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פ.י.מ.פ.

Analyzing Bowie: Queen Bitch

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In 'Changes', Bowie found the key to happiness: changing yourself by giving in to strange fascinations. When you are fascinated by something that is alien to your logic, and you allow yourself to be taken over by that fascination, it transforms you, and the process induces joy. The question now becomes: what is there in the world around him that is alien to his logic, and which fascinates him?

One answer was the underground gay culture, which was beginning to become more visible at the time. Homosexuality was already legal, but it was still an alien. Why? Because the Victorian mentality that ruled Britain, the US and most of the Western world regarded sexuality as something very well-defined. There were men, there were women, they were attracted to each other, and they had sex in order to have babies. Anything else was considered to be against nature and morality. But throughout the 20th century, under the surface of Victorianism, thrived a gay subculture in which gender and orientation were a lot more flexible and various and where sex was done for joy. In the minds of the regular folk, those gay people were unnatural and immoral, which meant that they were capable of any atrocity. All manners of sexual "perversion" were therefore attached to the stereotype of the gay culture, which made it evermore frightening: the fear was that if you open yourself up even a little to homosexuality, you will become perverted and slide into that world of S&M, fetishism, trans-sexuality, pedophilia and more. But times were beginning to change: after the sexual revolution, sex was no longer regarded as a means for procreation but as a means to have a good time, and people were ready to experiment. The gay world was still frightening, but also intriguing.

Now, in England, homosexuality wasn't completely alien. Gay people found spaces in society that accepted them, and avenues in which they could express themselves. Gays were very instrumental in the rise of pop culture in Britain, and the swinging sixties might not have happened if it wasn't for gay stylists, designers and managers who infused their camp irony and style into the mix. Bowie himself was the protégé of such a manager, the erudite Ken Pitt. Another place was British theatre, were homosexuality was practically a rite of passage, and Bowie, who was introduced to the thespian crowd through the ultra-campy Lindsay Kemp, got a real taste of it. His ties to the gay underground were strengthened even further with his marriage to the bisexual Angie, and the couple's frequenting of gay bars and discos. Through these connections Bowie acquired knowledge and feel for the gay life, and with the Arnold Corns project he already tried to turn it into something that would cause a stir. The English public, however, remained indifferent. Gayness just wasn't all that alien and shocking.

In America, on the other hand, things were quite different. Gay culture was driven deep underground, and found almost no expression in mainstream culture. Consequently, when gays did express themselves they did it in a more aggressive, outrageous and in-your-face manner. One American institution that did accept them was Andy Warhol, whose entourage included some fabulous gay characters, adding to his glamorous image. Under Warhol they could reach a larger crowd, and when some of them put on a trashy play called Pork, they got to take it all the way to London at the end of 1971. That introduced Bowie to the more bizarre world of New York gayness, and he was fascinated. The Pork cast, on the other hand, were not impressed by Bowie, which shows us that at that time he still lacked the edge needed to be a true alien. Thankfully, they did like his more outgoing wife, and through this connection Bowie would eventually develop that edge, and turn the Pork people into part of his entourage. No less important, he established a link to Warhol's crowd, and through that to another kind of alien he was drawn to, a musical alien.

What was it that made the Velvet Underground so alien and antithetical to the logic of the Hippie counter-culture? Several things, really. For starters, their music wasn't based on blues scales, but built around John Cale's electric viola and organ sounds, taken from the European avant-garde, over which Lou Reed delivered his poetry in an unmelodic, half-spoken, nagging style. Secondly, while the Hippies espoused a return to nature, Reed took his subject matter from the characters that populated the streets of New York, including those "unnatural" gay people. And thirdly, Hippie rock was usually a personal confession, seen as a soulful expression of the singer's humaneness, while Reed was usually assuming a character and portraying the seedier sides of the human soul. Listeners who were used to think of music as a personal expression confused Reed with his characters, and saw him as depraved.

But it went a lot deeper than that. The Hippies believed that once we unmask the fake identities that society thrusts upon us and release our inner selves, we will all come together in harmony and love. Sex, drugs and rock'n'roll were methods to do it, to break out of your shell and come together with your brothers and sisters. In the Velvets' records, on the other hand, the characters who do sex, drugs and rock'n'roll also want to break away from society, except they do it not to find their "real self" but simply because they want to disappear, to erase the self. Thus, the junky in 'Heroin' does drugs because he wants "to nullify my life", the masochist in 'Venus in Furs' does S&M sex because he wants to "sleep for a thousand years", and the singer of 'White Light / White Heat' describes a quasi-religious experience in which your entire being is consumed by white light and white heat. The latter record is usually interpreted as a paean to the sensation of hard drug consumption, but to me it sounds more like Lou Reed recalling the sensation of the electric shock treatments he was given as a teenager in order to "cure" him from his homosexual tendencies. Shock treatments, in the fifties, were regarded as a magical cure for social deviancy, but their effect on Reed was opposite: he became more rebellious, dark and cynical, and nursing a drug habit that started with his post-treatment sedatives and flourished to include every drug in existence. 'White Light / White Heat' may be a celebration of the rush of smack through your body, reliving the sensation of the shock treatments, of the feeling of your soul turning to cinder. The Velvet Underground, then, hammered at the foundations that the Hippie logic stood on: on one hand they were part of the sixties rebellion, taking the "sex, drugs, rock'n'roll" credo further than anyone else. On the other hand their art suggested that what waits at the end of the voyage is not happiness and harmony, but the void.

No wonder, then, that they so perturbed the Hippie mind, and were marginalized in the predominantly Hippie rock world of the late sixties. Bowie's mind, though, worked differently. He was already into the Velvets back in 1966, when Ken Pitt got him an acetate of their first album, and they were his secret love affair, so alien to the sprightly world of mid-sixties London. We don't know how much of an influence they exerted on him at the time, but the fact is that in 67 he started to write theatrical songs about deviant characters, more comical in nature, but containing hints of the darkness that only the Velvets touched upon. In 'Little Toy Soldier', a record about a girl who owns a mechanical whip-wielding soldier which she uses as a sex toy to satisfy her masochistic fantasies, he blatantly paraphrases the Velvets' 'Venus in Furs'. So the Velvets were always there in the background, but now in the early seventies, after the Hippie dreams were dashed, their music suddenly started to make more and more sense. After The Man Who Sold the World tried to escape the city and go up the mountains to look for alien encounters that might change his world, Bowie was now ready to look for the alien in the dark corners of city life, among the urban characters that populated the Velvet Underground's albums. 'Queen Bitch' marks his first attempt.

I'm up on the eleventh floor
And I'm watching the cruisers below

The beginning of the record finds our hero in a hotel room, looking at the street below him. If we want to take it allegorically, which of course we do, we will say that it symbolizes Bowie the songwriter, who stands apart from society and describes the people in it, from a seemingly higher point of view.

He's down on the street
And he's trying hard to pull sister Flo

Now we find another character, one who actively participates in the daily life of society. This guy, apparently, is trying to seduce a lady.

My heart's in the basement
My weekend's at an all time low

The third couplet is a reversal of the first: although he is seemingly higher than the "cruisers below", he actually feels lower than them. Something depresses him. Until now, Bowie was comfortable in being a mirror-image to society, describing without participating. Now, suddenly, there's a feeling that he's missing out on something.

'Cause she's hoping to score
So I can't see her letting him go
Walk out of her heart
Walk out of her mind

And the fourth couplet is a reversal of the second: the guy thought that he was the pursuer, but the singer, from his vantage-point, sees that he is actually the pursued. This woman is not of the usual kind. She's something else…

She's an old-time ambassador
Of sweet talking, night walking games
And she's known in the darkest clubs
For pushing ahead of the dames
If she says she can do it
Then she can do it,
She don't make false claims
But she's a Queen, and such are queens
That your laughter is sucked in their brains

The lady is a Queen of the nightlife, ruler of that shady sexual world which "normal" folks dare not tread. That other guy is in over his head with her, and he is about to become her prey. This is a rather rare scenario in a world were women were still expected to play the passive role, but of course, we've met this scenario before in Bowie's music: in 'She Shook Me Cold', the hero is a man who treats women as objects for conquering, until he comes upon a woman who subdues him with her sexual powers and turns him into her love slave. But there, the meeting takes place in some magical location, and it is suggested that she has supernatural powers. The Queen Bitch, on the other hand, is a real-life person, straight from the underbelly of the urban world. She brings to mind the "Femme Fatale" that the Velvet Underground sang about. She may be despised by society, but she is impervious to this mockery (it is "sucked in her brain") – she knows who she is and what she wants. In that, she has the edge over the regular people who conform to society's norms, and that gives her the ability to manipulate them.

Now she's leading him on
And she'll lay him right down
But it could have been me
Yes, it could have been me
Why didn't I say,
why didn't I say, no, no, no

Suddenly, we have a twist: it comes out that the singer isn't mocking the other guy, but actually envies him. He wants to be her sexual prey, and apparently he had his chance, but chickened out. So now he's relegated to the role of observer, missing out on the experience. That is why he is so depressed.

She's so swishy in her satin and tat
In her frock coat and bipperty-bopperty hat
Oh God, I could do better than that

Another thing that attracts him about her is her glamour, but the way he portrays it is curious. While the verses make it seem like Bowie is trying to imitate the style and lingo of the New York scene, the chorus brings out the Englishness of the whole affair. It's hard to imagine Lou Reed describing someone as "swishy in her satin and tat". Bowie doesn't go all the way in his imitation – he retains something of his own style.

The interesting line here is "Oh God, I could do better than that". It can mean several things. Maybe he's still talking about the fact that he missed the opportunity to do something better than sit around and mope; maybe he's bragging that he could find a woman that is even wilder; or maybe he thinks that he can be even swishier than her! In any case, it further manifests his desire to become part of that world.

So I lay down a while
And I gaze at my hotel wall
Oh the cot is so cold
It don't feel like no bed at all
Yeah I lay down a while
And I gaze at my hotel wall

Boredom grows…

But he's down on the street
So I throw both his bags down the hall

Another twist: it turns out that the other guy was his roommate. His jealous fit suggests that they may have even been lovers, and that this is a triangle story, where the Queen Bitch came between the two of them. I'd rather look at it allegorically, though. My interpretation is that we should not see them as two persons, but as two sides of Bowie's personality, the side that wants to remain as an observer portraying society through his art, and the side that wants to take part in the action. Until now, the former ruled Bowie's art, and he remained a detached songwriter, taking part in the action only through figments of his imagination. His decision to "throw both his bags down the hall", to get rid of that other guy, can be understood as an announcement by Bowie the artist that from now on he will be the center of the action, not his imaginary characters. In other words, he is going to switch from the role of a standoffish songwriter to the role of a performer.

And I'm phoning a cab
'Cause my stomach feels small
There's a taste in my mouth
And it's no taste at all
It could have been me
Oh yeah, it could have been me
Why didn't I say,
Why didn't I say, no, no, no

His former stance, of someone who stands above society, is now felt to be tasteless. He resolves to give in to the temptations that are out there, to let the thrills and dangers of the urban world engulf him, and start living life.

The record leaves a lot to the imagination, and it is unclear what exactly is going down. Are the two men lovers? Is the Queen Bitch actually a gay man, a "queen"? Is the singer also a queen, who was trying to seduce that other guy before the Queen Bitch beat him to it? There are many possibilities, and I will leave it for the listener to decide for themselves. What is important is that Bowie writes a song that shatters Victorian logic, muddling the lines of gender and orientation. The penultimate track of Hunky Dory shows us that he is ready to move on to a new phase, to take the plunge from the 11th floor down to the streets. It's time to change, and since real change can only come through associating with an alien, he is going to open up to that alien world of "deviant" sexuality, presented through his gay friends and through the music of the Velvet Underground. He hasn't made the step yet – as the record ends, he's still in his room in his empty cot – but he is about to.

But it also shows us that change, for Bowie, doesn't mean a total resignation to that alien from another world, to the point were it erases who you formerly were. Simply moving from one existing world to another is not change, since it doesn't create anything new. Real change is when you take something from an alien world and merge it with parts of your own world, to create something that doesn't belong in any of these worlds. The album cover side-notes describe 'Queen Bitch' as "some V.U, white light returned with thanks", and that's basically what it does: it takes the Velvets' music, reworks it and fuses it with his own and sets it back on the world. Musically, 'Queen Bitch' still retains the spirit of British R&B, with some Velvet mannerisms - the monotonous melody, the half-spoken singing, the harder hitting beat – worked into it, and lyrically it also fuses Reed's street poetry with Bowie's writing style. In that, 'Queen Bitch' is a portent of the future.

'Queen Bitch' was, appropriately, the song by which the world got its very first glimpse of Ziggy and the Spiders, in a TV performance on February 1972.

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