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פ.י.מ.פ.

Analyzing Bowie: Oh! You Pretty Things

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In the Space Oddity album, we saw Bowie taking a critical position towards the sixties counter-culture and distinguishing himself from it, but without offering any alternative. In The Man Who Sold the World we saw him continuing the quest for a new way, and this time actually finding something he could identify with: the Nietzschean concept of the Superman, as an ideal that humanity can aspire to. But it was merely a hint, hidden between the folds of the album, in a way that only someone familiar with Nietzsche`s thought would be able to explicate: `The Supermen` presents the idea that human life can be lived on a higher level, but places the story far away, in prehistoric times; while `After All` tells us that "Man is an obstacle", and if you know your Nietzsche, you understand that Bowie is suggesting a new target for the sixties revolution – to overcome man and make way for the Superman. In `Oh! You Pretty Things`, there will be no more beating about the bush: the message is to be sounded from the top of the mountain, and brought to the masses. Appropriately, the style of the music changes: while those previous records were heavy, ponderous and incommunicable, here the music is lighter and fit for the pop market - so much so that it became a successful record for fluffy pop singer Peter Noone. Those listeners who paid attention to the lyrics, however, came across something a lot more foreboding than your usual Hit Parade fodder.

Wake up you sleepy head
Put on some clothes, shake up your bed
Put another log on the fire for me
I`ve made some breakfast and coffee
I look out my window and what do I see
A crack in the sky and a hand reaching down to me
All the nightmares came today
And it looks as though they`re here to stay

The record begins innocently enough, with a picture of a regular morning in a regular home. But then, the protagonist looks out his window and discovers that the world is about to change as the result of outside intervention. This, he knows, will be considered by most people as the materialization of their worst nightmares. It is one of the recurring themes in Bowie`s work: the fact that most people fear the alien and fear change. We are yet to hear what the hero himself thinks of it, though.

We also witness the difference between Bowie and Nietzsche. While the latter believed that we can bring about our transformation by ourselves, Bowie imagines it would take an outside intervention to take us to the next level. Someone has to come from the sky and hand down the new gospel. Here we are taken out of the realm of Nietzsche and into the realm of religious scriptures, in a passage that reminds us of the visions of the prophets. Or maybe Bowie takes his ideas from science fiction, particularly the works of Arthur C. Clarke, who in books like Childhood`s End and 2001: A Space Odyssey told the story of an alien race that lands on Earth and generates the next step in evolution. In any case, it seems that Bowie suggests that we can`t do it on our own.

What are we coming to
No room for me, no fun for you
I think about a world to come
Where the books were found by the Golden Ones
Written in pain, written in awe
By a puzzled man who questioned
What we were here for
All the strangers came today
And it looks as though they`re here to stay

The speaker now reveals his own point of view: humankind has come to the end of its road. We have no room, no fun, no meaning in our lives. He projects his thoughts to the future, when the world will already be ruled by the new species, and wonders what they will think of us when they discover our books and realize how hapless we were. We get the impression, then, that he doesn`t perceive this new reality as a nightmare, but welcomes the change as something positive.

Oh, you pretty things
Don`t you know you`re driving your
Mamas and papas insane
Oh, you pretty things
Don`t you know you`re driving your
Mamas and papas insane
Let me make it plain
You gotta make way for the Homo Superior

The chorus leaves no doubt where his heart lies: he is thrilled by the prospects of change that will take humanity out of its current condition. He sees himself as the prophet who teaches us the gospel handed to him from the sky, and the message is: make way for the next step in evolution, the Homo Superior. The message is addressed to the youth of his time, which he calls the "pretty things", maybe his version of the "beautiful people" moniker the Hippies used for themselves. He is proposing a new direction for the counter-culture, and this time he doesn`t play riddles like in `After All`, but makes it as plain as he can.

Look out at your children
See their faces in golden rays
Don`t kid yourself they belong to you
They`re the start of the coming race
The earth is a bitch
We`ve finished our news
Homo Sapiens have outgrown their use
All the strangers came today
And it looks as though they`re here to stay

The prophet now addresses the parents, and explains the situation: the upheaval of the sixties is not just some temporary cultural convulsion, but heralds a profound and permanent evolutionary change, the coming of a Homo Superior that will supplant Homo Sapiens. Their children, he tells them, are the first generation that belongs to those future "golden ones" he mentioned before, and they can see it for themselves if they look closely at their faces. This is Bowie`s updated version of Bob Dylan`s `The Times they are A-Changin``: get out of the way, old people – the new generation is creating a new world.

The image is enhanced by his invoking of The Coming Race, the notorious 1870 book written by Victorian novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton, in which he told of another human race, much more powerful than our own, living underground in a utopian society. This race relies on magic, not science, to advance their society, and so they developed humanity`s inner powers rather than hand them over to the machines. This connects to Bowie`s fascination with black magic, and infuses more power into the image of his golden ones: the mystical quest of the sixties, he hints, will result in a different kind of humans.

Of course, `Oh! You Pretty Things` is merely a fantasy. While Dylan spoke of a cultural and social change, Bowie is talking about biological change, and this kind of message had little chance to enthrall the youth the way Dylan did. However, we shouldn`t write it off as some whimsical sci-fi story that has nothing to do with reality. The record uses sci-fi imagery to transfer Bowie`s true belief that life could be lived on a more exciting and heroic level than what the world of today has to offer, and adds the notion that it would take alien intervention to take us there. Eventually, Bowie will discover a new gospel for the youth, and the imagery he uses here will take its place in it.

Peter Noone`s version, which came out before Bowie`s and was one of the first Bowie songs to be performed by another artist, helped him gain some more recognition.

And here is Bowie himself performing it in early 1972, shortly after it was realeased as part of the Hunky Dory album.

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