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פ.י.מ.פ.

Analyzing Bowie: Hunky Dory

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Hunky Dory. Never was an album-title so appropriate. From every angle you look at it, the album is absolute fineness, the measuring rod by which any other album should be defined. And the title is becoming for another reason: "hunky dory" is an American slang term, being used here by an arty English songwriter, serving as an example for the secret ingredient in the stew - the perfect blending of highbrow and lowbrow, of different styles and cultures, of things that were considered alien to one another. It is a seeming hotchpotch that creates a seamless unity, a new coherent vision that arises from what looks at first like fractures of other visions. It is the first album that manifests this unique quality that would become Bowie's trademark.

Musically, Bowie brings together all the styles of his first three albums – the theatrical symphonies of the first, the acoustic ballads of the second, the hard rock of the third – and blends them perfectly. With the addition of Rick Wakeman's jolly piano, Mick Ronson's magical arrangements and Ken Scott's bright production, he turns it all into wonderful pop, at once light and dark, provocative and accessible. And as a songwriter he really flowers, perfecting both his candid side and his theatrical side, becoming so subtle that it is hard to tell when he is being himself and when he's playing a character, when he is being straightforward and when ironic. Which, of course, fits perfectly with the identity-confusion that is the heart of the album.

Philosophically, the album picks up where the previous one left off. In The Man Who Sold the World Bowie tried to redirect the revolutionary spirit of the counter-culture towards Nietzschean goals, towards creating a world of heroic Supermen. Hunky Dory continues this line, invoking some of those who promulgated the Superman ideal: Nietzsche, Crowley, the Nazis, The Coming Race. And while the previous album existed mainly on a mythical, timeless plane, this one takes the Superman concept and sticks it right in the present, in the pop culture of the early seventies. After going on a tangent to find a philosophical answer that would satisfy his spirit, he now comes back to bring the answer to the world.

But then, he comes crashing down as he faces everyday reality, which is nothing like his dreams. Bowie shares his own everydayness with us, which at the time was all about the birth of his first son. 'Kooks' is a loving record for little Zowie, which does not try to transcend the everyday plane but rather finds its joys in it. But 'Oh! You Pretty Things' takes this birth as an omen for the coming of the Superman, as Bowie looks at his child and imagines that he is the beginning of the next stage in the evolution of humankind, a "Homo Superior". When the track ends, however, we slide right into 'Eight Line Poem', which takes us down from these euphoric heights and back to the mundane reality of the nursery, telling us that the key to another existence is somewhere out of our reach. In fact, the state of mind that dominates the album is that of being stuck in a boring, meaningless existence, just waiting and hoping for something to come and break the monotony. There are passages that express this feeling in 'Changes', 'Oh! You Pretty Things', 'Life on Mars?', 'Quicksand', 'Song for Bob Dylan' and 'Queen Bitch'. There's clearly a need for a new messiah, someone who will come and show us the way out of the rut.

But others don't realize it. Most are still stuck in their counter-culture tracks, believing in its old dogmas and messiahs, failing to see that they are no longer relevant. Bowie already took apart the fundamental beliefs of the counter-culture in records like 'Space Oddity', 'Cygnet Committee', 'Memory of a Free Festival' and 'All the Madmen', and he continues to do so here. The signature piece is 'Song for Bob Dylan', in which he assumes the identity of a Dylan fan who is waiting for his hero to come back and show him the way, instead of thinking for himself. Another example is his tongue-in-cheek rendition of 'Fill Your Heart', a cute Hippie ditty about the power of love, which is presented as the thing that can lead us to salvation. Bowie sings it affectionately, but also playfully, clearly poking fun at its naivety – it's quite obvious that he is assuming a character here as well, of some starry-eyed Hippie singer. Then there's 'Life on Mars?', which attacks Sinatra's anthem 'My Way' and its suggestion that you can determine your own unique way and live a heroic life. The heroes of this record are fully aware that they are stuck in an existence that offers no exciting alternatives, no heroic ways of life, just variations on the same boring theme. And 'Quicksand' dramatizes the situation, bringing forth the tension caused by the discrepancy between his Superman dreams and his actual reality, showing that it is driving him mad. He must find a way out.

And so he turns to self-reflection, to find a truth he can build an authentic and heroic way of life on. 'Changes' provides the answer: you can be a Superman if you learn how to controI your own changes. The impermanence of the self, which in tracks like 'Quicksand' and 'The Bewlay Brothers' is perceived as a problem, as something that prevents you from hanging on to any lasting truth, here becomes the fundamental building block. It is a problem for Man, not for the Superman. Instead of trying to find something eternal to hang on to, he is going to learn how to hang on to things only temporarily, and let go when they are not good any more.

The question then becomes: what is the criterion for the change, how should you change in order to ensure your happiness? The answer is: a real change cannot come only from within, but must be aided by someone who comes from the outside, an alien. In 'Life on Mars?', the heroes wish for a way of life that is beyond their world, but they cannot reach it on their own. They need what the hero of 'Oh! You Pretty Things' gets: a hand that comes down from another world and pulls him up. But note: the hand doesn't pull him all the way to that other world, but rather gives him the ability to remain in his old world and change it. The change Bowie talks about is not movement from one existing world to another, but rather a process of infusing elements that are handed over from another world into your own world, and creating a new world out of the merger. And for that to work, the alien cannot be just any alien, but someone who brings a logic that corresponds to something that you already feel inside. The alien merely gives you the means to express it, means which your own world could not provide.

So we have the characteristics of Bowie's Superman: he is someone who is in controI of his changes, and does so by merging with an alien to transform his own world and create something new. And, once again, Bowie pretends to be the spokesperson for his generation, as though this way of thinking is actually what the whole youth rebellion of the sixties was about. 'Changes', 'Oh! You Pretty Things' and 'Life on Mars?' show the youth as excited by aliens and by the prospects of change, against their disapproving parents; and 'Kooks' shows that Bowie intends to be a different kind of parent, as he tries to impart to his son a love for things that are strange. But Bowie also knows that this is not exactly the case, and most members of the counter-culture are actually looking for something stable to believe in. 'Song for Bob Dylan' creates a contradiction between the ever-changing, super-brainy Dylan and his pathetic fan who fears change and wants Dylan to reassure him with something familiar. And 'Queen Bitch' also has a battle between two persons, one that gives in to the alien figure of the Queen Bitch and one that is afraid to do so. Bowie identifies himself with the apprehensive one, showing that he also has this fear in him and needs to overcome it if he wants to live the life he envisions. And the track that comes right after it and closes the album is 'The Bewlay Brothers', which also has tension between two figures, one stable and one ever-changing. Bowie identifies himself mainly with the stable one, but in the end it seems that the changing one is taking over and sings his way out of the album and towards a shift in Bowie's personality. From here on, he will be a changer.

Alright, so now we know what our way of life should be, but where can we find the aliens it requires, seeing as the question "is there life on Mars?" remains unanswered? Well, it turns out that the alien doesn't have to come from Mars: there are enough aliens on Earth as well, people and cultures whose logic is contrary to your own and which can give you the hand that will pull you out of the quicksand of your own thought processes. But, we must remember, this alien logic must correspond with something you feel inside and alienates you to the logic of your own culture. So what was it about Hippie logic that Bowie's innermost sensibilities rejected? First of all, there was their attitude towards artificiality. The Hippie logic rejected artificiality, and aspired to be completely natural. Hippie rock distinguished itself from the "artificial" pop world and claimed to be coming from the soul, from the inner self. But Bowie found that there is no inner self, and that the self has to be created. The artificial, then, becomes his truth, and he needs an alien that stands for artificiality. And, it just so happens, there was someone around whose entire persona and aesthetics were a celebration of the artificial. Andy Warhol becomes Bowie's model, the alien that can show him the way to make art out of artificiality. The track 'Andy Warhol' celebrates Warhol's artificiality, and expresses his desire to incorporate it.

Now, if the self is not something to be found inside but something to be artificially created and made superhuman and heroic, then the models to imitate are obviously the Hollywood stars. In 'Life on Mars?' Bowie emphasizes the importance of movies in helping us create our images, and 'Andy Warhol' celebrates Warhol's ability to turn himself into a figure that looks like it came straight out of the movies. This is an ability which Bowie would obviously like to emulate, because in 'Quicksand' he proclaims himself the essence of Greta Garbo, the greatest star of all. His aspiration to be like Garbo is shown once again on the album cover, where his painted portrait is based on a famous Garbo photo:

(although it isn't exactly the same, and I think there's also a bit of Katherine Hepburn here…)

Bowie, then, wants to live his life as if he was a star on the silver-screen. He wants to infuse the glamour and artificiality of Hollywood and pop culture into the "naturalistic" world of Hippie rock, and thus transform it. And for that, he needs to change the settings: while the Hippies preached an escape from the urban world and a return to nature, Bowie finds more truth in the city, the place that is about artificiality, alienation, plurality of identities and self-creation. And once again he finds the alien that can help him express this sensibility, in the form of the Velvet Underground, the New York band whose celebration of everything urban was adverse to Hippie logic. 'Queen Bitch' shows Bowie's attempt to merge his style with that of the VU, and create a new musical experience.

And 'Queen Bitch', with the help of 'The Bewlay Brothers', brings another alien on board. In the Victorian mind, the nature of human sexuality was very well-defined: there are men and there are women; men are attracted to women, and women are attracted to men; they have sexual intercourse, and from that babies are born. But under the surface of this world, a gay subculture was formed in which the rules were different, in which one's gender or inclinations were a lot more flexible and various, and in which sex was done for joy, not for procreation. For someone who went through the sexual revolution of the sixties it was obvious that the Victorian worldview was wrong, and the gay world held at least some of the truth. The final two tracks of the album, borrowing images and terms from the gay subculture, show Bowie preparing to bring the two worlds together to create something new.

The stage is set, then. If Bowie wants to save youth culture from its decay, he will have to create a new messiah, a Dylan for the new decade. What are the attributes of this messiah? Well, he has to be bigger than life, manifesting the Superman ideal; he has to appear as an alien who hails from another world, such as Mars, and cracking the sky to reach down to the children of Earth and pull them to another plane; he has to be someone who can change images and identities and recreate himself at will; he has to master the glamour and artificiality of the pop world; he has to be the epitome of stardom, someone who is practically made out of stardust; he has to know how to live in the urban world and turn city life into magic; and he has to be a being of indeterminate gender and sexual inclinations, a new step in the sexual revolution.

By the time Hunky Dory saw light, in December 1971, Bowie was already putting the finishing touches on exactly such a figure.

Changes
Oh! You Pretty Things
Eight Line Poem
Life on Mars?
Kooks
Quicksand
Fill Your Heart
Andy Warhol
Song for Bob Dylan
Queen Bitch
The Bewlay Brothers

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