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פ.י.מ.פ.

Analyzing Bowie: Andy Warhol

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In the previous two albums, we saw Bowie straying away from the world of pop, going deep into philosophical, mystical and poetic regions. Hunky Dory shows him doubling back and returning to pop, but he returns to it with all the baggage he accumulated on his earlier travels, trying to merge his spirituality with the history of rock music, youth rebellion and pop culture. It is only natural, then, that he would write a song about the man whose name came to embody the philosophical and artistic side of pop, the already-mythical Andy Warhol.

But it`s more than that. Even through a preliminary glance at the lyrics, we can already deduce that Bowie felt a certain artistic affinity to Warhol, sensing that the latter`s aesthetic approach was similar to what he was trying to achieve. Ever since he started to gain notoriety in the early sixties, it was never certain what Warhol was trying to say. His works highlighted certain aspects of popular culture – artificiality, glamorization, mass production, the turning of everything into commodity, the power of brands, the adulation of stars etc. – but it was never clear whether he was celebrating them or mocking them. Moreover, he turned himself into a living exemplar of these aspects, presenting a glamorous and vacuous persona that never revealed any inner traits, but merely reflected the people around him. In short, he was living out what Bowie only sang about: playing the clown that presents a mirror-image to society.

Another Warholian attribute which was shared by Bowie was what he expressed in `The Prettiest Star`: his fascination with the glamour of Hollywood and its star-system, that system that produced bigger than life figures for us to idolize and try to imitate. Warhol`s work reflected that fascination, and as a result, he became a magnet for a certain type of people that started to emerge in the sixties, people who tried to live their actual lives as if they were a star on the screen, creating a unique and larger than life persona for themselves, with fabricated names to match. Warhol called them "superstars" and surrounded himself with them, to magnify his own glamour and to get ideas. Bowie, as we know, had similar sensibilities. In `Life on Mars?` we see him imagining that life is like a movie, and trying to draw ideas from the films on how to live it. And since he aspired to live it like a heroic Superman, then it was the movie stars who provided the model.

Towards the mid-sixties, Warhol changed mediums. Plastic art, he claimed, was no longer a sufficient form for capturing the spirit of the times, and the ideal forms were rather cinema and pop music. His foray into the music world brought us the Velvet Underground, a group that put an artistic spin on pop and changed it forever, and his take on cinema was no less revolutionary. By the nineteen-fifties, cinema was starting to take itself more seriously as an art-form, and as a result it paid more attention to the aspects that traditionally were regarded as more "artistic": storyline, dialogue, acting and so forth. But Warhol saw this as a turn for the worse and wanted to take cinema back to its roots, back to the time when it revolved around the glamour of the stars. In his movies he would simply turn the camera on and let the superstars play out their personas, with no scripted story or dialogue. Thus, the lines between the screen and real life were blurred and life became a movie. This, as we shall see, was another thing that impressed Bowie.

Before we address the lyrics, let`s note the means by which Bowie emphasizes the artificiality of the record. It begins with synthesized noises, proceeds with a rather affected style of singing wrapped in syncopated disjointed music reminiscent of Syd Barrett in his weirder moments, and adds studio chatter in the beginning and clapping at the end, all accentuating the fact that this is a piece of manufactured sound. Over this background, Bowie can celebrate the artificiality of Warhol`s art and persona:

Like to take a cement fix
Be a standing cinema
Dress my friends up just for show
See them as they really are

The first verse unveils the artistic vision that Bowie recognizes in Warhol. He is a "standing cinema", an image which can be interpreted in two ways: either that he is an artist whose art is like a cinema show on which other people play; or that he is himself the embodiment of the spirit of cinema. The interesting thing here is that he says that to see people "as they really are" you have to dress them up, which goes contrary to the ordinary perception that it is rather by undressing people that you reveal their true nature. The Hippies, for instance, held that we should shed off all our cultural masks and reveal the "real self" that hides beneath - but here Bowie suggests that it is rather the manufactured Warhol superstars who display authenticity. This is one of the fundamental insights governing Bowie`s work, an insight which was already hinted at in his earlier records, but is now beginning to emerge more prominently: the idea that there is no such thing as a "real self" that you are born with, and that to be real, you have to create yourself.

Put a peephole in my brain
Two New Pence to have a go
I`d like to be a gallery
Put you all inside my show

The aspiration is to turn his art into a reflection of Humanity. He wants to be a gallery of every side of the human existence, to put us all inside his show. And by that, to provide a peep-show through which we can all see what we are really like. Apparently, Bowie reveres Warhol as an artist whose methods can achieve this ideal goal.

Andy Warhol looks a scream
Hang him on my wall
Andy Warhol, Silver Screen
Can`t tell them apart at all

So he tells us that he wants to "hang him on my wall", which normally would mean that he wants to purchase one of his paintings – to hang a Warhol on his wall. But of course, Bowie says it in a way that can also be interpreted as wanting to hang Warhol himself on his wall, to show that he regards Warhol himself as an art piece. And the second couplet tells us that he can`t tell him apart from the silver screen, that Warhol is like someone who comes straight out of the movies. The artist is indistinguishable from the art. 

Andy walking, Andy tired
Andy take a little snooze
Tie him up when he`s fast asleep
Send him on a pleasant cruise
When he wakes up on the sea
He`s sure to think of me and you
He`ll think about paint
and he`ll think about glue
What a jolly boring thing to do

The second verse emphasizes the fact that the art is Warhol`s life, not just his job. The "Andy walking, Andy tired" line recalls the laconic tongue which Warhol usually employed to talk about his work, pretending there was nothing deep about it and that it is merely a way to make money. But Bowie knows that this is only a front, and that Warhol`s art is actually the essence of his existence. Even if we try to force him to take a vacation from his "work", it will be to no avail – it`s part of who he is. In the coming years, Bowie himself will often belittle his own art in interviews and pretend it is nothing but business, when actually, it was his entire life.

As we can see, Bowie is judging Warhol`s art through the Pierrot concept he took from Lindsay Kemp: Warhol, according to his interpretation, embodies the spirit of contemporary popular culture and provides a mirror-image for the rest of us. Thus, he is a model for the kind of artist that Bowie wants to be. But we can also sense that it is not enough for Bowie. While Warhol, according to the way he describes him, has no individuality of his own (even when we send him on a pleasure cruise, he can still think only about other people), Bowie wants to put himself in the center of things. Being nothing but a mirror-image is ultimately a jolly boring thing to do. So while he did take a lot from Warhol`s art – self-creation, the focus on pop culture, the perception that the artist is the medium – and incorporated it into his own aesthetics, he was not going to adopt his passive stance. For someone who believed he has the potential to become a Nietzschean Superman, being a standing cinema just wasn`t enough – he needed to be the Superstar.

Bowie met Warhol for the first time around the time this song was recorded. Only this bit of footage remains from the meeting, showing Bowie in his Lauren Bacall phase.

And a quarter of a century later Bowie would portray Warhol, quite splendidly, in the movie Basquiat.

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