Co-written by Brian Eno, this electronica-influenced track finds David Bowie in the grips of paranoia thanks to a guy named Jonny, whose propensity for violence and insatiable lust for material possessions frightens the singer. Jonny is a satirical representation of a stereotypical American obsessed with capitalist culture.
"It's not as truly hostile about Americans as say Born In The U.S.A.
': it's merely sardonic," Bowie explained in a press release. "I was traveling in Java when its first McDonald's went up: it was like, 'for f--k's sake.' 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."
This was intended for Bowie's 1995 album, Outside. An early rough mix with different lyrics ("I'm afraid of the animals" instead of "Americans") appeared on the soundtrack to Showgirls that year before landing on the Earthling album.
This was Bowie's final entry on the Hot 100 while still alive ("Blackstar
" and "Lazarus
" hit the chart after his death from liver cancer in 2016). The song also peaked at #14 in Canada.
The single version (the V1 mix) features additional vocals from Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, who also contributed guitar, bass, and drums. Reznor, one of Bowie's touring mates, also starred in the music video as Jonny, stalking a terrified Bowie around New York City.
Reznor has a complicated relationship with the song. He was in the throes of a drug addiction and Bowie, who had kicked his own habit, was trying to help him see the light. Reznor recalled to Rolling Stone after Bowie's death: "Once I got clean, I felt a tremendous amount of shame, of my actions and missed opportunities and the damage that I've caused in the past. And I thought back to the time when [Bowie and I] were together a lot, and I wonder what that could have been like if I was at 100 percent. 'I'm Afraid of Americans' falls into that category of me at my worst - out of my mind and ashamed of who I was at that time. So when I see that, I have mixed feelings - grateful to be involved, and flattered to be a part of it, but disgusted at myself, at who I was at that time, and wishing I had been 100 percent me. And it nagged me."
He recalled meeting Bowie again in LA a few years later: "I was met with warmth, and grace, and love. And I started to say, 'Hey listen, I've been clean for...' I don't even think I finished the sentence; I got a big hug. And he said, 'I knew. I knew you'd do that. I knew you'd come out of that.' I have goosebumps right now just thinking about it. It was another very important moment in my life."
The V3 remix features Ice Cube as a special guest.
Ann Wilson of Heart covered this on her 2018 album Immortal, a tribute to musicians who recently died. She shared her thoughts on the song in a press release: "A sardonic look at Americans through the eyes of a non-American, David Bowie. I love this little prank of a song, and decided to surround the words with the sounds of the rest of the world that is watching; India, Italy, France, Britain, Asia etc etc etc. The rest of the world, as a tribe, ends up engulfing the self important, superficial, vain, materialistic, lo tech 'Johnny' who, in this song is the stereotypical American. It is not a hate message, but certainly a reality check from an outside perspective. I had fun with this one and hope my fellow Americans will too."
This is the theme song to the TV drama Berlin Station, which premiered on Epix in 2016. It was also included on the soundtrack to the TV series Person of Interest.
Sonic Youth performed this with Bowie for the singer's 50th birthday bash at Madison Square Garden in 1997. The following year, Bowie sang it for Howard Stern's 44th birthday bash.
In a 2016 interview with The Daily Telegraph, Brian Eno explained how Bowie would embody the identity of a song's narrator, using this tune as an example: "I remember him recording 'I'm Afraid of Americans,' and saying, after one of the early takes, 'No, he's got to be more self-doubting than that.' His feelings about who this person was were quite specific. And he was quite clear about what difference that would make to how this voice should be. This is something that good singer-songwriters understand."
This was used in the 2014 comedy The Interview, starring Seth Rogan and James Franco, and the 2016 horror film The Purge: Election Year.