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פ.י.מ.פ.

Analyzing Bowie: Saviour Machine

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In this record, Bowie deals with one of his recurring themes: Utopia; heaven on Earth. This concept is of course an essential part of the Modern world. While Medieval Christianity claimed that human life is a life of constant misery and the goal must be reaching the afterworld in which this suffering can cease, the modern movements asserted that the goal must be to abolish human suffering from our own world. All modern ideologies agreed that this is the goal, and they differed from each other only in the question of how it should be accomplished. The welfare state that arose in mid-20th century claimed to be the best and fastest course to get to a perfect world, while the counter-culture of the sixties pretended to present an even faster way. So the argument was merely about the means, not about the end. Very few tried to take a look at the end itself, to ask what will actually happen if we ever achieve the desired Utopia. David Bowie was one of those few.

President Joe once had a dream
The world held his hand, gave their pledge
So he told them his scheme for a saviour machine
They called it the prayer, its answer was law
Its logic stopped war, gave them food
How they adored till it cried in its boredom

The story begins with a world leader who envisions a computer so powerful that it can devise a state that will end all human suffering. He gets the consent of the people to go ahead and construct it, and lo and behold, it works: the laws that the machine decrees succeed in ending all wars and eradicating hunger. Utopia is achieved, heaven comes to Earth. But then, the smart machine looks at its own creation, and this is what it has to say:

Please don't believe in me, please disagree with me
Life is too easy, a plague seems quite feasible now
Or maybe a war, or I may kiIl you all

The world, says the machine, has not become a good world with the coming of Utopia. Everything is set, all the answers are given, and thus this world provides no outlets for an intelligent mind to express itself. Not only that, but it is boring, so boring that even extreme suffering seems more appealing. The question Bowie poses for us is: is that really the world we want? Will a world that is devoid of any excitement and any need for mental effort really make humans happier?

Don't let me stay, don't let me stay
My logic says burn, so send me away
Your minds are too green, I despise all I've seen
You can't stake your lives on a saviour machine

The underlying belief behind most utopian ideologies is the belief that human nature is good, and that evil stems from the irrational way the social system is structured. Fix the system, set a rational order, and humans will be happy and content. But the machine sees something else: human nature is not made for living a life of tranquility, and will not be content within a rational system.

This is a notion that permeates the entire Man Who Sold the World album: irrational cravings, violence and disorder stem from human nature, not just from the system. Meaning, that they will not just disappear if you create a perfect state. At a time when the counter-culture actively resisted the war in Vietnam and called for peace on Earth, Bowie comes out with 'Running Gun Blues', which warns us that peace is not for everyone. Other tracks suggest the same: humans need excitement, and some of them would rather live dangerously than choose a safe and boring existence. So a Utopia that offers only an end to suffering, without providing any thrills, is not fit for the human race. The clever machine determines that for the sake of humanity it (the machine) must be banished, because the deficiencies of the "Utopia" it created will surely lead to catastrophe.

I need you flying, and I'll show that dying
Is living beyond reason, sacred dimension of time
I perceive every sign, I can steal every mind

Don't let me stay, don't let me stay
My logic says burn, so send me away
Your minds are too green, I despise all I've seen
You can't stake your lives on a saviour machine

Trying to envisage something better, the machine enters a state of rapture, flying high on its imagination, relishing in its own power and wanting to use it to take humanity to a higher plane of existence, an existence of ecstasy and magic. But it also knows that it is a dangerous wish, and because it is programmed to care for the wellbeing of humans it asks once again that they banish it before it takes them to an edge they might fall off of.

Bowie, however, has no such restraints. It could be claimed that in the second verse he is no longer assuming the character of the savior machine but actually speaks for himself, telling us what he, the artist David Bowie, wants to do to us. This is one more record that announces his breakaway from the hippy-dippy peace/love ideology of his generation, and his aspiration to take us to a higher form of existence, one that is about powerful thrills and heroic actions. The guitar and synth accompany the flight of the machine with a melody nicked from 'Ching-A-Ling', the old flight-of-fantasy Bowie number from his more benign Hippie days, but make it sound a lot more powerful and sinister. In this album, Bowie already begins drawing an alternative way to happiness.

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