl” (Pegg,
2011). This song takes the listener through the causes and effects of the Chernobyl incident,
beginning with the cultural values that laid the foundation for this type of manmade disaster. The
first verse outlines two main forces that contribute to the idea of passivity in the face of
destruction. In the first few lines of the song, Bowie describes a sense of powerlessness towards
religion, stating, “I would not challenge a giant, I would not take on the church.” The next verse
critiques the government driven space race, describing a blind government man who sends a “top
– gun pilot”, or astronaut, into the air, never to return. Here, Bowie seems to insinuate a futility
to the technological competition that was occurring between the United States and the Soviet
Union at the time (Gosztola, 2016). Calling the astronaut top – gun only to use three lines to
emphasize his demise at the hands of a “blind man” gives a disapproving undertone to this verse.
It is clear that Bowie is aware of the absurd amount of trust and power attributed to religion and
the government, two factors which, historically have proven to be the cause of countless wars.
Interestingly, he doesn’t seem angry or roused, he is simply documenting what he has observed
from a slightly disapproving, but mainly objective standpoint. After the chorus, the lines become
more specific to the direct environmental effects of Chernobyl. The line “I saw a black, black
stream, full of white eyed fish” explicitly describes the immediate contamination of aquatic
environments by radiation poisoning and the destruction of wildlife as a result. The next line
seems to use a metaphor to predict Bowie’s idea of the apocalypse: “And a drowning man with
no eyes at all”. In this metaphorical vision, the fish and the stream represent the environment,
suffering as a result of the tendency of humans to turn a blind eye to destruction in favor of
selfish desires. The man represents mankind, and his drowning in a black, polluted stream
suggests that the destruction of our own environment will be the eventual cause of our demise.
This line brings the idea of blindness of man that was introduced in the second verse full circle;
what was initially associated with a selfish technological race presents itself again in the face of
death. Chernobyl had given Bowie a preview of how the end of the world would play out; a
bureaucratic dispute fueled by greed and hate that no one was likely to take responsibility for.
This graphic vision is followed up by a few lines describing Chernobyl specifically: “I felt a
warm warm breeze, that melted metal and steel.” Bowie describes a “bad migraine”, most likely
referring to radiation poisoning, the “pills [he] took” being anti-radiation pills, which were
known for their dangerous side effects.
Arguably the most striking aspect of this song is not the lyrics, but their delivery. Musically,
the song has a rather harsh sound; Bowies vocals remain nearly monotone throughout the entire
song, and he doesn’t seem to put much effort into rhyming his lyrics. The song sounds drained,
and the singer sounds unmotivated, almost as if someone is forcing him to keep going. This
sense of exhaustion adds depth to the sense of passivity in the face of environmental and social
havoc that was established early in the lyrics. Chernobyl gave Bowie a glimpse of the
apocalypse, and he did not see it as worthy of any sort of grand anthem.
The fourth verse specifies the concept of technological development and its costs as the
perspective shifts to an innocent civilian caught up in the destruction of this nuclear accident.
When he describes a “talented child that came to live in our town”, he is likely referring to a
scientist that came to work on the plant. The next few lines, “We never bothered to scream as
your mask went on, we only smelt the gas as we laid down to sleep” suggest that the citizens
were the ones who suffered the most by blindly putting their trust into the scientists, while the
scientists protected only themselves.
The chorus, which takes up essentially the rest of the song, continues to describe the
destruction that was predicated by Chernobyl with an air of indifference. Bowie describes all the
horrors we will experience if things don’t change, but he gives no solution or alternative. He
seems certain that bloody streets, shrinking feet, eyes falling out and dry mouths are all in our
near future if the 21st century doesn’t “lose”. This idea of the 21st century losing could mean a
variety of things, but here, it seems like he is associating this time period with the impact of
greed driven factors like warfare and technological development that led to the Chernobyl
incident. It seems like Bowie believes that these factors will only grow in magnitude throughout
the coming century. The repeated phrase “til the 21st century lose” reminds the listener that the
only way to end the horrors he describes is to eliminate the modern values of greed and hate that
predicate aimlessly destructive wars.
Appendix:
Lyrics:
I’ve never sailed on a sea
I would not challenge a giant
I could not take on the church
Time will crawl
Till the 21st century lose
I know a government man
He was as blind as the moon
He saw the sun in the night
He took a top-gun pilot
He made him fly through a hole
Till he grew real old
And he never came down
He just flew till he burst
You were a talented child
You came to live in our town
We never bothered to scream
When your mask went on
We only smelt the gas
As we laid down to sleep
Time will crawl and our heads bowed down
Time will crawl and our eyes fall out
Time will crawl and the streets run red
Time will crawl til the 21st century lose
Time will crawl and our mouths run dry
Time will crawl and our feet grow small
Time will crawl and our tails fall off
Time will crawl till our mouths run dry Time will crawl til the 21st century lose
Time will crawl till our feet grow small
Time will crawl till our tails fall off
Time will crawl and our heads bowed down
Time will crawl till the 21st century lose Time will crawl and our eyes fall out
Time will crawl and the streets run red
I saw a black black stream
Time will crawl til the 21st century lose
Full of white eyed fish
And a drowning man
For the crazy child
With no eyes at all
We’ll give every life
I felt a warm warm breeze
For the crackpot notion
That melted metal and steel
I got a bad migraine
That lasted three long years
And the pills that I took
Made my fingers disappear
Works Cited:
Gosztola, Kevin. “The Protest Songs Of David Bowie.” MintPress News, 13 Jan. 2016,
www.mintpressnews.com/212665-2/212665/.
Mulvey, Stephen. “Europe | The Chernobyl Nightmare Revisited.” BBC News, BBC, 18 Apr.
2006, news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/4918742.stm.
“Chernobyl: the True Scale of the Accident.” World Health Organization, World Health
Organization, 27 Dec. 2018, www.who.int/mediacentre/news/releases/2005/pr38/en/index1.html.
Pegg, Nicholas. The Complete David Bowie. Titan Books, 2011.
Bourguignon, Didier. “European Parliament / Think Tank.” Chernobyl 30 Years on:
Environmental and Health Effects - Think Tank,
www.europarl.europa.eu/thinktank/en/document.html?reference=EPRS_BRI(2016)581972.
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